Lessons from John Dewey: Media and Religion is a Vibrant Research Field, but is it a Pragmatic One?

Philosopher John Dewey argued that the value of research and theory rests in pragmatics or the degree that they are experienced in everyday life.

Philosopher John Dewey argued that the value of research and theory rests in pragmatics or the degree that they are experienced in everyday life.

From the Interest Group Head

Lessons from John Dewey: Media and Religion is a Vibrant Research Field, but is it a Pragmatic One?

By: Daniel A. Stout, BYU-Hawaii

Commencing a new year in the Religion and Media Interest Group, I’m mindful of our progress in the last two decades. As the new head of the organization, my first column flows out of experiences stored up over years of working with so many of you. Not long ago the topic of media and religion was missing from the AEJMC conference program. Few articles, books, and university courses. Much has changed; research abounds, and a scholarly journal houses much of our literature. In contemporary culture, media use is changing, and religiosity reveals much about the cultural shifts bringing this about. While popular media often treat our subject superficially, our work provides deeper descriptions of religious audiences, more precise depictions of denominations, and credible theorizing in a digital age comparable in its societal impact to the industrial revolution. I wonder, however, if the pragmatic dimension lags behind our research contributions. If the preeminent pragmatist of the Chicago School of Sociology John Dewey observed our work, he might praise the productivity yet question the degree of its application. Do our graduates apply or at the very least think with the concepts we write about while working in media industries and fulfilling roles as conscientious citizens? As Dewey’s Art and Pragmatics stresses experiential engagement as the sine qua non of popular culture, it behooves us to ask: Are students equipped to experience ideas about media and religion upon leaving the university?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner laments, “Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.” Such is the gulf between much of media – religion research, and the need to insert it into the classroom. Research should not be confined to journals; we have a moral obligation to tell pupils what we know. This came up in a doctoral seminar at Rutgers when my professor Stan Dietz, former president of the International Communication Association (ICA), was distressed about the absence of current research in basic textbooks. He challenged textbook author Joseph Devito on this point at a conference, who replied that undergraduates aren’t ready for sophisticated scholarly studies. When Dietz disagreed, Devito challenged him to write such a research-based primer, which Dietz ultimately did. The point is, our field will not progress without a rich discussion of the latest studies with students, who in turn, give such concepts life as journalists, public relations practitioners, and other roles including citizens and family members. We are poised to tackle the pragmatics dimension in the next phase of our work.

In short, pragmatics is the application of theory and the expectation our ideas will find their way into actual experience. Where do we begin to make this happen? How do we give research life, and not let it die on the vine? While good ideas inevitably surface, curricula provide outlets for important discussion among students and faculty, who, gradually diffuse ideas into the larger community. Here are some ideas toward this end:

  • Create a course on media and religion. While the number of schools offering such courses has grown, many do not yet offer such classes. If your institution has a course, teach it regularly and update material as needed.
  • Engage deans, chairs, and faculty members in discussions about the subject of media and religion. Be assertive in making our case. Decision-makers are often unfamiliar with the literature and theoretical underpinnings of the field, despite the fact that religion has risen in importance comparable to politics in world public affairs. As head of the interest group this year, I plan to discuss our discipline with academic stakeholders, informing them about RMIG and our progress.
  • Offer lectures and special presentations at your university. Many students will opt out of the media and religion course, so speakers and panel discussions are effective ways of reaching the larger campus community.
  • Host a one-day RMIG meets once a year, so smaller conferences provide additional forums for research presentations and student involvement. Elon University has hosted such events as has BYU with its “Mormon Media Studies Conference.”
  • Invite interested colleagues to the 2016 AEJMC conference in Minneapolis and to join RMIG. Be a mentor. Begin new collaborations. Submit panel ideas and invite professors outside the interest group to participate. Encourage graduate students to submit papers and participate in panels.

Bridging our research to the pragmatic realm of students’ everyday experience won’t occur over night.  In the general field, ideas such as diffusion, elaboration likelihood model, interpretive community, integrated marketing communication, postmodern theory, and others have made the leap from the Academy to pragmatic use in the larger society. This would not have happened without a prior presence in the university curriculum.

Returning to Dewey, theory and experience have no distinction:

“Just as a flower which seems beautiful and has color but no perfume, so are the fruitless words of the man who speaks them but does them not.” There will come a time when our ideas are put into practice on a grander scale. Professionals, theologians, and politicians will seek us out as they ponder the media – religion question. This requires bolder action on our part including accelerated efforts to make our case for greater prominence in communication programs. Take a dean to lunch this week!


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