Fall, 2016 (Issue 26.1–2)

Normative Theory in Communication Research

Abstract submission deadline: 15 January 2017 (4,000 characters max.)

When: Thursday, 25 May 2017, 9:00 – 17:45
Where: U of California, San Diego, CA
Organizers: C.W. Anderson (City U of New York), David Karpf (George Washington U), Daniel Kreiss (U of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (Oxford U), and Matthew Powers (U of Washington)

View Call for Papers

In this preconference, we seek to bring communication scholars together to spark a conversation on the normative foundations of scholarship and move the field towards more explicit discussions about the relationship between communication and democracy. 

What will your preconference be about?

This preconference examines the role of normative theories in communication research. Normative theories concern the ideal functions of government, media and public communication. The premise of this preconference is that such theories rarely receive explicit treatment in communication scholarship. Often, researchers simply imply their normative standpoints through the research questions they ask about “participation,” “civility,” “two-sided information flows,’ ‘knowledgeable citizens,’ ‘rational debate and deliberation,’ ‘polarization and partisanship,’ ‘interactivity,’ and ‘quality information.’ In bringing together scholars from a range of normative traditions, this preconference aims to make democracy and normative theories a central object of analysis for communication scholarship. 

Why should we have this conference? 

When communication scholars explicitly discuss their normative models of democracy, they tend to be deliberative, following the guiding theorist of the field, Jürgen Habermas, and rich veins of deliberative research work by scholars such as James Fishkin. More common, however, is research that implicitly holds up rational debate among disinterested, non-partisan citizens premised on quality information as the normative ideal. Meanwhile, when scholars do not explicitly embrace deliberation, they tend to hold up an ill-defined, procedural idea of participation as the ultimate democratic value, often without any consideration of the ends towards which it is directed.

While deliberative theory and vague ideas of participation continue to hold significant appeal in communication research, we suggest that they are not–and need not be–the only models. In the past two decades there has been a tremendous flowering of normative work in other fields that casts new light on democracy itself. Social movement scholars have argued forcefully for the importance of contentious politics, emotion, identity, and culture to the practice and promise of democracy. Sociologists have argued that ‘civility’ often serves to cut-off critique and frankness should be valued as an alternative. Political theorists have embraced the normative importance of spectatorship in contrast to deliberation and participation, invoking communication research around media events. Others have worked to reclaim the value of partisanship in an era of extremist, single-issue civil society organizations. Meanwhile, some scholars have sought to re-establish the value of representation, while others have argued strongly for the value of agonism as the proper domain of the political. We hope that this preconference can spark conversation about the normative foundations of communication research.

What do you envision to come from this preconference?

We are hoping for submissions that interrogate the democratic foundations of communication research across its various subfields. These can include articles on the history of normative models of democracy in the field, original theoretical papers that propose democratic frameworks or synthesize work in adjacent fields, or empirical papers that make a significant theoretical contribution to democratic theory in the field of communication. We hope that the conversations from the preconference will reinvigorate discussions about normative theories in communication scholarship.

Normative Theory in Communication Research