My doctoral diary: Philosophy and public relations

About the author

Miriam Pelusi is five years in to a six year part-time doctorate at Leeds Beckett University.

Image by 139904 from Pixabay
Image by 139904 from Pixabay

“Why does public relations need philosophy?” I was asked at the Annual Progression meeting at the end of my 4th year of study. Public relations needs philosophy in order to understand its very essence, I replied to the panel. This is a field, I argued, that can find its centre of gravity in key concepts, such as dialogue and ethics, which are highly philosophical. In my view, philosophy helps scholars to elevate the intellectual status of public relations as an academically respectable discipline.

My progression was approved by the panel, and I am currently in my fifth year of study.

Stimulated and intrigued, I keep refining my philosophical inquiry throughout my PhD journey. There are a variety of philosophers from different schools of thought, academic cultures and historical periods who have studied dialogue. Dialogue is a philosophical concept that has in its DNA the thought of philosophers like Socrates, Bakhtin, Buber, and Habermas.

Initially, dealing with the philosophy of dialogue seemed like blue-sky thinking and I grappled with the abstract thinking of certain philosophers. Later, I realised that in order to generate specialist knowledge in public relations I needed to open my mind on what dialogue is at an abstract level, then  I could apply this understanding to real-life situations. There is nothing like philosophy for open-mindedness and original thinking; I use philosophy to sharpen my critical thinking.

Although philosophy may seem abstract and far removed from reality, philosophy shapes the way in which we define what reality is (i.e. ontology) and how we get to know this reality (i.e. epistemology).

Philosophy is the basis for doing research, I started from here. The decision-making involved in the research process derives from precise philosophical choices which indicate how to operate. The researcher takes a stance in deciding their research philosophy, which is their worldview. The need for ontological and epistemological assumptions requires the researcher to take a position and choose among a variety of possibilities. Above all, this is a key intellectual decision.

My research philosophy shapes not only my understanding of the nature of reality and what constitutes knowledge, but also my reasoning strategies, searching criteria and knowledge representations.

Philosophy means literally love for wisdom. The philosopher aspires to true knowledge, which is a vision of the world that, by nature, cannot be definite as it’s constantly evolving. The notion of science emerged from philosophy. At the origins of the idea of ‘scientific knowledge’ or what we know, there is philosophy, which is that search for knowing what exists and how it exists. Studying the philosophy of science offers a fascinating glimpse of a specific vision of reality. There are different perspectives, various and different interpretations for explaining the wide diversity of ways in which scholars pursue their work.

In critiquing Kent and Taylor’s (2002) dialogic theory in public relations, in the first instance I interrogated their ontological assumptions in respect of dialogue which they see as a product. I looked for holes in the argument, which are gaps in knowledge, in order to justify my analysis, so that I could then suggest an alternative approach and fit my study into the body of knowledge with a view to contributing to current scholarly debates.

Ultimately, a PhD has to produce new knowledge to contribute to the field of study. Looking at social science from a philosophical perspective helped me to see research as an opportunity to create new knowledge and catch all the possibilities that research offers. Nevertheless, such knowledge cannot be static, and it will evolve as definitions and explanations are refined, new insights are added, or approaches are changed.

This constant evolution of knowledge is the challenge, and beauty, of doing research.

A philosophical inquiry without empirical research may be abstract, distant from reality, or even too idealistic. Empirical research without philosophical grounding is just a data collection exercise, in my opinion.

It is in that balance between philosophical inquiry and empirical research that I have found my centre for doing research. I work at a fruitful interaction between philosophical and empirical research. These dynamics are why studying philosophy can be so fascinating and professionally helpful.

Mine is a naturalistic inquiry, transparent and real, in which I can expose myself in an incisive way. I take an interpretivist stance on the issue of the relationship between dialogue and ethics because I consider both dialogue and ethics as social phenomena constructed by people (my ontological position is social constructivism).

Dialogue is a complex process involving aspects like listening, understanding, caring or trusting. If the communication is not guided by ethical principles and values, it becomes an act of manipulating. Here, however, an in-depth analysis is necessary.

How dialogue and ethics are related, what maintains this relationship, and how they are experienced by specific individuals, are intriguing questions of fundamental importance. The one that intrigues me most is investigating the connections between the two concepts. I dive deeper into this connection with an empirical study of an anthropological nature.

I imagine the link between dialogue and ethics in public relations to be something of a cycle; the two are inextricably linked. Poor dialogue leads to poor ethical practice; poor ethical practice leads to poor dialogue.

The consideration of dialogue as a fundamental dimension of human existence and experience, and its connection with ethics, is a central element in the intellectual development of public relations. Today’s philosophy clarifies methodological and epistemological problems connected to specific disciplinary settings.

A more conscious grounding of public relations in philosophy may therefore help researchers to extend their knowledge and with modelling the field further. Such a philosophical grounding would indicate a higher specificity of public relations both as an academic discipline in the social sciences, and as a professional practice which is in constant relationship with people. Being aware of philosophical views advances theorising in PR research and reinforces PR practice.