Editors’ note: It is often a good idea to step back from our usual ways of thinking, including thinking about communication technologies, in order to get a fresh perspective. In honor of Antenna’s tenth year of publication, we asked Lance Strate to provide an overview of how communication has been analyzed over the years. The parts played by various technologies over time have their place in this story because of their impacts on both how people communicate and how they think.
How can we define the study of communication? Considered institutionally, communication’s current popularity as a field of study is rivaled only by its ambiguity, as the subject is sometimes dispersed among university departments of speech, media arts, journalism, film, telecommunications, and business communication. Even when it is concentrated in one department, its designation may vary from communication arts to communication sciences (or both), or communication studies, or simply communication. It may also take the plural form of communications, or hybrids such as speech communication, rhetoric and communication, or communication and media studies. Lacking a clearly defined public image, varying widely from institution to institution, and perennially in the midst of a disciplinary identity crisis, communication is less a single field of study (like psychology and English) than an aggregate, produced not just by evolution, but also convergence among disparate areas of inquiry.
The systematic study of communication began in fifth-century B.C.E. Greece with rhetoric, as taught by educators such as Corax, Tisias, Protagoras, Gorgias, and Hippias, collectively known as the sophists. Focusing on effective public speaking, persuasion and argumentation, the sophists were pragmatic, professional, and nonjudgmental. This was entirely unacceptable to idealists like Socrates and Plato, who condemned them for charging a fee for their services (just as contemporary teachers’ salaries are subject to criticism), and for teaching technique rather than truth (Plato’s faith in absolute truth would today be considered authoritarian; the sophists in contrast were cultural relativists). Moreover, rhetoric was dismissed for its lack of content (like the sitcom Seinfeld, a show about nothing). Put another way, while other fields produce discourse about a particular topic, communication is about the production of discourse itself. It is not so much about products (texts, facts, societies, minds), as it is about processes, about the means by which we express, share, interact, and interpret. It therefore is about nothing, but also everything, intersecting with all other areas of study as they construct and share knowledge, as Aristotle acknowledged.
In focusing on speech-making, rhetoric was identified with one-way communication, going from a single source to many receivers. The philosophers, on the other hand, championed dialectic, a method of arriving at truth through dialogue. The victory of the philosophers carries over to this day, as sophistry and rhetoric are both burdened with negative connotations, while dialogue is privileged as the ideal form of learning. Communication has long since broadened its horizons to include the topic of dialogue, and in fact has made face-to-face interaction (the “meeting of the minds” resulting in “seeing eye to eye”) its ideal as well. Philosophy, on the other hand, beginning with Aristotle, has shifted the idea of dialectic away from dialogue, towards the internalized thought processes-logic. Aristotle inherited Plato’s antipathy to rhetoric, but included the study under the aegis of philosophy, as a topic inferior to logic. In this way, rhetoric survived as philosophy’s Other, its shadow. Rhetoric took its place alongside dialectic and grammar in the trivium, the curriculum of the medieval university, and was central to the course of study of the Renaissance college.
After the printing revolution, begun in fifteenth-century Germany, rhetoric came to be identified as much with the study of written texts as with the analysis of oratory. English (literary studies), therefore, shares this common ancestor with communication (albeit abandoning process for the product of the printed book, or literature), as do the grey areas of composition and journalism (which may be taught in either English or communication departments, or under their own auspices). Following Aristotle, rhetoric can also be housed within philosophy, or in its own department (in the United States this occurs mostly in the south and midwest) which is more often than not aligned with communication. Kenneth Burke was the most influential twentieth-century rhetorician, and his scholarship did much to reconcile traditional rhetoric with the broader study of communication. Apart from rhetoric’s literary turn, oratory continued to be studied throughout the modern era, including elocution and homiletics. Speech emerged as a key term by the twentieth century, no doubt aided by the First Amendment, and departments bearing that designation typically taught public speaking, debate and argumentation, and voice and diction; many departments also covered the paramedical studies of speech pathology, and audiology.
On the other end of the spectrum, the art of oral interpretation, even theater and performance, was frequently taught under the heading of speech. Speech and theater made for a comfortable fit with radio, which put a premium on voice and dramatic reading, and many modern communication departments were born through this particular alignment; others brought together radio and journalism, with or without speech. Communication also drew upon the study of language itself, going back to C. S. Peirce’s semiotics, the analytic philosophy of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf’s hypothesis that different languages lead to different worldviews, and the universal grammar of Noam Chomsky, who also engages in media criticism.
The emergence of psychology as a discipline in the twentieth century had a dramatic effect on communication’s development. Psychological theories were incorporated into the study of language, persuasion, and mass media effects, with a corresponding emphasis upon individuals and their relationships. In this way, communication was reconciled with the study of dialogue, or simply, conversation. Interpersonal communication, based almost entirely on psychological theory and research, took its place as a major force in the field, along with related areas such as intrapersonal communication, group communication, organizational communication, and the more professionally-oriented business communication. Nonverbal communication was also largely rooted in psychological research, supplemented by anthropological field work. Overall, Freud’s depth psychology was less influential than B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism, and the modified behaviorism of social psychology. Nonverbal communcation included the symbolic inter-actionism of George Herbert Mead (who also was an early sociological theorist of journalism) and Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective, Eric Berne’s transactional analysis, Albert Bandura’s social modeling theories, and Paul Watzlawick’s relational analysis. For a time, humanistic psychology, that of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, was very influential in both speech and interpersonal communication. Popular psychology, generally derived from the humanistic branch, has tended to present communication as a panacea, a flattering image of the field, but no less a misconception than Plato’s polemic against it.
The need to understand dialogue was made even more apparent by the rise of the mass media beginning in the nineteenth century. The mass media amplified one-to-many communication beyond the wildest dreams of sophists and philosophers. This began with the press, and consequently journalism as an area of study first appeared in the late nineteenth century when new technologies made high volume, high velocity print production possible. Characterized by a professional orientation, which later would be extended to public relations, advertising, and broadcasting, journalism found a theoretical orientation in social sciences, such as, sociology, political science, economics, etc. As “the press” became “the media” through innovations in communication technology, theories of mass society were applied to form the basis of the study of mass communication. Aside from news analysis, World War I fueled interest in propaganda analysis and the study of mass media effects. Among the pioneers were public opinion theorist Walter Lippman, political scientist Harold Lasswell, and sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld. Emphasis on quantitative research in the service of government and industry overtook critical orientations with the advent of World War II and the cold war that followed. Even when a critical view was adopted, for example in George Gerbner’s studies of television violence, it was grounded in statistical research. Like the philosophers and the sophists, scholars in interpersonal and mass communication remained on opposite sides of a divide, in this case sharing a quantitative and scientific orientation that emphasized specialism and separation.
Methodology and even some theories were shared by the two sides, but otherwise an intellectual apartheid held sway. The polarization was magnetic, so that speech was pulled to the interpersonal side, the press to the mass end of the spectrum. Intercultural communication, despite the fact that it was grounded in anthropology, tended to focus on the personal encounter, and therefore lined up with interpersonal. Technologies for distance communication, despite the fact that they could be used for interpersonal purposes, as in the case of the telephone, became identified with mass communication. Science formed the common ground between interpersonal and mass communication, as the first hope of a grand unified theory of communication came from physics and engineering, in the form of information theory, Claude Shannon’s mathematical model of communication (based on the telephone), and Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics. In the years immediately following World War II, numerous communication departments were formed around this paradigm. While helping to lay the foundation for computer science, information theory proved too mechanistic to take hold as the basis for a science of human communication. Similar hope was held out for the general systems theory of Ludwig von Bertanlanffy, which reconciled interpersonal and mass communication, but like information theory had no way to account for symbolic communication and meaning, the province of rhetoric and language studies.
Rhetoric did serve as the basis of Marshall McLuhan’s media analysis. He broadened the term”media” to include interpersonal and intrapersonal items such as the telephone, the photograph, and clothing, and even speech and games (this in addition to all forms of technology). Not surprisingly, McLuhan’s work also sought to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences, and the humanities and behavioral sciences. He succeeded in popularizing the study of communication and media during the 1960s. His influence was widely felt throughout the field, but he was unable to break through the dominant establishment committed to quantitative research. McLuhan was not the only one to take a qualitative and critical approach to communication during the early postwar period. Cultural critics, such as the pioneering Gilbert Seldes, the Frankfurt School neo-Marxists such as Theodor Adorno, mainstream scholars such as Dwight Macdonald and Daniel Boorstin, and popular culture theorists such as Marshall Fishwick found niches in a scholarly environment dominated by social science. Film theory maintained its own tradition, derived from the fine arts and the psychology of perception, through the work of Rudolf Arnheim, Sergei Eisenstein, Siegfried Kracauer, and others. Variously taught as communication, art or literature, or in independent departments of film, the subject remained untouched by mass communication’s fixation on number crunching.
It was not until the early 1980s that the empire of numbers, weakened by its own internal contradictions, was brought down in the face of an assault from overseas. In Europe, communication departments were nowhere near as widespread as in the U.S., and the social sciences nowhere near as dominant. Thus, it was scholars in the arts and humanities who turned to the media and other popular forms of communication, employing qualitative methods. Traditional topics such as art and literature gave way to the more general notion of culture, and like America’s communication studies, Europe’s cultural studies is also the product of convergence, drawing upon philosophy: examples include the phenomenology and existentialism of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger; the semiology of Ferdinand Saussure, Roland Barthes, and Umberto Eco; the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan; the anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Clifford Geertz; film theory by Christian Metz; neo-Marxism, notably that of the British cultural studies school, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and John Fiske; poststructuralism of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida; and the postmodernism of Jean Baudrillard and Jean-François Lyotard. As cultural studies was incorporated into the study of communication, the sociological concept of mass communication was gradually deemphasized in favor of the study of culture and media, and rhetorical study was reinvigorated. Empirical research did not vanish altogether, however. Instead, ethnography became the research methodology of choice within cultural studies, as exemplified by Janice Radway’s study of the readers of romance novels. Also, a separate American cultural studies school was identified, associated with James Carey who, like McLuhan was a follower of the Canadian economist Harold Innis; American cultural studies retains some of the social science perspective of mass communication, but with a qualitative emphasis. Also flourishing in the new intellectual environment was the North American media ecology approach that included McLuhan, Walter Ong, Neil Postman, and Joshua Meyrowitz.
Cultural studies remains a powerful force in communication, but has probably passed its peak. One inadequacy is its emphasis on product (culture) over process (communication). Another is its tendency to rely on highly abstract language and “critspeak,” not to mention its embrace of radical chic. Moreover, while cultural studies is not without its implications for interpersonal communication, especially in regards to gender, its contributions in this area have been weak. The need for further reconciliation has become apparent during the 1990s with the widespread use of computer-mediated communication. From e-mail to the World-Wide Web, it has become possible to move back and forth between mass and interpersonal communication quickly, easily, and transparently. As the concrete focus of cybertheory replaces the more abstract interests of cultural theory as the hot topic in communication (although the latter does inform the former), approaches that mediate the mass and the interpersonal will prove increasingly valuable. Some of the foundation has already been laid in Meyrowitz’s studies of the electronic media, Gary Gumpert’s inter/media analyses, Kenneth Gergen’s postmodernist relational analyses, and James Beniger’s sociology of control. Further work will no doubt bring together cybertheory, information and systems theory, and the recent development of theories of chaos and complexity, together with ecological approaches to communication and media studies. As we move into the next century, the study of communication will no doubt retain its popularity, and its ambiguous, decentered, network-like quality. But it may be that the scholarly establishment, having grown accustomed to the same characteristics in the Internet, will finally come to accept communication on its own terms.
Lance Strate is associate professor and chair of the department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City. He is the co-editor of Communication and Cyberspace: Social Interaction in an Electronic Environment, and the supervisory editor of a book series on media ecology for Hampton Press. He is currently working on a book entitled Understanding Media Ecology.
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