Beyond Categorization: Marshall McLuhan, Technological Determinism, and Social Science Methodology – a Reappraisal

Laureano Ralon
Communication, Simon Fraser University
January, 2011
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Abstract

This thesis is a contribution to the reappraisal of Herbert Marshall McLuhan. Its aim is to rethink McLuhan‘s views about media and technology, as well as his place in empirical, social science research, by challenging two dichotomies – i.e., two binary oppositions – that have been used to simplify and assimilate his work throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. First, the determinist/instrumentalist dualism is addressed by combining Paul Grosswiler‘s, Robert Babe‘s, as well as other recent contributors to the field of McLuhan studies, and drawing from McLuhan‘s biographies in addition to other secondary sources along the way. This binary structure is then replaced by an alternative interpretative approach (i.e., a phenomenologically-informed application of Andrew Feenberg‘s four-fold model of ―orientation towards technology―) to allow for a more flexible engagement with the dialectical thought of a man who – much like the media of communication he sought to understand – was in ―constant flux.‖ Despite the complexity of this model, the elusive nature of McLuhan‘s thought means that his oeuvre is ―beyond categorization.‖ It is not, as will be demonstrated, ―beyond applicability,‖ however. The quantitative/qualitative divide that characterizes social science methodology is then challenged in the context of a classroom-based, Wikipedia-cantered case study, by showing that McLuhan‘s qualitative (analogical, artistic, dialectical) approach to the study of media effects can be used as a diagnostic tool, side by side with standard social science procedures, to make sense of statistical results pertaining to the relative experience of students and TAs, as the use of electronic text was substituted for traditional print. Keywords: Marshall McLuhan, Technological Determinism, Phenomenology, Instructional Design, Wikipedia
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