Communication Research and Inquiry

Learning Objectives

2.1  Define theory using analogies.

2.2  Explain the relationship between the three steps of social-scientific inquiry.

2.3  Describe the different ontologies, epistemologies, and axiologies providing philosophical support to scientific inquiry in communication.

2.4  Differentiate between traditions of communication inquiry.

2.5  Describe the benefits and drawbacks of the most common research methods employed in communication inquiry.



Because communication borrows ideas, theories, and research methods from all the social sciences, there is a multitude of them. What’s more, they are always evolving—some live, some die, some gain influence, others lose it. In this chapter, we will investigate the values, philosophies, and research methods that enrich not only the discipline of communication, but all the social sciences.


  • Activity: Understanding the Pursuit of Ignorance

Search Stuart Firestein’s Pursuit of Ignorance TED Talk. Watch his brief, humorous video explanation on the value of ignorance in advancing knowledge. Then take his arguments, which are based on the pursuit of ignorance in the natural sciences and determine how well they fit the social sciences. Remember what the chapter said, humans aren’t billiard balls subject to the rules of physics.

  • Activity: Interview a Social Scientist

No doubt one of your instructors is an active researcher. Sit down with him or her and talk about his or her approach to doing social science. See if you can determine this researcher’s ontology, epistemology, and axiology. Don’t be afraid to challenge his or her position on any one of these issues; good researchers love to talk about these philosophical issues.

  • Activity: Be a Social Science Researcher

Visit, the online survey generator and delivery site. Examine its easy instructions for doing your own small survey. Keep it small so the work is manageable and it remains free of charge. Now identify an issue of interest to you, maybe something of importance on campus (grade inflation, the food at the student union; you’re on a college campus, so there must be issues!). Now construct a brief, 5 to 10 question survey, identify your population and the sample you want to draw from it, and deliver your survey to that sample. Analyze the results. What did you learn?


1.      Not all communication inquiry is designed to find causality. What is causality and which is the best method for demonstrating it in the social sciences? What are some of the possible drawbacks of this method of inquiry?

Sample answer: Causality occurs when one event precedes another and that second event is deemed to be a consequence of the first. Experiments are the only means of demonstrating causality because they give researchers complete control over their inquiry; they permit precision; and they are repeatable, as required by the scientific method. But experiments have drawbacks. It is difficult to generalize from a highly structured and controlled experimental setting to the larger world. In addition, in exchange for control and precision, researchers must limit the number of variables they can study. Finally, experiments are one-time snapshots of the causal relationship they purport to demonstrate.

2.      What are the 3 steps of scientific inquiry? List and describe each and discuss how it advances our understanding of the social world?

Sample answer: Scientific inquiry requires asking scientifically testable questions, typically “How,” “Why,” “What if” and “Does” questions. These questions are about people, events, relationships, and other interesting phenomena in the social world. They deal with scientific concepts, not opinions, feelings, or beliefs. They are open to systematic observation. The questions produce evidence and data that can be used to explain how the social world works. Scientific inquiry also requires systematic observation. Social scientists look for patterns, relationships, and consistencies in the social world. They engage in planned observation to learn why a particular phenomenon happens the way it does, or to explain something in the social world that seems new or different. Finally, scientific inquiry calls for developing answers. Scientists must explain what they observed, and this involves definitions and descriptions based on evidence. Scientists bring their interpretations and judgments to the answers they develop, but those answers are constructed from their observations and must be evidence-based.

Go to the Source

Merton, R. K. (1967). On Theoretical Sociology. New York: Free Press.

Meyrowitz, J. (2008). “Power, Pleasure, Patterns: Intersecting Narratives of Media Influence.” Journal of Communication, 58: 641–663.

Moore, J. A. (1984). “Science as a Way of Knowing—Evolutionary Biology.” American Zoologist, 24: 467–534.

Pérez, R., and V. S. Greene (2016). “Debating Rape Jokes vs. Rape Culture: Framing and Counter-Framing Misogynistic Comedy.” Social Semiotics, 26: 265-282.

Popper, K. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Hutchinson.

Radway, J. (1991). Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.


WAPOR is an international scholarly and professional association that believes in the centrality of public opinion in shaping and serving society. It emphasizes not only the importance of conducting scientifically sound public-opinion research, but also how this information can be useful to society and its various publics.

The Census Bureau's mission is to serve as the leading source of quality data about the nation's people and economy. You can surf its home page to see how it conducts its massive-scale surveys.

If you surf the Internet at all you know these folks. They are the country’s preeminent nonpartisan research organization informing the public about the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis, and other data-driven social science research. It does not take policy positions, but it does examine the most important issues of the day.

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