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Describing news : toward an alternative account Jackson, Nancy S.

Abstract

This paper is concerned with factual accounts as a form of knowledge which is mediated by organizations and institutions which inform and administer our society. This mediation is itself a practical activity of particular persons, in particular settings, in which the world of experience is transformed into the forms in which it can be known and managed. These practical activities constitute particular relations of knowing, which are taken for granted in factual accounts and thus are built into much of what we recognize as objective features of our society, e.g. crime, mental illness, ethnicity, news. This work focuses on those organized practical activities as precisely the activities in which social phenomena are constituted and through which they are available to observation. This approach shares many aspects of the ethnomethodological concern with "Practical Reasoning in Organizational Settings" which Turner (1974) describes as the shift of attention toward "the doings" which constitute social order. (Turner 1974: 83) Attention is focused on the production of two kinds of factual accounts: description and news. The primary focus is on description, and particularly on sociological description. The secondary focus is on news, and serves both to illustrate a method of working sociologically, and to begin the work of developing an account of news as a socially organized phenomenon. The work begins by developing the basis for a critique of descriptive method, and the implications for sociology. The basis for the critique is found in the materialist method and Marx's view of social relations. From the work of Marx, Smith has derived a procedure for sociology, which she has called "substructing" which involves "returning to the actual social relations which generate those phenomena as they are named, the actual practices of real living individuals, which are the only basis for the existence of social phenomena." (Smith 1977b) This procedure provides an approach to sociological descriptions which focuses on description in a way that is similar to Wittgenstein's notion of a language-game, as a use of language which involves "a definite use of words, a definite way of meaning." (Smith 1977b) The following aspects of descriptive method are examined: a) How the descriptive method gives a determinate character to its subject; b) How the descriptive method obscures the organized relations of knowing as part of the constitution of the phenomenon; c) How the descriptive use of terms is dependent upon the original working setting, and how that dependence may be utilized to develop an alternative procedure for doing accounts. Two accounts of "Sources of News" are presented. The first illustrates a conventional form of description; the second is an attempt to begin to develop an account which has the character of an explication, and which would provide an alternative to conventional description. Some observations are made about problems in learning to put together an account which avoids objectification by taking as its problematic what is already given in description - that the phenomenon is there to be described. An explicative account is described as one which must be entered from within the organization of social relations in which the phenomenon arises. The discussion of "Sources of News" is considered as an indication of how it would be possible to work on larger aspects of news production, or on other forms of organization. The method is described as one which allows us to see how accounts are produced as part of a larger organization which gives determination to what emerges as the product.

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