From ontology to pragmatism

I apologize if posting nothing but weekly reading responses to academic articles in the communication field gets boring, but it’s a direct result of my not really having much time to do other things. This week, we move on to the history of the field of communication, which developed as its own field mostly after WWII. For some reason, I struggled with writing this one more than I did the first two. Maybe that comes from trying to summarize and analyze 100 pages of dense history in less than three pages.

Delia, J.G. (1987). Communication research: A history. In C. Berger & S. Chafee (Eds.), Handbook of communication science (pp. 20–98). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Peters, J. D. (1999). Introduction: The problem of communication. In Speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication (pp. 1–31). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Delia (1987) and Peters (1999) both, nominally, have the history of communication (and I intentionally use Peters’s singular formulation of the word) as their subject, but their titles alone hint at their differences in approach. Delia looks at the history of communication as a field of academic research, seemingly slogging out from the trenches of the various fields out of which he contemporary communication research has grown—sociology, social psychology, political science, and even literature (p.26)—and tracing how the various disciplinary concerns of these approaches to a similar subject of research led to the creation of a new, and in his view poorly-defined discipline of communication research which still struggles to define what constitutes its boundaries. Peters swoops in from a much more ontological perch—trying to come to a definition of his own and struggling with the concept of communication before narrowing in to discuss the development of its various constituent and precursor disciplines.

Delia’s earth-bound, pragmatist, approach has helped me come to terms with the definitional boundaries of the field of communication. I had always been a bit bewildered at how many seemingly different approaches various institutions take to what they each call communication. As an undergraduate, I was in proximity to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, which skews toward the study of political communications. There are schools that seem to equate communications with semiotics. Some are practically schools of journalism. Delia argues that communication as a discipline arose out of the confluence of the rise of mass communication technologies in the 20th Century, the work of philosophers such as Dewey, propaganda theorists and public opinion analysts such as Lippmann, and the Chicago school of sociological research, which emphasized scientific methods. Delia cites Lazarsfeld as a crucial player in uniting the various strands of communication research in the 1940s (p. 53).

In the post WWII-period, the term “communications” first appeared as a subject of research, and through the 1950s and ’60s, the social science approach to communication pushed humanistic and qualitative approaches out of the mainstream. Delia argues that the incorporation of communications research into journalism schools and speech programs further separated mass communication research from interpersonal communications in the academy. He also believes that this has been limiting since journalism and speech, while intimately connected to communications research, are not where the study came from originally (p. 86). At any rate, it explains my perception of the fragmentation of schools of “communication,” but also continues (perhaps in a beneficial way) my perplexity at the boundaries between communications and media studies. It also links well with the interdisciplinarity of information science described in Rayward (1996) It is also interesting to note that Delia attributes journalism schools’ eagerness to absorb communications studies to the desire for more academic seriousness in these schools that often still command less respect than other more explicitly research-based disciplines.

Though Peters (1999) is willing to discuss communications as far back as cavemen, he only pins the beginnings a few years earlier than Delia does. He also agrees with Delia that the term suffers from confusion, though consistent with his own approach, he defines it as “conceptual confusion” rather than Delia’s disciplinary mixing: “’communication’ in much contemporary discourse exists as a sort of ill formed, undifferentiated conceptual germ plasm,” Peters writes (p. 6). Peters’s account of the history of communication studies takes in more theorists and philosophers than social scientists. Lippmann is here as in Delia, but so is Wittgenstein, so is Heidegger, so is Dewey—and so are Kafka, Beckett and Eliot. Peters is less concerned with approaches to a field than with “visions” of communication. He does however agree that the visions and the academic incarnations of those visions are fragmented, and in his view the best way to tackle the study of communications is to find a path somewhere between what he calls “the dream of communication” and a more pragmatic approach that admits that despite the failings of communication, people must find a way to go on with their business.


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