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Qual Quant (2014) 48:837844

DOI 10.1007/s11135-012-9805-1

Methodological problems in gender and media research


Saveria Capecchi

Published online: 29 November 2012


Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2012

Abstract This paper will focus on the main questions that have arisen from a methodological point of view relating to the theoretical and research area of gender and media, which
continues to be the subject of discussion and debate. The methodology chosen by scholars
has changed over the course of time, depending on: the interpretative paradigm underlying
the researchers (especially from the feminist perspective which leads the analysis, due to
the theme); the sociocultural context; the type of contents offered by the media (old, new
media); and technological innovations in the communications field. In particular, the author
underlines that scholars who adopt the equality between the sexes perspective tend to favour
quantitative methods, while scholars oriented towards highlighting sexual and gender differences tend to favour qualitative methods.
Keywords

Gender Media Ethnography Audience Studies

1 Introduction
This paper will focus on the main questions that have arisen from a methodological point of
view relating to the theoretical and research area of gender and media, which continues to be
the subject of discussion and debate. This field of study was started in the US on the strength
of the feminist movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and soon spread to European countries.
At that time the focus was mainly on the portrayal of women in the media, instead in the
last 10 years it has also been on the portrayal of men. The methodology chosen by scholars
has changed over the course of time, depending on: the interpretative paradigm underlying
the researchers (especially from the feminist perspective which leads the analysis, due to the
theme); the sociocultural context; the type of contents offered by the media (old and new
media); and technological innovations in the communications field.

S. Capecchi (B)
Department of Political and Social Sciences, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy
e-mail: saveria.capecchi@unibo.it

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2 Quantitative and objective content analysis


A lot of the content analysis on the portrayal of women in the media was developed in the
1970s, particularly in television advertising, compared with the portrayal of men and, at the
same time, with womens status in social reality. The dominant model in the feminist perspective is that of equality between the sexes and from a methodological viewpoint, the Role-image
approach. The analysis is mainly carried out using quantitative methods, in order to compare
the data relating to female images with the data relating to male images.1 The discrimination
of the female gender was clear in every detail beginning with the highly stereotyped, offensive and devaluing representation of woman, portrayed as housewife or as sex-object,
and from the underrepresentation of women both when compared with men and society.2
This was further confirmed in research at both national and international level (Dominick and
Rauch 1972; Tuchman et al. 1978; Gerbner and Signorielli 1979; Ceulemans and Fauconnier
1979). This representation does not take into account womens large scale entrance onto the
work market and, in quantitative terms, the actual presence of women in reality. It is therefore
judged as distorted and false compared to reality. Tuchman et al. (1978, p. 7)Tuchman (1978,
p. 7) considers the underrepresentation of women as a symbolic annihilation of the female
subject in a social setting. The suggestion that was born out of these studies was to redress
the numbers of women working in the media and therefore increase the number of positions
for women in senior management, with the idea that they would be better equipped to modify
their own image.
Towards the end of the 1970s there was the first major debate on gender and media,
which involved a revision not only of the theoretical approach but also a radical change
from a methodological point of view. The equality between the sexes model was called
into question: in US radical feminists accused liberal feminists of wanting to imitate male
behaviour and wanting to see themselves on an equal footing with men, instead of exploiting
the gender differences, reassessing them and bringing womens culture to the fore. In the
1980s, new feminist perspectives3 were developing, and thoughts relating to the meeting
between feminism and post-structuralist theories emerged. These caused the deconstruction
of the concept of equality between the sexes and highlighted the importance of specifically
female characteristics, womens culture and everything relating to the personal sphere. The
quantitative methods used in the research on gender and media were judged to be over
simplistic and unable to grasp the exploitation of the female gender when it was shown in
the media.4 In this area of study the qualitative methods therefore come into favour, mainly
based on the subjectivity of the researcher rather than on statistics, as they were considered
better adapted both in investigating the depth of the contents, with their multiple meanings,
and the interpretations of female and male audiences. The interest in research continued to
move onto the audience. As can be seen in semiology, if the text is investigated in an in depth
manner it reveals its polysemy and, provoking different interpretations, loses its supposed
1 For example, it is possible to count how many women (and how many men) are shown in the role of
housewife, worker, mother, sex-object, etc.; in advertising the gender of the voice over (a sign of authority) is
also taken into account.
2 In every type of content, with the exception of soap operas and womens magazines, the female main
characters are revealed to be around a quarter, compared with three quarters male, whilst in reality women
make up around 50 % of the population and over 40 % of the working population in the USA.
3 In the US the theory of gender differences, cultural feminism and essentialism has been developed, whilst
in Europe the philosophy of sexual difference has made ground.
4 For example, the research of Clark (1990) highlights the female solidarity which is seen between two
policewomen in the series Cagney and Lacey.

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objectiveness. This represents a shift from the Role-image approach to an approach that
makes up a part of the Reading Reception Theory or Reception and Response Criticism. It
can be said that the gap, found in the research from the 1970s, between the women depicted
by media and real women is a false distinction, because womens lives are closely tied to
that type of stereotypical images, or rather with the patriarchal culture in which all women
are immersed. A positivist paradigm, in which quantitative methodology is mainly used, was
substituted for an interpretivist paradigm, more inclined towards qualitative methods, based
on the concept that reality (and therefore the images of reality) cannot only be observed and
must be interpreted (Corbetta 1999).
Furthermore, by the end of the 1980s there was a turning away from the idea that by simply
redressing the numbers of women in key positions of media organisations would improve the
female image, ideally providing an end to gender stereotyping and acknowledging womens
experience, knowledge and creativity (Creedon 1989). As van Zoonen (1994, p. 55) states,
gender itself is not a sufficient factor to explain the professional performance and values of
female journalists. A lot of research conducted in recent years confirms the fact that, despite
the advance of female journalists in the main media industries, women in both the US and
European countries are grossly underrepresented in news coverage in contrast to men, resulting in news that paints a picture of a world in which women are largely absent. The studies
equally revealed a paucity of womens views and opinions in mainstream news media content in contrast to mens perspectives, resulting in a male-centred view of the world.5 Even if
nowadays female journalists are present in equal numbers to male journalists, womens views
in the newswhich mean interpreting reality by taking into account the female genderare
not used much by journalists, who tend to imitate professional routines that are mistakenly
considered to be gender neutral, but in reality contain male perspectives (Buonanno 2005).
The latest thinking maintains that both quantitative and qualitative methods are indispensable
in revealing the point of view which describes a history, whether it be advertisement, fiction
or news, and to highlight various way in which women are devalued.

3 Qualitative and subjective audience analysis


In the early 1980s, at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of
Birmingham, the focus in media studies shifted from textual analysis6 to the study of the
pleasure that popular culture (including quizzes, soap operas, talk shows, sport programmes)
offers to television audiences; a field of study known as Audience Studies (see Nightingale
1996). The audience was treated as set of subjects who were differentiated based on their
sociodemographic characteristics (gender, age, class, race, ethnicity, etc.), who were able
to offer different interpretations to a same text. With the inspiration of Antonio Gramscis
concept of hegemony, as well as symbolic interaction, anthropology, semiotics and feminism, there were various ethnographic studies carried out within Audience Studies between
the 1980s and 1990s. Therefore, they used purely qualitative techniques such as in depth
interviews and participant observation. The intention was to study real audiences in particular sociocultural contexts and ordinary living environments: the home was the preferred
5 According to the 2010 qualiquantitative survey, taken internationally every 5 years by the Global Media

Monitoring Project, only 24 % of the people who are interviewed, heard, seen or read about in mainstream
broadcasts and newspapers are female (www.whomakesthenews.org).
6 See the studies on film texts influenced by Screen Theory, like those on Hollywood cinema which state that
audiences are persuaded to adopt a male voyeuristic gaze towards womens objectified bodies; see Mulvey
(1975).

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location for investigations, given that the family is the most natural unit for television consumption (Lindlof 1987). Audience Studies carry out what has been defined as ethnographic
turns in cultural studies on consumption (Moores 1993; Silverstone 1994): a study that is
concerned more with meanings of apparently banal, mechanical, insignificant practices and
actions made by social actors in everyday life than it is with macrosystems.
The research no longer only took into account the content, making assumptions about
the effects on the audience, but first and foremost it explored the effects of the content on
various male and female audiences. A lot of importance was attributed to gender differences, in addition to social class. For example, in Morleys (1986) ethnographic study of
working class families living in London suburbs (families in which women are housewives
and men are workers), showed that the wives and husbands different television viewing
habits and styles were based on the social roles that these men and women occupy within the
home. Men stated a clear preference for viewing attentively, without interruption, because
the home is primarily defined for men as a site of leisure, while women describe viewing
as a social activity, involving on-going conversation, and the performance of other domestic
activities at the same time, because the home is primarily defined for women as a sphere of
work. From Hobsons ethnographic research (1982), there is a thread of study that focuses
on the analysis of female audiences of soap operas, in order to closely examine housewives
oppressed condition and their relationship with the patriarchal ideology inscribed within
the soap. The female scholars, who belong to the Feminist Cultural Television Criticism,7
re-evaluate the uses and pleasures that women take from enjoying products that are generally
considered to be pink ghetto such as soap operas. From the research it emerges that the
central pleasure offered to women by soaps is the understanding of women from a womans
viewpoint (Geraghty 1991). These productions are re-evaluated in the extent to which they
recognize the importance of womens emotional work in the personal sphere, such as taking
care of others, and allow the female viewers to experiment with their imagination in many
situations. In a qualitative study on 42 fans of Dallas, explaining the success of this type of
texts, Ang (1985) maintains that the meeting between the soap and the melodramatic imagination is fundamental, a specifically female cultural competence. This study highlights the
complexity of the textviewer relationship as it examines the inconsistency in the responses
of the viewers, who are able to identify themselves in both in the strong winning female
characters and those who lose and are weak. By just taking into account the dimensions of
pleasure, desire and fantasy it is possible to understand why so many women identify with
Sue Ellen, a self-destructive character who drowns her sorrows about broken relationships
in alcohol. Ang points out that using the Role-image approach, Sue Ellen would be seen
negatively, as an example of dependency on men. Identifying oneself with Sue Ellen can
instead mean a wish to let oneself go, to accept the complete task of being a woman, in both
strong and weak aspects. Other research, including Browns (1994) ethnographic study on
26 soap operas fans, revealed that the pleasure of watching soap operas is based around the
possibility of developing solidarity among themselves when they talk about soap episodes,
often deconstructing the hierarchical relationships between the sexes. In womens gossip a
network of potential resistance to the dominant patriarchal culture is created (see Capecchi
2004; 2006a).
Towards the end of the 1990s a second debate emerged regarding the interpretive paradigm in the research on the audience and the use of qualitative and ethnographic methods.
Livingstone (1998) summarised the most commonly debated issue regarding the future of
7 A movement which relates to the Feminist Psychoanalytic Film Criticism, of American origin, and is close
to French thinkers oriented towards highlighting sexual difference, like Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray.

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studies on audiences and she also had some criticism aimed at Audience Studies. This type
of research was accused of attributing too much power to the audience, by considering
it as an active audience in the sense that it resisted the dominant ideology inscribed in
popular culture. It was seen as romantic vision of the audience, at a time when people were
imagining the masses rising up against the dominant elite, and in particular the patriarchy.
In particular, the criticism was aimed at the qualitative methods employed and called for a
revision. This research has been accused of placing too much faith in the subjective interpretation of researchers. The qualitative analysis at a micro level, unlike the quantitative
analysis at a macro level, cannot be applied to the entire audience. Furthermore, the retreat
into a microsociological dimension would obscure the structural conditionings that affect the
interpretation. Another accusation is therefore that of excessive contextualisation.
Scholars including Livingstone (1998), Morley (1992), Alasuutari (1999) have proposed
that when carrying out future studies they will use micro/macro-analysis of the audience,
which takes into account both the possible conditioning people are subjected to within a consumer society (therefore conceptualizing the audience as a market) and the creativity of
the unexpected readings of viewers who emerge when they explore cultural practices within
a domestic context.

4 Qualitative/quantitative methods and the web


In recent decades new issues and methodological challenges inherent in the gender and
media theme have opened up, in particular concerning the Internet. One of the main
problems has been the possibility for users to create a virtual identity (often hiding or
changing sexual identity), which invalidates analysis of the public according to the classic
sociodemographic categories. Another aspect to consider, on the other hand, concerns the
identifying of the field of study. For the whole of the 1990s, the spatial metaphor of the
Internet as place reached an agreement in the use of the ethnographic method, for which
scholars carved out their own field of observation around a system of interaction (chat,
MUD, newsgroup), identifying it with a group or virtual community and carrying out in
depth studies on the discussions and practices found inside.8 At the beginning of the new
century this methodological choice was subjected to harsh criticism, because following it
ignores all the interactions that happen in different digital environments, on other media and
face to face. Over the last few years, in part as a result of the acceleration in which social
networks have spread and the convergence, which have allowed the Internet to broadcast
every type of media, as happened with Audience Studies, a revision of the ethnographic
approach became necessary in order to put it into more complex strategies of triangulation
with different and complementary methods (Tosoni 2011). Hine (2000) produced a methodological reflection relating to virtual ethnography, showing a need to conduct ethnographic
analysis that is multi-locational (which takes into account different virtual environments) and
connective (those spaces connected together). In practice, the field of observation should be
constructed to include different environments, starting with a common topic of discussion:
nowadays ethnography is focused on a topic rather than a place.
Even if studies on the Internet tend to favour qualitative methodological approaches, with
the aim of assessing the differences in power between men and women in access, uses and
offering a point of view on reality through the Internet, it is fundamental to combine them with
8 See, for example, Turkles (1995) qualitative research described in Life on the Screen on people who assid-

uously follow MUDs or the ethnographic research of Byam (2000) on the users of a newsgroup dedicated to
soap operas, that is a fandom community.

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quantitative methods. For example, quantitative investigation is useful in detecting situations


such as the gender digital divide or in revealing the importance of the phenomenon of blogs
kept by women.9 On the other hand, qualitative research lends itself to bringing out womens
culture, with the emphasis on highlighting the importance of female virtual communities
and networks or female opinion leaders.10 Although the presence of women on the Internet
is continually increasing, it is clear that the gap between quantitative presence and qualitative importance (in relevance and notoriety) is one of the most crucial issues concerning
women and the Internet. For example, at the highest level of the blogosphere especially male
opinion leaders can be found. If you look behind the scenes, women are almost completely
absent from the politics regarding Internet governance. If the management of programmes
and search engines is looked at, it is evident that the Internet gives a predominantly male
point of view.11

5 Conclusions
The debates following the lines of research described aboveespecially the quantitative
research undertaken in the 1970s and the qualitative research on audiences from the 1980s
and 1990sare interesting as they show the difficulty in, and perhaps the scholars resistance to, using a methodology that places the same importance on quantitative and qualitative
research, able to satisfy the theoretical framework which it is based on. In short, the two views
of reality are antagonistic to one another, one is mainly in line with the 1970s Womens Movement and the other with the feminist movements based on the difference between the sexes
concept and on post-structuralist frameworks. The first strand of study has been accused of
forcing results with the claim of revealing objective data, therefore also making a comparison between the ideal type of correct and realistic woman (a woman who works) and female
image spread by the media, judged to be false and distorted (the woman as a housewife or as
sex-object). The second thread has been accused of forcing results by attributing intentions
to spectators, which instead belong to the scholar, in doing so exacerbating the subjective
side of the study, and in presenting data at a level that is too micro, it is not applicable to a
wider public.
However, the objectivity/subjectivity debate is unlikely to go away: not only are real
womens lives closely linked to the medias gender representation as it helps to construct
social reality, but the growing ambivalence in the representation of women, which has become
a specific marketing strategy in attracting different audiences, makes it difficult to provide
an unambiguous interpretation for a hypothesis of the effects on the audience. For example,
the problematic reading of the image of the women who have filled fiction and advertising for decades is underlined: the media represents women on the one hand as modern,
emancipated, professionally active and sexually daring, on the other hand as passive objects
9

Regarding the gender digital divide, in almost all countries where there is widespread Internet use,
numerical equality has almost been reached between men and women amongst the younger generations (see
www.gandalf.it). In the blogosphere, there is a majority of women on personal blogs or diaries, and vice-versa
there are many blogs of an informative nature kept by men. Differences that can be seen in a positive light
when the private is discovered (Violi 2008).
10 Such as bloggers who create information, from the Cuban Yoani Snchez to Marina Litvinovich from
Moscow; see Stringa (2011).
11 With regard to the latter, an example of womens resistance to patriarchal culture could be a search engine
known as Cercatrice di rete, started in the female association Orlando di Bologna (Italy), which sees reality
from a womans point of view, for example avoiding gender stereotypes present on Google (see Capecchi
2006b).

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of male desire whose bodies must be slender, young and eroticised (see Capecchi 2011b).
As Gill (2007, p. 89) states, the media has moved from representing women as sex objects
to desiring sexual subjects. The same ambivalence can be found in images spread by the
media of young show girls who prostitute themselves with the powers that be in order to
get a satisfying work position, for example the recent events involving the Italian Ex-prime
Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. This latest phenomenon has ignited a debate between feminists
who are divided into positions anchored in 1970s Womens Movement and post-feminist
perspectives (Capecchi 2011a).
Beyond the various theoretical positions that can provide different interpretations and that
favour certain methods, the debates that come out of the gender and media research environment arrive at the same conclusion: it is important and desirable to have a combination
of both quantitative and qualitative methods. From the examples mentioned it can be seen
that quantitative methods allow for the highlighting of discrimination of the female gender in
terms of access to the media, presence and occupations in professionals key roles linked to the
media industries or for taking into account the audience as a group of consumers. The qualitative methods, on the other hand, allow for the highlighting of how much women are valued
beyond the role they play and the number of women who play a given role. They reveal the
point of view through which a news is told or the Internet search engines filter out the reality.
They shine a light on the plurality of meanings which every female image can potentially
transmit and check the variability and even the contradictions of the interpretations offered
by the audiences.

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