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Media Audience Research: The Perils of Participant Observation

By: Published: 2018 | Product: SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 2
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This article is about learning from methodological failure, when researching how people engage with media narratives in real social situations. It aims to show that research isn’t just about finding methods that work as expected; it’s also about finding positive outcomes when things go wrong. The trick, here, is understanding how ’failure’ reflects bigger challenges in your field of research. The discussion here takes place in the context of media audience research. Audience research is methodologically appealing for a couple of reasons. First, it’s interesting to study how people incorporate media narratives and technologies into their lives. Second, this incorporation is so ubiquitous, that it’s easy to find examples in action. Unfortunately, converting these opportunities into effective research projects is quite another matter. Research subjects are often puzzled, and not uncommonly annoyed, when you ask them to reflect on their media tastes. This isn’t helped by the fact that audience scholars often disagree on the purpose of their work. The solution to these challenges is to understand that audience research is an inherently ‘messy’ endeavor that grapples with the slippery subject of how media are involved in processes of social in and exclusion. Since inclusion and exclusion takes many forms, and media relate to these forms in many ways, successful audience research isn’t about finding the right method for studying why people use media, and how their habits carry social consequences. Sometimes, when things go wrong, they do so for interesting reasons, and these failures can be useful research findings in themselves. This idea is illustrated here through a case study that used participant observation, interviewing, and creative audience research methods to study how young British people lived with media narratives about youth and anti-social behavior. The lesson is to turn methodological failure into research success by linking failure to core controversies on the purpose of audience studies.

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