More Than Dreams and Commodities: Why I Do What I Do

I’ve had multiple occasions in my PhD program where I feel bad about not having some noble moral ambition for wanting to do what I do. I know people who are here because they want to investigate how to get people to be healthier, protect journalists, investigate how power and media shape societal beliefs, and so on. But here I am, certainly concerned for these matters of health and freedom and society, but they’re not what I wake up wondering about in the morning.

I’ve long been interested in media, as my undergrad film school background can attest, and in research contexts, I’m very interested what pulls people to consume certain media and how to influence media consumption, particularly in newer transmedia and integrated marketing communication contexts. While certainly in line with my long-term career aspiration of becoming a media executive, compared to some of the other avenues of research being pursued by my peers, my interests are definitely more industry-oriented, with broad potential commercial applications. I’ve struggled with this a lot from a moral perspective. I know ultimately that it’s not a big deal at all, if anything it just makes life harder for me since big NIH grants and NSF grants aren’t exactly geared in that direction, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel at times like I’ve sold out or some such.

I’ve thought a lot about what really drives me in this direction of research, to do what I do, beyond some delusional subconscious thought of riches – surely, there are far easier ways to go about making big money than research – and I think I’m starting to get an idea why.

I do it for the stories.  I do it because I believe stories contained within these media are more than dreams to be forgotten and commodities to be bought and sold. I do it because I believe stories have the ability to transcend mortal barriers and bring people together in ways otherwise unimaginable.

Think back to your childhood. The stories you told your friends and the games you played. The valiant men fighting the villains. The tales of Petrarchan love. The epics about heroes triumphing over unspeakable odds.

These stories are and have been the same everywhere – they transcend individuals, cultures, languages, and even time. The fabric of emotions these narratives weave have been experienced by countless many individuals before us, and will be felt by countless many individuals to come. They have ever since the dawn of recorded history and even before have given us guidance, inspiration, entertainment, and solace in our moments of need.

By tapping into these common frameworks of thought, experience, and emotion, I truly believe that media and the stories we tell through them have the power to unite us – or divide us. The tales we choose to share and consume ultimately guide our perceptions of and responses to a complex state of existence that, in many ways, has a infinite number of possible interpretations. The power of stories is nowhere more apparent today than in contemporary American politics: Do we give greater credence to the story of the single mom working double-time to just barely pay the bills for her family or to the tale of the welfare queen?  Is the American Dream of riches-through-perseverance still a reality, or is it an outdated fable that now only serves to distract us from greater issues of inequality?

As such, the stories we consume through media can radically reshape our perceptions of the world, expectations for how it is, and beliefs about how it should be. They can train us to expect the worst from those around us, to believe that the mistakes of the few are characteristics of the many, and that the current state of being is good enough; or they can teach us to feel for one another, to believe that while we are flawed, human existence is more nuanced than can be perceived at a glance, that there is a greater, more sophisticated truth to be sought and a better state of being to be pursued. So I believe that if we can understand what draws people to certain stories and what makes individuals want to know more about them and the characters they contain, we’ll be one step closer to crafting more grand public narratives that unite us in a common state of consciousness, as opposed to proliferating narrow, divisive micronarratives that do nothing but highlight our differences and tear us apart.

So yeah. I guess I do have some sort of moral drive behind my interests. Glad I put it down on paper.

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