Applied communication research refers to a type of communication scholarship as well as to a sub-field of communication with which that research is identified. In the more specific sense, applied communication research is communication scholarship that emphasizes the creation of knowledge about communication in specific contexts, applicable to social issues, and often for the solution of societal problems. The research typically is theory driven or has the potential for (re)formation of theory, but theory building is neither the immediate nor the principal purpose of applied communication studies. Rather the hallmark of applied communication scholarship is its social relevance, for it is simultaneously (often primarily) directed by a concern with the usefulness of the research findings for illuminating pressing social issues, for improving practice, or for redressing societal problems. To a lesser extent, applied communication researchers therefore are concerned with the dissemination of that knowledge and its effective application by persons with a stake in the solution to social issues.
In the broader sense, applied communication research references a sub-area of the discipline. Applied communication scholarship has contributed to, and been nurtured by, the creation of formal structures in the field of communication that foster research which explores and enhances the relationship between communication theory and practice in applied contexts. The structures include divisions within professional associations and awards for scholarship; a dedicated journal and special issues of others; conferences and proceedings; edited volumes; graduate programs or emphases; curriculum tracks, individual courses, and textbooks; among others. Most prominent in the United States but in evidence worldwide, these structures have served to define applied communication as a sub-field of communication. That sub-field, in turn, has been an umbrella for many professional agendas and research foci.
Applied Communication Research as Scholarship: Emphases and Trends
Article II of the Constitution of the National Communication Association, the largest communication association in the United States, proclaims: “The purpose of this Association shall be to promote criticism, research, teaching, and application of the artistic, humanistic, and scientific principles of communication” (emphases added). Despite the fact that research and application are inherent in the NCA’s mission, applied communication researchers have found it necessary to address issues that are crucial for any nascent field of study: finding its identity, contesting foci, debating an agenda, elaborating methods, and so forth.
While Eadie’s (1982) “case for applied communication research” was significant for justifying applied communication as a field of scholarship, the meaning of applied communication research has been contested since then. Disputes surrounding the legitimacy of applied research as scholarship, the problematic dichotomy between “basic” and “applied” research, whether there should be an agenda and boundaries (Eadie 1994; O’Hair 2000), and the relationship between theory and practice have arisen and abated (see reviews in Seibold 1995; 2000). On the last point, most applied communication researchers acknowledge the recursivity of theory and practice, but do not agree on the extent to which theory and practice are equal aspects of applied communication research nor the extent to which they can/must be mutual informing and reforming (Seibold 2005). Applied communication researchers also differ on where to enter the circle for analytic or ameliorative purposes and how to insure both are not lost in that process, including how to preserve scholarship in the process of service. An extension of that realization has been debate surrounding the depth of engagement desirable in applied communication research, and recognition of researchers’ potential to “make a difference” in the amelioration of the problems others live and they research. For some this is an ethical imperative (Conquergood 1995; Frey 1998) – “we are part of the problem or part of the solution” (Frey et al. 1996) – although there have been rejoinders (Seibold 2000; Wood 2000).
There also are discernible trends in applied communication research. First, the range of research methods has broadened to include quantitative, qualitative, ethnographic, archival, experimental, and rhetorical methods. Second, as an extension of the field of communication, applied communication research reflects its disparate nature and emergent character. The evolving nature of the field has been mirrored in the evolution of the contents and contexts of applied communication research. Cursory examination of articles published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research (JACR) since 1990 reflects the scholarly foci of all divisions in the National Communication Association, the journal’s sponsoring organization, as well as the types of scholarship produced by many of the sections and interest groups of that broad-based communication association. Since the field is in flux, it is inevitable that the foci and methods of applied communication research will change too.
Third, applied communication scholarship speaks specifically to more specific problems than ever before. Applied communication researchers have studied a wide range of social problems: child abuse, domestic violence, sexual harassment, smoking cessation, skin cancer prevention, employee participation, organ donation, hospice care, intergroup conflict, delivery of health-care and social services, ageism, gender equality, children’s self-efficacy, exposing negative campaigning, and anti-gang advertisements, to name a few of just research projects reported in JACR. The expanding scope of applied communication research has been the result of many factors, including correlative changes in the field as a whole, the sheer increased number of scholars doing applied communication research and their depth of engagement with social issues increasingly regarded by citizens and nonacademics as problems, and more limited and focused projects in specific contexts.
Fourth, not enough applied research speaks broadly to a range of social problems. This may be a consequence of a concern with describing, critiquing, and reforming practice over building theory. Few general communication-related theories have been available for application to a range of problems. The emphasis on case analyses has resulted in rich but less general findings, and the relatively few large-scale, grant-supported projects in the area leaves applied communication research quite focused on specific contexts and pressing issues.
Applied Communication Research as a Sub-Field: Institutionalization
Cissna et al. (in press) locate the genesis of applied communication research in the “speech” tradition of communication. They identify four factors contributing to the development of the applied communication subfield: (1) American communication scholars’ struggle for disciplinary identity dating to 1914 when 17 Midwestern US teachers of speech separated from the National Council of Teachers of English to pursue the theory and practice of their pedagogical commitment; (2) the drive over the next 60 years among members of what is now the National Communication Association (NCA) to build research-based knowledge of communication; (3) in addition to generating theoretical findings of importance to other scholars, the desire to create knowledge that contributes to the solution to social problems – especially stimulated by societal tumult in 1960s America; and (4) commitment to insuring that stakeholders are aware of and can utilize communication scholarship. The “Disciplinary Roots and Importance of Communication Research” section of the NCA website reflects the last two impulses: “The discipline of communication – grounded in a rich and ever-expanding intellectual tradition, generating a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary research, and engaged with major industries – is dedicated to addressing critical social needs and improving lives through basic and applied research” (emphases added).
As Cissna et al. (in press) chronicle, the institutionalization of applied communication research in America occurred through a number of concurrent applied projects in the 1970s. Annual publication of a compendium of abstracts of organizational communication articles, while not necessarily focused on social problems, highlighted field studies that also were perceived as more “applied” than dominant experimental laboratory investigations. The development of the International Communication Association audit project reflected the close cooperation of academics and practitioners in that association’s Organizational Communication Division, the only such unit in a major academic communication society. By 1977 the Speech Communication Association (SCA) – changed to the National Communication Association in 1997 – had created an Applied Communication Section, the first of its kind. A home for nonacademic members of SCA, academics interested in consulting, and scholars conducting applied research, APCOM sponsored research panels at annual meetings, supported a Section newsletter, and provided opportunities for its nearly 500 members and potential members to interact. The mission statement of the Section emphasized “discussion, study, and analysis of application of communication principles to communication problems” in a variety of organizational contexts. Regional communication associations affiliated with SCA soon sponsored their own applied communication divisions or created homes for applied research within other units, and in 1995 APCOM became a formal Division in SCA (see Cissna et al., in press).
Applied communication research was further institutionalized through the creation of another formal structure in the 1970s – a journal devoted entirely to scholarship on applied communication and the first scholarly venue in the field of communication with “applied” in its title. The first issue of the Journal of Applied Communications Research appeared in 1973. It was published as a private enterprise by academics Mark Hickson and Don Stacks, in part as an outlet for context-specific, participant observation, ethnographic and applied research that they found missing from sponsored journals. The founders sought articles that analyzed data collected in contexts outside university labs, and that dealt with important social issues. Articles in the first several issues included research on presidential communication, documentary broadcasting, advertising and marketing, marital conflict, communication among the Choctaw Indians of America, interactions involved in childrearing, and an editor’s essay (Hickson 1973).
The Journal of Applied Communications Research was acquired by the University of South Florida in 1981 under the editorship of Communication faculty, and its title was modified slightly to the current Journal of Applied Communication Research (JACR). The focus of the JACR also expanded to “questions and problems regarding pragmatic social phenomena addressed through the analysis of human communication” with published articles not constrained to particular methods, contexts, or epistemology (Cissna 1982). The Speech Communication Association assumed publication of JACR in 1990, under the editorship of Bill Eadie. Eadie sought to publish research that explored specific communication problems or situations (or whose results were immediately applicable to them), that provided important information about the problem or situation, and that was securely based in theory but whose immediate purpose was not theory building. Over the years, articles have appeared representing all areas of the field: intergenerational, political, instructional, intercultural, organizational, interpersonal, and mass communication among many others. JACR increasingly has published studies of new communication technologies, intergroup communication, gender communication, legal communication, social justice, environmental and risk communication, gerontological and health communication, crisis communication, and family communication at the same time as the field of communication (including the units in its scholarly societies) has expanded to include formal focus on these areas. A recent issue, for example, included studies of maternity leave policies and practices in US organizations, how parents who have experienced the death of a child communicate with persons in their social network, and the socialization of emotion management among municipal firefighters. Recent editors of JACR have developed conventions to bridge the findings reported in each article to practice (e.g., portions of the Discussion section devoted to application of the results).
Other structures have evolved over the past two decades that have further institutionalized applied communication research: journal special issues devoted to applied communication research (O’Hair 2000; Petronio 1999); major conferences on conceptions of and the future of the area, as well as ensuing publications (e.g., Cissna 1995); inauguration of the NCA Applied Communication Division’s annual award for outstanding article and creation of the association-wide Gerald M. Phillips Award for Distinguished Applied Communication Scholarship to honor a body of applied communication research; development of graduate programs that emphasize applied communication scholarship; and applied communication courses and textbooks (Cragan & Shields 1996).
Researchers steeped in a journalism tradition would not find “applied communication research” to be historically problematic or salient for their identity. The “applied” character of their work has been presumed. This also appears to be true, internationally. Examination of the International Federation of Communication Associations, Federation of Communication Societies, Council of Communication Associations, and numerous regional and national communication association websites around the world (mission statements, constitution, divisions, task forces) reveals scant reference to “applied communication research.” Current and former officers of several of international societies interviewed by the author expressed uncertainty about the meaning of applied communication research. As one officer indicated: “It is not a term we use a lot. A lot of research reported at our conferences is inspired by a desire to make practice better and so is justified in terms of its potential or actual applications . . . We do not have a section called applied (communication) research. We tend to organize our activities, especially at conferences, around themes.”
Nor do journals sponsored by these organizations engage in debates or offer commentaries explicitly related to applied communication research. For example, over the past 10 years the Asian Journal of Communication and the Keio Review had no forums or reviews separately dedicated to applied communication research. The editor of a prominent European communication journal indicated, “some authors may make reference to applied communication, but most of those are from things done in the U.S.” There are a few exceptions internationally, instances where applied communication or applied communication research is referenced explicitly. The mission statement of the International Association for Media and Communication Research includes the following: “We welcome both theoretical and applied research, as well as research conducted at both micro and macro levels of analysis” (www.iamcr.org/content/view/83/204/). Reference to “applied communication” in the “Identity of the DG PuK” section of the German Communication Association (DG PuK) website (www.dgpuk.de/english/ identity.htm) alludes to applied research methods and contexts as well as their relationship to basic research. Furthermore, some international universities have applied communication departments and offer applied communication degrees. Reference to applied communication in these international associations, departments, and degree programs is unusual. Although applied communication research appears to be integral to international communication scholarship, the term seems not to have entered the lexicon outside American scholarship and scholarly institutions.
- Cissna, K. N. (1982). Editor’s note: What is applied communication research? Journal of Applied Communication Research, 10, i–iii.
- K. N. (ed.) (1995). Applied communication in the twenty-first century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Cissna, K. N., Eadie, W. F., & Hickson, M. (in press). The development of applied communication research. In L. R. Frey & K. N. Cissna (eds.), Handbook of applied communication. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Conquergood, D. (1995). Between rigor and relevance: Rethinking applied communication. In K. N. Cissna (ed.), Applied communication in the twenty-first century. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 79 – 96.
- Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D. C. (1996). Symbolic theories in applied communication research: Bormann, Burke and Fisher. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.
- Eadie, W. F. (1982). The case for applied communication research. Spectra, 18(3), 1–2.
- Eadie, W. F. (1994). On having an agenda. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 22, 81– 85.
- Frey, L. R. (1998). Communication and social justice research: Truth justice, and the applied communication way. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 26, 155 –164.
- Frey, L. R., Pearce, W. B., Artz, L. Pollock, M. A., & Murphy, B. A. O. (1996). Looking for justice in all the wrong places: On a communication approach to social justice. Communication Studies, 47, 100 –127.
- Hickson, M. (1973). Applied communications research: A beginning point for social relevance. Journal of Applied Communications Research, 1, 1–15.
- O’Hair, D. (ed.) (2000). Defining applied communication scholarship. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 28, 164 –191.
- Petronio, S. (ed.) (1999). Translating scholarship into practice. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 27, 87–173.
- Seibold, D. R. (1995). Theoria and praxis: Means and ends in applied communication research. In K. Cissna (ed.), Applied communication in the twenty-first century. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 23 –38.
- Seibold, D. R. (2000). Applied communication scholarship: Less a matter of boundaries than of emphases. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 28, 183 –187.
- Seibold, D. R. (2005). Bridging theory and practice in organizational communication. In J. L. Simpson & P. Shockley-Zalabak (eds.), Engaging communication, transforming organizations: Scholarship of engagement in action. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, pp. 13 – 44.
- Wood, J. (2000). Applied communication research: Unbounded for good reason. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 28, 188 –191.