There is general agreement that the communication discipline, as we know it today, began in the USA. There is, however, a degree of disagreement as to how to trace the origins of the discipline. Arguably, the organizational roots of the communication discipline could be divided into two traditions: the “speech” tradition and the “journalism” tradition. Both traditions can be linked to the development of academic departments in US universities as they began to turn away from a single approach to higher education and to diversify and specialize. The development of land-grant public institutions after 1862 opened up higher education to students from a much wider range of economic backgrounds than before. This, along with a commitment to serve agricultural and technological interests, created a demand for specialized areas of study and thus spurred the creation of academic departments.
The Academic Field in The USA
Development of Speech and Journalism
The University of Maryland, College Park claims to have established the first department to teach speech, in 1900, while the University of Missouri, Columbia, claims to have created the first School of Journalism, in 1908. Classes in speech and journalism had been taught prior to the establishment of departments, however.
Speech had been a part of the US university curriculum since Harvard University was founded in 1636 (Friedrich 1985). Speech could trace its lineage back to ancient writings on the subject of rhetoric, and had a claim as a branch of philosophy. In practice, however, speech and debate skills were often developed as an integral part of the university experience, though not always through formal coursework. Debating societies were the norm in US universities, and both students and faculty took part in arguing the pressing policy issues of the day. In fact, Harvard’s first president also served as its debate coach. Principles of rhetoric, defined variously as the study of how humans influence one another or the style that speakers and writers use to move audiences, were taught under the rubrics of philosophy and literature.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, journalism was considered a trade and taught through apprenticeship to a printer, who typically published newspapers and magazines as a means of supporting the printing business. With the beginning of landgrant universities, however, trades that had been taught through apprenticeship (e.g., engineering) began to be professionalized and taught at universities. There were somewhat different approaches to how journalism was taught. One early course was offered in 1891 at the University of Kansas by a professor in the history and sociology department. Other coursework was offered as part of writing programs in English departments. The development of journalism programs was assisted immeasurably by newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who donated money to Columbia University to establish a journalism school and prizes for excellence in journalism and the arts which came to be known as the Pulitzer Prize. Debate continued among working journalists, however, as to whether a formal journalism education was superior to intelligence, a well-rounded education, and skill in writing regardless of how it had been acquired, as the best qualification for the work of a journalist.
The early years of the twentieth century also saw the formation of a number of scholarly societies serving the needs of faculty and students of the new academic departments. The American Association of Teachers of Journalism, the forerunner of today’s Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), was founded in 1912. In 1913, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) was formed, which included an interest group for speech teachers. Almost immediately, the speech members of NCTE began to debate whether they, too, should form a separate organization. A large majority of speech teachers polled between the 1913 and 1914 annual meetings of NCTE favored having some sort of organizational identity, but the teachers were about evenly split on the question of forming a separate organization or working within the structure of NCTE. After the poll results were announced at the 1914 NCTE meeting, a group of 17 individuals held a rump meeting and decided unilaterally to form a separate organization. The name given to the new organization was the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking. This title was probably chosen to distinguish the group from professional teachers of elocution, who suffered from an unsavory public image (George Bernard Shaw had satirized the societal role of private elocution teachers in his 1912 play, Pygmalion). Four name changes later, this organization became known as the National Communication Association (NCA) in 1997.
Communication Research in Sociology
Journalism and speech faculty focused on improving instruction and establishing curricula in their early disciplinary efforts. Scholarship was seen more as a necessity for status in the academy than as serious investigation of new ideas about one’s area of study (e.g., Winans 1915). The memberships of the new organizations were much more interested in teaching and curricular issues than they were in generating new knowledge.
Meanwhile, scholarship on communication was developing in other fields of study (Delia 1987; Rogers 1994). Principal among these was sociology, where the program at the University of Chicago predominated. The University of Chicago had been established in 1892, in the middle of a massive era of immigration from Europe. New immigrants had settled in Chicago in large numbers, drawn by the massive industrial and agricultural processing plants located there. The immigrants settled in slums on the city’s south side, and numerous social problems emerged from such a concentration of poverty. The first president of the university decided to use the campus location as an impetus for focusing scholarship on the study of social problems in the immediate vicinity of the campus and proceeded to recruit faculty for such a purpose. One of the faculty members recruited, Albion Small, founded the sociology department and hired a particularly talented group of faculty members. Four of this faculty group stood out: Robert E. Park, Charles Horton Cooley, John Dewey, and George Herbert Mead. Park, a one-time newspaper man, was a prolific doctoral adviser, who worked with his students to develop early theories of mass communication. Cooley was interested in how individual self-concepts arose from their interactions with the groups to which they belonged, as well as how media could work to create community among individuals. Both Park and Cooley studied with Dewey at the University of Michigan before they all became a part of the University of Chicago faculty. Dewey and Mead were philosophers and close friends. Both were pragmatists – the philosophy that was dominant in US higher education at that time – and wrote extensively about the education process. Dewey’s work fitted well with the tone of the leading public-speaking textbooks, and he became popular with speech teachers, particularly for his writing on the process of critical thinking and how groups make decisions. Mead was a brilliant intellectual whose lectures were prized by his students for their many original ideas. Mead’s ideas about how language use shapes both individuals and societies eventually became known as symbolic interactionism and exercised considerable influence over the development of communication theory.
Ideas about communication were often advanced by practical concerns. The rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany brought about interest in the US in propaganda and its uses. It also brought to the US eminent Jewish scholars, such as Paul Lazarsfeld and Kurt Lewin, who pioneered work on media effects and group dynamics, respectively. Political scientist Harold Lasswell developed the first communication model (Who? Says What? To Whom? With What Effect?). These individuals, along with Wilbur Schramm, an English professor who had directed the famed University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, worked on communication problems for the federal government during World War II.
Following World War II, interest in communication burgeoned. Claude Shannon developed a mathematical theory for understanding the transmission of information electronically from one point to another (Shannon & Weaver 1948). Speech and journalism professors, whose scholarship had been focused largely on the development of messages and the content of media, saw an opportunity to model communication in scientific terms. So they took Shannon’s model and began to study the information transmission process in humans, using Carl Hovland’s very successful attitude change experiments which he called the Yale Program in Communication and Attitude Change. The opportunity to do “scientific” research that was conflated with “experimental” research energized many speech and journalism professors, and they began to denigrate the atheoretical content analysis work that had been going on in journalism and the atheoretical rhetorical analysis work that had been going on in speech. A new professional organization, the National Society for the Study of Communication (NSSC), was founded in 1950 to provide a means of pursuing communication research as a social science. By 1968, the NSSC had changed its name to the International Communication Association (ICA).
Communication Becomes the Dominant Term
This interest in communication eventually led to the renaming of the principal journalism and speech scholarly societies. In 1970, the Speech Association of America became the Speech Communication Association. In 1982, the Association for Education in Journalism added “and Mass Communication” to its title.
The 1960s and 1970s were a time of ferment, particularly in the speech field. As social scientists pushed for recognition of “communication” as the dominant term, rhetorical and performance scholars began to reconsider and redefine their theories and methodologies. Given the social justice concerns of the 1960s, it was not surprising that communication scholars wanted to engage in research that addressed social problems and not simply theoretical issues. Eventually, there was what might be called a counter-revolt against a social science paradigm that valorized laboratory experiments over other forms of scholarship. Several previously unused methodologies, such as ethnography, discourse and conversation analysis, and critical /cultural analysis, emerged as significant alternatives to experimental research, and eventually experimentalism waned in popularity. By the early 1980s, a détente of sorts had been reached, and communication study from any viable theoretical and methodological viewpoint became acceptable.
By the 1980s, many academic departments had renamed themselves to include the word “communication” in their title. Common department names were “speech communication” or “journalism and mass communication.” Students who might have hesitated to major in either “speech” or “journalism” found the addition of “communication” to their liking, and enrollments in these programs soared. University faculties found themselves with far more student interest than they could accommodate, and higher standards for entering communication majors were imposed.
The détente led to some confusion as to where communication programs should be placed within the university’s organizational structure. Unless a university was organized around a large college of arts and sciences, neither speech communication nor journalism and mass communication fitted comfortably into units such as colleges of humanities or social sciences. Sometimes, a program would stay with the unit where it had begun its life (e.g., what had been a speech and drama department might continue to reside in a college of fine arts even though the department now included social-scientific communication research). Some journalism programs became freestanding schools, and some universities formed a school or college of communication to house former speech and journalism departments, perhaps including other programs as well. Universities also tried combining former speech and journalism programs into one large department or school. Sometimes, this approach proved successful, but on a number of occasions differences in the cultures of the faculties led to infighting, and the combined units might separate again.
The Academic Field in Canada
The intellectual impetus for the communication discipline in Canada seems to have come from the scholarship of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. These University of Toronto colleagues both focused on the development of technology and the nature and uses of media from a historical and critical perspective. McLuhan, in particular, became widely known in the 1960s and 1970s and was, perhaps, the communication scholar with the greatest degree of popular recognition, to the point of appearing in a cameo role as himself in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall, in 1977.
The Canadian higher education system is organized differently from the US system, and communication programs were slow to take hold as majors leading to a degree. Most of the 51 communication programs leading to bachelor’s degrees in Canadian universities focus on some aspect of media, and many of them have a focus on new media and technology. There are very few programs at Canadian universities that focus on topics under the “speech” tradition in the US. The very small number of Canadian universities that grant a doctoral degree in communication may have hindered the development of communication programs in Canada, as many Canadian communication faculty members probably needed to obtain doctoral degrees from US universities.
Problems of The Field
The US communication discipline has struggled for legitimacy. The Speech Communication Association’s application for membership of the American Council of Learned Societies was rejected more than once before it was finally accepted in 1995. John D. Rockefeller and the Rockefeller Foundation funded early communication research, initially as part of general support for the University of Chicago. Rockefeller money dried up around the time that the communication research of the 1930s and 1940s became associated with the better-known term “social and behavioral sciences.” As the US government began to fund research, through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), communication research was left out unless it could be associated with a discipline such as psychology, history, or philosophy. The National Institutes of Health (NEH) and several private foundations have provided some support for communication research, but the level of support pales by comparison to other disciplines. In 1980, the US Department of Education classified “communication” as a practical discipline which was associated primarily with learning journalism and media production; the National Science Foundation followed suit, leaving communication ineligible for NSF funding. The same classification system considered “speech and rhetorical studies” as a subcategory of English, which meant that data collected on the speech communication field by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) could reside in a “communications, general” category or in “speech and rhetorical studies.”
Scholars from the speech tradition have been unhappy with the “communications” designator, claiming that the added s makes the word refer only to media. The s was removed with some difficulty when the Department of Education’s classification system was revised in 2000, and the communication category was revised to include “communication studies, speech communication, and rhetoric,” as well as “media studies,” which were designated “scholarly” areas of study rather than practical ones. The NSF, however, did not designate communication a scholarly discipline until 2005, in conjunction with the discipline’s first inclusion in the National Research Council’s ranking of scholarly doctoral programs in the US. Unfortunately, despite efforts to the contrary, the “speech and rhetorical studies” category remained under English in the revised classification system.
Still, the continuing popularity of communication programs for US undergraduate students cannot be denied. NCES (2006) data available at the time of writing indicated that there were 955 programs in US universities offering bachelor’s degrees in classifications that fit into its “communication” category. Of those, 690 programs offered degrees in “communication studies, speech communication, and rhetoric,” and 420 programs offered degrees in journalism. These programs produced approximately 71,000 of the 1,400,000 degrees granted in the last year for which data were available. In addition, NCES listed 237 programs offering bachelor’s degrees in “speech and rhetorical studies.” NCES also listed 261 programs offering graduate degrees in some aspect of communication, plus another 63 programs offering graduate degrees in speech and rhetorical studies. The National Communication Association (2006) estimated that approximately 132 doctoral programs in some aspect of communication were found in US universities. More US students seem to be studying in programs that had evolved from the “speech” tradition than in programs that had evolved from the “journalism” tradition.
Similar ratios existed for membership and participation in the scholarly societies serving the communication discipline. The National Communication Association (NCA), the primary society evolving from the “speech” tradition, had approximately 7,500 members and attracted over 5,000 of its members to its annual meeting at the time of writing. The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), the primary society evolving from the “journalism” tradition, had approximately 3,500 members and attracted over 2,000 of them to its annual meeting. The International Communication Association (ICA), whose membership overlaps with both NCA and AEJMC as well as attracting a significant number of members from outside the US, had a membership of approximately 3,500 and attracted over 2,000 to its annual meeting. There were also four regional communication associations whose members looked primarily to the NCA as their national organization, as well as a number of specialized societies serving various smaller constituencies within the discipline.
- Delia, J. G. (1987). Communication research: A history. In C. R. Berger & S. H. Chaffee (eds.), Handbook of communication science. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, pp. 20 – 98.
- Friedrich, G. W. (1985). Speech communication education in American colleges and universities. In T. W. Benson (ed.), Speech communication in the twentieth century. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 235 – 252.
- Rogers, E. M. (1994). A history of communication study: A biographical approach. New York: Free Press.
- Shannon, C. E., & Weaver, W. (1948). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Winans, J. A. (1915). The need for research. Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking, 1, 17–23.