Less Method, More Research

Here’s a phrase you rarely hear: “Firehouse research.” Funny, because it’s central to the field of communication.

When Paul Lazarsfeld, then director of the Radio Research Project, called up the Director of Research at CBS Radio the morning after the fabled H.G. Welles “War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938, he asked for funds for a “firehouse research project” that would assess the impact of the stunt radio drama (Bryant & Zillmann, 2002, p. 202). Later research on the broadcast, it should be noted, significantly shifted our notions of the “hypodermic needle” model of media effects. Jeff Pooley has characterized Robert Merton’s Mass Persuasion as the product of “firehouse research” (Pooley, 2006, p. 256). And Philip Meyer’s work on “Precision Journalism” makes clear the sometimes subtle differences between public opinion correspondent, journalist, and social scientist that hinge on “firehouse research” (Noelle-Neumann, 1980, p. 589).

Firehouse research is a kind of investigation that begins with a researcher at-the-ready, prepared to slide down the greased pole and head into the field. Some have attributed the term to Everett Hughes in 1970, though tracking down exactly where the term originates is surprisingly difficult. Gladys Lang, while being interviewed for a documentary called Women of the Film, gladly notes a different definition of the term, given by Elihu Katz referring to her famous 1953 paper on the MacArthur Day in Chicago that she co-authored with husband Kurt Lang. Katz labeled their work “firehouse research” because they looked for fires and tried to put them out (McCormack & Simonson, 2007, p. 23).

Though there seem to be differing notions of what “firehouse research” means, I think we can safely assume it starts with agility and enthusiasm. It starts with a careful eye on the communities we study and write about. It starts with a willingness to abandon the pursuit of perfection in order to get out there.

The problem is that many strictures of the academy strongly inhibit abandoning the pursuit of perfection. Our article publication processes seem unimaginably long. We sit and revise and redraft – or maybe more accurately: we start new projects with the high hopes that it won’t be as thorny as the last.

But the promise of firehouse research should be emancipatory, especially for graduate students so wracked by the anxiety and guilt of finding a specific, marketable niche in the field. The promise here is that if you get out into the communities and activities that interest you, you can worry less about method and worry more about research. And if we do it right, we can probably publish more – and better.

I think it’s essential that we do more firehouse research and less hand-wringing, stalling, and sluggish, drawn-out blueprinting. It’s essential for grad students, but it might even be essential for the field. As Larry Gross notes in his latest article in the Journal of Communication (his ICA plenary talk), communication refused to abandon the “masses” when so many other disciplines did to avoid castigation during the hearts-and-minds conservatism of the 1970s. So if our methods and values have always been with people – and especially with the people that elitist domains of thinking have abandoned – why aren’t we out in those communities, actively building bridges between our own academic space and theirs?

Firehouse research might be unsettling because it forces us to redraw the boundaries between personal and professional lives. But then again, isn’t that a good thing?

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, “The Public Opinion Research Correspondent,” The Public Opinion Quarterly , Vol. 44, No. 4, Polls and the News Media: A Symposium (Winter, 1980), pp. 585-597.
Interview with Gladys Lang, by Naomi McCormack & Peter Simonson, Women in Film, 2007 (http://www.outofthequestion.org/Women-of-the-Film/Gladys-Engel-Lang.aspx)
Jefferson Pooley, “An Accident of Memory: Edward Shils, Paul Lazarsfeld, and the History of American Mass Communication Research,” Dissertation at Columbia University, 2006.
Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann, Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research (Lawrence Elbaum Associatiates, 2002).
Larry Gross, “Fastening Our Seatbelts: Turning Crisis into Opportunity,” Journal of Communication 62 (6) December 2012.
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The Culture Lab is a forum for researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania committed to exploring, enriching, and elucidating the contours of culture and communication. We are interested in culture as it is, as it takes shape, and as it is remembered. We are interested, in other words, in culture anywhere that it exists.
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