Born in 1944 in Middlesbrough, a steel town in the North of England, I attended several schools of appalling quality leaving at the compulsory age of 15. Even so, I managed to get to university when going to University as it was then called, and not Uni. as it is today, was exceptional – less than 5% of the university age group going to university compared to the current 50%.
I graduated from the University of Hull in 1968 with a degree in the social sciences, gained my Masters in the Sociology of Education and Mass Communication from the University of Leicester in 1971, and my doctorate in 1974 from the Centre for Mass Communication Research of the University of Leicester – Stuart Hall was the external examiner, not an obvious choice given that the subject of my thesis was the arch-empirical scholar, Paul Lazarsfeld. The title of my doctorate thesis was, Paul F. Lazarsfeld: The Biography of an Institutional Innovator. This study took me on scholarships to the Sociology Department (Institut) of the University of Vienna, and the Bureau of Applied Social Research of Columbia University in New-York. In New York I had access to Lazarfeld’s papers, and letters, as well as Lazarsfeld himself, who I interviewed repeatedly over the course of several months.
I have written extensively on Lazarsfeld, the most detailed account, being: The Search for a Method: Focus Groups and the Development of Mass Communication Research. Robert Merton rightly recognised that the work was in fact two books in one. He considered it: ‘A remarkable achievement. A beautifully integrated volume. The one book provides a penetrating biographical account of Paul Lazarsfeld’s pioneering work in communication and media research, the other provides a definitive historical account of the emergence of the focused group interview – I can truly say that this is most deeply informed volume on its’ twin subjects that I know of’. (Merton letter to publisher 23/6/2002)
Merton’s familiarity with my historical work only came to my attention when I received a note from Professor Brent McGregor who had been in correspondence with Merton and sent him an article of mine. Merton wrote: ‘Many thanks too for Dr. Morrison’s remarkable papers on Paul Lazarsfeld. I had read the paper on Adorno and PFL long ago but had forgotten its exceptional detail and, to the best of my direct experience authentic detail. Oddly enough I had not seen the later, and, in temporal scheme of things, quite recent paper of 1988 on PFL and mass communication research. It is an extraordinary achievement, all the more in view of Dr. Morrison not having been part of Columbia Community and tradition’. (letter to McGregor 18/4/95)
My interest in the history of communication research, especially the work of Lazarsfeld and the early founding days of the field, has been a constant of my career, but never formed a single focus. Following my doctorate, for example, and whilst still at Leicester, I undertook, along with Michael Tracey, work on moral protest – The National Viewers and Listeners Association campaign to ‘clean-up television;’ in effect, a study of religious revivalism.
From Leicester I went to work with Jeremy Tunstall at the City University in London as his assistant on a study of Foreign Correspondents. I then, with my own project, returned to my earlier interest in social movements research, in this case, the development of environmentalism. This study saw me come into contact with the social geographer, Philip Lowe, to produce what Jacquelin Burgess, of University College London considered: ‘The seminal work in this field was done by Lowe and Morrison, 1984. Lowe and Morrison anticipated much of the subsequent debate about the role of pressure groups and the ‘primary definers’ or ‘claims makers’ in determining which environmental problems become newsworthy’. (Burgess J Conservation in Progress (eds.) Goldsmith and Warren 1993)
Tired of living from research grant to research grant, or ‘soft money’ as it is referred to by American academics, my work on social movements was abandoned and I left my position at the City University when invited by my past colleague, Michael Tracey, to join him at the Broadcasting Research Unit, (BRU) a policy research unit, chaired by Richard Hoggart – the BRU had been established following a report that Elihu Katz made for the BBC, entitled: Social Research on Broadcasting: Proposals for Further Development.
Although the BRU had a small staff, the number of empirical studies undertaken during it’s relatively short existence was extraordinary – a History of Channel 4, research for the Home Office based on a government White Paper on Radio, Public attitude to Public Service Broadcasting, Inner-city riots, The Place of Cinema in Social Life, Community Radio and its’ Social Function, were just some of the studies undertaken. The BRU was not a ‘think-tank', but an independent research institute that addressed policy issue – the documents produced were all based on empirical findings using a variety of quantitative and qualitative methods. Most of the studies were published as monographs. The most important study by far however, the biggest and the most complex, was a study of the reporting of, and public response to, the Falkland Conflict. Published by Sage, as Journalists at War, (Morrison & Tumber 1988) it remains the most significant study not just of the conflict itself, but as Boyd-Barret and Newbold in their review of the history of communication studies state, ‘a key text in communication studies’. (Boyed-Barret & Newbold, approaches to the Media 1995) (Tumber, later went on to forge a notable career for himself as a leading figure internationally in research on journalism as Professor at the City University in London.)
The lack of firm institutional support for the BRU, and the lack of appreciation of empirical work by Richard Hoggart as Chairman – a classic case of that which is not understood, rarely appreciated – saw the BRU face unrecoverable decline, especially with the departure of its’ Head, Michael Tracey to take up a post at the University of Colorado, Boulder. David Docherty, co-author on many of the studies at the BRU was an outstanding mind and could without doubt had he so wished built a spectacular career as an academic, left to see him build an outstanding career in management as the first BBC Director of New Media and Deputy Managing Director of BBC Television and currently Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business, and Chairman of the Digital Television Group. Such departures signalled the end of the BRU. My decision was to leave and move into market research, first as Associate Director, and then becoming a Director at Research International.
Research International (R.I.) was the largest ad-hoc market research company in Europe, part of the Martin Sorrell's WPP empire. I remained there for two years – 1988-90 – before moving back into University based research. I consider my time at R.I. of crucial importance in my later building the research side of the Institute of Communication Studies at the University of Leeds. Indeed, to observe the leadership and research skills of someone such as Simon Chadwick, who was my 'head' at R.I, and shortly after I left he moved to become Global CEO of NOP World, was a lesson that any University based researcher would benefit.
I was appointed in 1991 as Research Director at the ‘Institute of Communication Studies’ of the University of Leeds. The ‘Institute’ when I joined hardly existed in anything approximating its current position; indeed, did not even have the status of Department. Nicholas Pronay, and Phil Taylor were the two key figures responsible for the actual establishment of the Institute, but I soon joined as the third partner. Pronay and Taylor had moved from the History Department with the understanding that they could move back if all failed. I was brought in to ensure Pronay’s vision, based on trips he had made to America to observe successful communication departments there, by building a research unit to complement, or offset, what was purely a ‘teaching’ ‘Department’.
The obvious advantage I had over most academics in such an enterprise was that, learnt to a degree at the BRU, but especially so at Research International working under Chadwick, was knowing how to organise and sell research. This meant that the ‘Institute’, from the very beginning, was not totally dependent on Research Council Grants for the financing of research, or, and most important, the salaries of research staff – the lengthy gestation period of obtaining a research council grant, and the uncertainly of long term employment by those employed by such contracts, severely restricted the flexibility of any research enterprise. The legitimating model here was that of Paul Lazarsfeld, and his operations at the Bureau of Applied Social Research – grander, of course, than mine.
This none-dependency on Research Council Grants – although frequently awarded as part of operations – meant the ability to respond to fast moving events and issues. A case in point was the ability to respond rapidly to the outbreak of the Gulf War – once war was ‘declared’ extensive field work began almost immediately with money raised from the BBC, The Independent Television Commission, and the Broadcasting Research Council. This wide-ranging study was published as a monograph on the first anniversary of the war, as Television and the Gulf War (Morrison 1992)
The money from the media industry, which I could raise quickly should the need arise, as in the case above, was also used, in a way not so readily the case with Research Council Grants, to experiment with methodological development. During the Gulf War research, for example, dissatisfaction with the uncertainly of response to image characterised by traditional focus group research, myself and my co-worker, Brent McGregor, wanted to ‘lock response’ to the grammar of the text. From this, we created the new method of ‘video editing groups’, first reported by us, in Media Culture and Society as ‘From Focus Groups to Editing Groups: A New Method of Reception Analysis’ (1995).
This new method came to the attention of Robert Merton, the originator of focus group research method way back in 1941 whilst working with Lazarsfeld. Having read the paper he wrote to McGregor: ‘The concept of ‘editing groups’ and the research procedures you have begun to develop strike me as a distinct advance, and as Dr. Morrison with his extraordinary knowledge of the Bureau of Applied Social Research will quickly anticipate, both the concept and procedure do so that return to the original concept and procedure of focus groups interview by focussing on stimulus material and then advance well beyond the point reached by the ‘Bureau’. It has all the marks of a distinctly new and promising phase in that research tradition (Merton 18/4/95).
A lot of the studies, nearly all using a combination of methods, and hardly ever using focus groups as a stand-alone method, were collected together in a large volume, of over 600 pages, with attendant methodological notes to become, The Search for an Understanding (Morrison 2000) – this was intended to act as a follow on from the earlier volume, In Search of a Method (Morrison 1998)
I was made Professor in 1999, at a time when there was still suspicion towards the ‘new’ subject of communications studies in a University whose tradition rested in the natural and engineering sciences.
My final large work, published in 2007, brought together my work over the years that can thematically be arranged as reflecting a concern for the fate of the individual in society. This work linked my empirical work back, in some ways, to the concerns of classical sociology. To assist in conceptualisation and clarification of moral positions that I wished to address, I asked Matthew Kieran, now Professor of Philosophy at Leeds, to join me. Published in 2007, although as indicated, covering ideas and issues worked on from my very earl days beginning at Leicester, this book, in fact, tome: Media & Values: Intimate Transgressions in a Changing Moral and Cultural Landscape led Paddy Scammel, then of the University of Michigan’, to consider its’, ‘intellectual scope astonishing: the problem it addresses is quite crucial – namely the moral incoherence of the contemporary world and the way that this shows up in empirical research into individual attitudes/opinions/taste/ judgements. It is clearly a cumulative critical assessment of the implications of research going back to the sixties. ‘It’s original. Powerful, thoughtful and spot on diagnosis of the times and the very real issues we confront today. A major piece of work’.
I retired in 2010 with the title of Professor Emeritus, granted by Senate. Retirement from the University has meant that without the institutional support necessary for my large-scale survey and statistical studies that aspect of my work has come to an end. My historical work, not requiring any institutional support structure, on the early development of communications research is now my focus.