As part of a series of occasional interviews with leading social scientists, socialsciencespace talks to Sandra Ball-Rokeach, Professor and Principal Investigator of The Metamorphosis Project in the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.
Tell me about your career in the social sciences
I’m a sociologist and my primary role at this stage of my career is championing theory-driven research, but also research that you put into action: I’m not just a theorist, or just a researcher, or just an action-person – rather I’m trying to link all of those together.
When I was in grad school I was always asking questions, rather than trying to follow someone else’s lead. People said, “Everyone who experiences ambiguity freaks out.” I said, “Do they really?” I think life is full of ambiguity and people adapt to it differently – so that’s what I did for my dissertation. I found that the most adaptive people are those having a controlled non-reaction – waiting for information input to come in, and not freaking out. Very few people escaped or withdrew; most people problem-solved.
After I did the ambiguity work, I became a member of the Violence Commission. I started to ask questions about theories of violence and not just the kind of criminal violence that most theories are designed to deal with. I felt a theory of violence should be able to explain illegitimate and legitimate violence (that legitimated by the power structure). I came up with my own way of developing a theory of violence that really placed the emphasis more on conflict than on people’s deficit.
In the end, what matters are the questions that you ask. That’s the critical issue: What are the questions of the day? What kind of questions are you willing to pick up?
Which developments in your field do you think have been most important or influential?
The move away from a focus on social order that characterized functionalism; from ‘how do you maintain order?’ to ‘how do you achieve more equality?’ In the communication field, it’s a major move away from mechanical models of communication. Now it’s just far more complicated with much more emphasis on how people process messages and reconstruct them. So, one of the key ways to characterize the communications field is whether or not you think the media are ‘all powerful’ or ‘not at all powerful’. My answer is: neither. Under some conditions they are all powerful; under other conditions, they’re not.
Another major move was that communication studies was once dominated by psychological theory, over time it has become more sociological and more cultural. If I were to predict where we’d be 10 years from now, I’d say we’re going to be more ecological – more multi-disciplinary, more multi-level.
Contemporary times are particularly stimulating. I hate the word ‘globalization’ because it means everything and therefore it means nothing; but I think the increasing diversity of populations all around the world, and not just in large urban areas but increasingly even in middle sized towns, is a major challenge of our time. How do we create civil society when we have diverse peoples?
Which publications have had the most influence on you over the years?
Tomatsu Shibutani’s ‘Improvised News’ was very influential in my dissertation research, he said that when people experience ambiguity they improvise their own news as a way of understanding what’s going on. Robert Bellah’s ‘Habits of the Heart’ is a wonderful study into what has happened to civil society in the US, from its inception to now, what are the key things that have broken down? ‘The People’s Choice’ by Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet, is an early volume in the 40s, but elegant for its time.
In terms of journals my early work was influenced by the American Sociological Review and the American Journal of Sociology, and in the communications field the Journal of Communication and Communication Research (which I edited for a while). I go for the journals that tend to deal with larger issues and include attempts to understand, not just to report on something. Also Public Opinion Quarterly, although no longer an influence as it became too technological, a focus upon survey research methodology, and less and less substantive around questions of public opinion.
What current development would you expect to have the most impact over the next 5-10 years in the field?
I think the big area is going to be around journalism – how will we recreate journalism in the service of civil society, not just as a commoditized product? I think Geneva Overholser, who is currently director of the Annenberg School of Journalism, is a formidable mind trying to tackle that question and she’s bringing in really good people. I think journalism is going to become increasingly a concern for social science, not just communication studies. Journalism was supposed to provide a bridge between people, with a common core of observations that people can take and use as they will. But these days it’s increasingly self-referential in terms of ideological positioning, even in the blogosphere, and the political right has really gained a lot of control over cable and print. The left is much more present now in the blogosphere.