Unraveling Social Structures: Diving Into Research Methods with Dr. Vega-Centeno

Dr. Jess Vega-Centeno, a scholar of Communications with a PhD in Communications and a MBA in Marketing Management, mainly focuses on research relating to advertising and digital media and its effects on Critical Race Theory, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. During her time in the advertising field, many of these concepts were going unrecognized by the industry. Dr. Jess Vega-Centeno explained during the interview that “I didn’t know what that word was until I got into Academia and started studying, taking sociology classes,” when referring to the institution of social structures. After 15 years of experience in the advertising and marketing industry, she currently teaches at Cal State Fullerton as an assistant professor for the Communications College. 

In her previous works, Dr. Vega-Centeno explores the complex intersection of race, beauty, and identity in Puerto Rico in her thought-provoking essay “Dirty Braids”. Dr. Vega-Centeno investigates how Hurricane Maria’s aftermath has altered the conventional narrative of beauty and racial identity via the perspective of hair. This research explores how hair has been used as a tool in Puerto Rico as a means of upholding imperialist standards for beauty. In order to discover the significance of hair in the history and culture of Puerto Rico, Vega-Centeno utilizes qualitative research methods such as one-on-one interviews. She discusses how individuals throughout history, from the native Taino people to the Afro-Puerto Rican society have utilized hair as a sign of power and identity. Dr. Vega-Centeno’s analysis of the significance of hair in Puerto Rican culture highlights the ways in which the presentation of hair is used to view identity and oppressive systems.

In her other published work, Milleniage Advertising: Reconceptualizing Advertising and Its Role in Forming Social Identities, which was co-written with Kevin Thomas, Vega-Centeno utilizes content analysis and other research methods to re-conceptualize the modern-day marketing and advertising methods used to reach a wider audience primarily through social media. She conducted research on popular TikTok videos that were unintentional and advertisements that were intentional but not successful. She first conducted research on the viral Ocean Spray TikTok video which was actually an accidental advertising video created by Nathan Apodaca. In the video, he was skateboarding with a bottle of Ocean Spray Juice while playing the popular song “Dreams” in the background. Dr. Vega-Centeno found that “What began as an expression of one person’s social values and identity resulted in massive commercial success for several corporate brands.” In this work, her analysis of the data collected supports the notion that advertising today functions as an art form, a form of business communication, and a socializing agent. Through this re-conceptualization, she claims that researchers are able to analyze the full effect of advertising on today’s generations. 

During the interview, we discussed the chapter Milleniage Advertising that Dr. Vega-Centeno wrote for the book The Routledge Companion to Advertising and Promotional Culture. She emphasized that social media is “like candy for researchers,” but at the same time can complicate some procedures they have to take. She explained that there is an Institutional Review Board (IRB) under the FDA that monitors research involving human subjects and such regulation can make doing research on social media complicated. She further elaborated that social media has created a “gray area” that poses the question can the content on social media be considered public or private. This aspect ultimately determines if researchers can or cannot collect this published information. She also added that when conducting research through social media anonymity and confidentiality can be an issue. Dr. Vega-Centeno explained it can be challenging to “sift between the risk vs the benefit” in order to decide if social media is the best place to collect data. Although there are downsides to this source, she described the quality of data on social media as “beautiful” and that people are more straightforward and honest about their opinions online. Another benefit she mentioned was the ability to collect data using the Snowball sampling, a common method used because of its accessibility and convenience. Due to the nature of social media platforms users easily disseminate information, making it the ideal place to conduct research using that method.

She also explained that social media has helped improve the social awareness surrounding Critical Race Theory, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Furthermore, She believes that social media has “opened up a level of honest conversation between the consumer and brands” that was absent before but now allows consumers to express their opinions about advertisements that are controversial. This space created by social media gives consumers the power to direct attention towards companies and critique advertisements that may negatively impact others.

When asked about her preferred research methods, Dr. Vega-Centeno expressed her passion for qualitative research. In her own studies, experience has taught her that the type of data she finds more revealing is produced in more organic environments of research rather than in the collection of numerical data. “I love talking to people about their experiences,” she says, in relation to her research methods, “interviewing people has to be my favorite [methodology].” She describes her reasoning for this relates to her affinity for storytelling. Storytelling is essential to the two published pieces by Dr. Vega-Centeno, “Dirty Braids” and “Milleniage Advertising”, in which she places emphasis on the personal experiences of the individuals she interviews. As someone with a marketing and advertising background, Vega-Centeno sees her research as a consistent message answering critical questions about the world around her. She enjoys acting as a “prime investigator”, digging into the nuances of the stories revealed through interviews and drawing conclusions based on the similarities across many stories. She describes listening as paramount to the process of data collection in interviews, and places importance on understanding the full picture of others’ experiences. As for her opinion of quantitative research, Dr. Vega-Centeno respects and values numerical data collection, and expresses that social media is a newer source of both qualitative and quantitative data. Though quantitative research does not provide the level of detail for a comprehensive view of a person’s experience that she values, Dr. Vega-Centeno acknowledges the importance of the evaluation of numerical data and employing quantitative research methods.

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