"Tracking" Cultural Change

T.F. Carney (University of Windsor)

Tracking: What it Is and How it Is Used

Tracking is an investigatory technique, developed by journalists and involving archival research--a form of historical method. It works on the following premises If you are investigating a public figure who operates in an environment where records are kept of the activities of public figures, and if you know what is recorded in the records, if you suspect that public figure is acting improperly, you can prove your suspicions. Suppose you suspect a U.S. senator of "running with the PACs" (political action committees). You can check contributions made by PACs into his or her campaign chest. You can also check the senator's record of voting on matters of critical importance to those PACs. If your suspicions are correct, he or she will vote as the interests of the PACs dictate.

This technique is obviously applicable to media studies. For instance, if you know the procedures in production and financing for a magazine, you can make inferences, from the magazine's contents and from information it supplies to advertisers, as to its intent and influence. You can work using unobtrusive measures and non-reactive techniques. You can find out, from data readily available to the public, an enormous amount about the aims of the magazine's editor, about subscribers to the magazine, and about changes which it is helping to induce.

Such tracking, where magazines are concerned, can "track" cultural change--provided that you are knowledgeable about what you are investigating you must know of a magazine that has been important in the development of the social or cultural movement in which you are interested. Using your knowledge of a magazine's production and financing processes, you then use back numbers of the magazine, along with the information provided to advertisers, as archival materials.

Sources of Data: Storyboard and Advertiser's Packet

The storyboard is the means by which an editor puts a year's issues together and provides advertisers with the information with which to choose months and locations in the magazine that specially suit their advertisements. From a year's issues of a magazine, you can reconstitute its storyboard. Doing so provides you, for each issue, with the cover story and feature articles, and indicates reader interest in the columns and departments. So you can trace the development of major concepts, ideas, controversies, and viewpoints within the movement for that year.

By reconstructing the "break of the book"--in particular, the nature, treatment and positioning of advertisements--you can also work out the important events and times in the advertisers' year major events in the year, and the best months for sales for products and services related to the magazine's readership. Seasonality is indicated by patterns in the numbers and expensiveness of advertisements, which make it clear which products or services sell well, when and to whom. The latter data give you a sense of the purchases, and thus of the psychographics (lifestyle) and demographics (socio-economic status), of the readership. You can reconstitute a number of such storyboards, and "breaks of the book," to provide a series of "snapshots" of stages in the development of the movement.

You can also create a historical chart of the major events in the history of the publisher and magazine on which you are focusing. After all, as his or her constituency grows and needs more channels of communication, its publisher should grow too. A publisher who has the dominant share of a market niche will usually do several or all of the following things build a "stable" of magazines to cover that niche; cross-sell readers on related products; sponsor conferences and the setting up of an association, and experience growth in readership and in number and variety of advertisers.

Data for developing a chart on the publisher's history can be gained by obtaining an advertiser's package from the magazine. Such a package provides Standard Rates and Data Services-audited data on subscribers and on size of controlled circulation and its pass-along rates and demographics and psychographics from an "enhanced" subscriber list, usually in a series of "snapshots" of changes in the list from year to year. This documents the magazine's competitive edge over others in its field for potential advertisers, emphasizing the magazine's low CPM (cost per thousand subscribers) and reader psychographics.

Contextualizing: Building a Historical Chart

The magazine's editorials and occasional commentaries on major events will provide further information that you can use to build a chart of the history of the movement. There should be significant correspondence between the latter and the chart of the major events in the publisher's history. But there are at least two other types of data that will enable you to create a historical chart of major events in the evolution of the movement major events within the movement (these will receive comment in other media as well as in the magazine you are studying) and the development of a constitutive rhetoric (a specialized vocabulary and world view) by members of the movement. Both are public events.

Reconstructing the Development of the
Constitutive Rhetoric of the Movement

The development of a constitutive rhetoric by a despised out-group goes through three stages developing a root paradigm, building of an agency of transformation, and formulating a constitutive rhetoric. As these are the large-scale activities of a mass movement, they are readily trackable. The elaborated code used by a movement is quite distinctive and hence easily identified via discourse analysis. When the specialized terminology of the movement begins to be used on the conference circuit and on talk shows or the like, and when books written using this terminology become best-sellers, the code is recognizable--and, clearly, widely known and understood outside the movement. The various concepts developed and elaborated at the movement's conferences and/or in its books and magazines can easily be tracked via the methods discussed above. The emergence of critics of the movement is another indicator of its development their criticisms indicate what opponents think the movement's platform is. A constructivist approach to reconstructing the development of a movement's elaborated code presents few difficulties. And this reconstruction can also be used as a check on the historical chart the two should show significant parallels.


Triangulation involves running several checks to establish goodness of fit between these various sets of findings, to identify a pattern of congruencies which cannot be accidental. Comparing your historical chart of developments within the magazine publisher's business with the historical chart of the growth of the movement is one way of doing this. Growth (or lack of it) in business done by advertisers in the publisher's stable of magazines provides another source of evidence about the growth and tastes of the movement's members. It, too, can be used as a check on your historical chart, as there should be a significant correspondence between developments in the movement and the amount and type of business done by these advertisers. Likewise, the historical development of the elaborated code by the movement can be compared with the historical chart of the growth of the movement. Again, there should be significant matches between developments in both charts (see diagram). 1" "

To establish the trustworthiness of the findings, however, their fit with the perceptions that members of the movement hold has also to be established. This can be done by conducting a collaborative inquiry with leading edge figures and with rank and file members of support groups. (If you were developing a case study, or a history, of the magazine, you would also interview at least one of its editors, and several of its regular subscribers.)

These interviews also provide data of other kinds. If conducted in the interviewees' homes or work-places, the contents of the rooms in which the interviews are conducted will provide (dis)confirmatory evidence. If conducted on neutral ground, or on the interviewer's home ground, questions about products or services found helpful by interviewees will do much the same. The terms and concepts, and the assumptions and issues that feature in these interviews can be matched for goodness of fit with your reconstruction of the movement's constitutive rhetoric and with your historical chart of the development of that movement.

Addressing the Criticism that Cultural Studies
Lack Trustworthiness

This technique allows of a multi-method investigation, employing triangulation and based on several different but complementary universes of data, set in a historical context. Both quantitative and qualitative data are obtained, mostly by non-reactive and/or unobtrusive methods. Data from the magazine articles, when combined with further data from related books and talk shows, allow a reconstruction of the constitutive rhetoric of the movement.

The data derived from the storyboard and advertisers' package were put there by a gifted editor, adept at reading and co-constructing the needs and direction of the movement's members. Based on a carefully developed segmented and enhanced database, subscriber data are far fuller and better tested than most individual researchers can usually hope to obtain. The interview technique allows the interviewees' authentic voices to be presented in a thick description of the data, and leads to interpretation of the data from a basis of deepened understanding on the part of the researcher. The different sources of data and the different methods of obtaining it build disconfirmatory checks into the research process, and create a heuristic dialectic.

Uses to Which This Type of Tracking May Be Put

Being investigatory, the technique involves emergent design and generation of grounded theory. It is well suited for constructivist approaches to agenda setting, or investigations of the part played by an editor in co-constructing, with the members, the meaning of a movement. It can be used for testing theories of cultural development, for constructing case studies for use in schools of journalism or programs for training in publishing, or for developing accounts of the contribution of a magazine or publishing house to a cultural or social movement.

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