Career

My social science career: Interview with Ellen Wartella

December 12, 2011 1447

As part of a series of occasional interviews with leading social scientists Ellen Wartella, a scholar on the role of media in children’s development spoke to socialsciencespace about her career in social science, and what she considered to be some of the important developments in the field.

Tell me about your career in social science

I was a grad student at the University of Minnesota, studying mass communication. My advisor Dan Wackman had just arrived at Minnesota after doing research with his colleague Scott Ward – the first Surgeon General study on television and behavior. I became his research assistant and I did a variety of studies on how children learn about commerce and advertising and how to buy. SAGE published my first project before I finished my PhD – “How Children Learn to Buy”. It was the first major academic study on the influence of advertising on children. I also published an empirical study – children’s attention to television – in volume one of Communication Research – I was there at the beginning! I ended up editing one of their volumes when I finished my PhD (“Children Communicating”) and I was an editor on the Mass Communication Review Yearbook series along with my husband Chuck Whitney in the early to mid 1980s. I’ve continued to study the influences of media in children’s development since then.

I have also done a lot of policy work. I was a member of the Board on Children Youth and Families of the National Academy of Sciences in the mid-2000s and have served on the study panel of the Institute of Medicine’s Food Marketing and Diets of Children and Youth 2006 study. I am a trustee of the Sesame Workshop (and chair the education committee of the Board). I am currently working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on childhood obesity and the role of food marketing, and I am conducting more focused studies on the role of media. Lately I have been working on how babies come to understand television and digital products.

In the area of children and media so many issues have come around again and again: food marketing concerns, advertising to children. The area of children and media has become a major part of communication research – now a division in the international communication association, and a lot more researchers are doing work in this area, but not many have stayed in the field a long time.

What do you consider some of the important developments in the field to have been?

Communication research and communication studies just grew exponentially, primarily driven by student interest, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and it hasn’t really abated. The first Surgeon General’s report ushered in a burgeoning of studies on media effects, and the late 80s, early 90s explosion of interest in cultural studies brought new questions to the table and lots of rethinking and discussions about the nature of the field. In the 2000s there was new interest in media on the part of the National Academies of Science and the National Science Foundation – some of the more legitimized funding and convening sources. Media studies and research is more a topic of discussion.

Research in the field has developed in many senses – my area in particular is very interdisciplinary. People are in communication studies, psychology, and jumping between, publishing across both types of journals. Part of that is because communication journals exploded at the same time as the field did. SAGE was a huge part of that. Communications Research was an invaluable journal, when it was established it was THE place that was publishing social science research around media and communication studies. SAGE’s Annual Reviews and Yearbooks were also two very important series. People were teaching courses around the Annual Reviews when they came out. Those early volumes from SAGE gave shape to the field.

What current issues do you think will have the biggest impact in the field over the next five to ten years?

One thing that will be really important: the extent to which federal or foundation funding will be available for the area of digital media, and interactive game platforms. Will there be funding to study design elements and impact elements? There hasn’t been as much funding as we need to date. These new technologies really need to be studied by the next generation – people who grew up with them. There will be a whole new slew of researchers.

Research Centers are also important. Our field needs to become more adept at establishing research centers and collaborative places. Individual scholars here and there need true centers for collaboration across people and disciplines. Lone researchers are dinosaurs! Collaboration is a better way.

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