Communication and media studies matured into an integrated discipline in the years following 1968. Research and education became centralized in independent schools of communication, while at the same time drawing from related disciplines to improve methodology and explore new paradigms.
By the early 1960s, communication studies began to move out of departments of sociology, psychology, political science, and research institutes and to build independent departments. Before that, the leaders in communication research came out of other departments in social science and the humanities, who simply explored communication processes as one approach to answering questions in their own discipline. Having such an academically diverse group of scholars contributed to a richness of early scholarship in the field; however, as many of these scholars then moved away from communication research, the field was left with a wide array of theories and methods that couldn’t independently answer many communication problems.
This “disjointedness” in the field was reflected in Bernard Berelson’s (1959) stinging criticism of communication scholarship in the late 1950s. In what is often referred to as Berelson’s obituary for communication research, he argued that the field was essentially dying, with no new ideas or directions. In 1983, George Gerbner responded to this criticism with a special issue of the Journal of Communication entitled “Ferment in the field.” A series of solicited articles from scholars around the world discussed the new directions, challenges, and opportunities of communication scholarship. Communication research, it appeared, was very much alive.
In the 1980s, traditional departments of speech and schools of journalism in the USA added “Communication” or “Mass Communication” to their names, or simply created independent communication departments. Often these new schools merged the professional fields of print, broadcast, public relations, advertising, information science, and speech with growing research programs in more broadly defined communication research. Growing recognition of the importance of the media by both industry and the public, as well as increasing respect for the field at the university level led to increased support for new scholarship. By the late 1960s scholars regularly met at national and international conferences and published in a growing number of communication journals. National as well as international communication associations like the International Communication Association (ICA) and the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) all support scholarly research and its dissemination through conventions and journals. In 1970, Ulrich’s international periodicals directory listed fewer than 100 general communication academic and trade journals for the year. By 2004, that number had increased to over 800, with almost 100 of those being refereed. This combination of integrated research and scholarly outlets for sharing findings gave communication scholars the opportunity to merge their diverse ideas and approaches.
However, as communication departments formed separately from the other social science disciplines, their research lost the close connections it had earlier had to other social science fields. In recent years, however, the pendulum has swung back again, and many communication scholars now actively employ a multidisciplinary approach in their work, often in collaboration with colleagues in other social science fields. This combined effort allows scholars from different areas to bring fresh insight and methodology to the work.
As the discipline of communication grew around the world, so too did communication programs. The number of undergraduate and graduate students has grown exponentially in the past 30 years. Undergraduates, often attracted by the growing marketability of a communication degree, have dramatically increased in number. The boom in enrollment calls for bigger faculties, which, in turn, support more graduate students. Many communication programs increasingly demand that incoming faculty hold a PhD in communication as well as have professional experience. Communication departments try to offer both “professional” courses in print, broadcast, public relations, advertising, etc. and theoretical and methodological courses in communication research. This dual role can cause some friction, often referred to as a disagreement between “green-eyeshades” and “chi-squares,” as departments and schools of communication try to offer their students the best of both.
While American and northern European nations have a much longer tradition of communication programs, communication study became more popular in Latin American nations from the late 1960s, and Asian, Middle Eastern, and African countries soon followed. American and European programs continue to offer the majority of graduate programs, but many foreign students complete these programs and then return to teach in their home countries.
Historically, European and Latin American scholars have grounded their work in the critical school, focusing on critical analysis using qualitative data. European scholarship often emphasizes society as a whole, rather than the individual, as the basis of study. This work is often rooted in political or social issues, and the results of research adapted to promote social change, while American scholars have traditionally based their scholarship on empirical studies, using survey analysis and other quantitative data analysis techniques. While these descriptions are generally accurate, there are many well-known scholars from both sides of the Atlantic who break this mold.
Until the 1980s American and European scholarship essentially operated independently. Working from different schools of thought and paradigms, researchers rarely drew from or even read each other’s work. By the 1980s easier travel and more international conferences, journals, and other publications also contributed to increased understanding of international scholarship and blurred the traditional lines between European and American scholarship.
By the 1980s, communication scholars had pretty much abandoned the linear model of communication in favor of more complex models. As a result, the individual or society became the focus of study rather than the source or channel. This shift in focus, which had actually begun in the 1960s, led to a more sociological perspective, which included using a contextual approach, considering the individual rather than the media as the active agent, applying a convergent model of communication, and looking at communication as a process over time.
In the 1960s, researchers began including social context in their theories and empirical analyses. For example, traditional studies of how news organizations operate and the texts they produce shifted to examine how these structures and messages preserved the status quo of power and prevented social change. This contextual approach allowed researchers to look beyond using the media or channel as the variable for their work, and instead to explore the complex impact of communication messages.
As researchers moved away from the linear model of communication, they also turned their attention to what conditions determine when an individual will select information from a source. Individuals do not simply digest every message that crosses their path. Instead, people actively select information that they believe is relevant to them and can be incorporated into their construction of meaning. In addition, this line of research led to the notion of how communication can create shared meaning among groups. In these studies, the person or society is regarded as the activating agent, and researchers began to approach communication as a process rather than as a single event or action that results from the media acting as a delivering agent for the message.
The boom in diversity of communication technologies beginning as early as the 1970s forced scholars to adopt a more convergent model of communication. Not only could researchers no longer realistically determine a single source for a message, but the increasingly interactive nature of new media made it almost absurd to try to find a direct path from sender to receiver. Today’s audience has much more control over which messages they are exposed to, and, through the interactive nature of the Internet, for example, one person can almost simultaneously be both the sender and receiver.
What became increasingly clear through all this research was that communication is a process, not a simple direct effect. The process of communication is often very complex, with many independent variables all affecting its outcome. In addition, this process of communication rarely happens quickly, but more often develops gradually over time. Scholars now regularly explore the communication process over time, in addition to trying to discover how sequences of events affects the process.
Although more American scholars now take a critical approach to communication studies, much of communication scholarship today remains empirical, quantitative, and focused on the effects of communication. Methodological advances in quantitative data analysis through the use of computers have further supported and enhanced this research. By 1970, most major academic institutions had computers and by the 1980s most had moved to desktop computing. The microprocessor gave researchers the statistical packages to complete complex analyses in minutes rather than months or years. Because of this, researchers can now use multivariate statistical techniques to quantitatively analyze complex communication processes with numerous independent and dependent variables all in interaction.
Developing hand in hand with more complex statistical analysis were advances in both quantitative and qualitative methodology. Content analyses now make use of more complex coding schemes, which often allow researchers to put the content in context. For example, researchers using content analyses now often study genres such as television news, sitcoms, popular music, etc. instead of simply counting headlines, instances of terminology in texts, or acts of violence. These genres are then analyzed in context. In addition, many scholars have adopted a longitudinal approach to their work and moved away from the quicker, lab-based experiments.
As scholars began studying communication processes in context, they expanded their methods beyond statistical analysis of quantitative data and found new ways of producing and analyzing qualitative data. Particularly since the 1990s, communication researchers have also improved the methodologies associated with case studies, interviews, focus groups, and various observational methods. Combining the traditional American empirical approach with the predominately European qualitative analytical approach in the 1990s, researchers developed an empirical qualitative approach. This triangulation in approach gave a more complete picture of the area being studied and has led to substantial theory-building.
Fields of Interest
The range of communication research is as rich, diverse, and complex as the communication processes under study. Rarely does an area of study remain in isolation; but instead researchers pull from other areas of communication and other disciplines. For example, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to draw a dividing line between the studies of new media, public policy, and media effects. However, since the 1970s communication scholars have by and large turned their attention to critical analysis, media effects, cultural studies, semiotics and meaning, agenda setting, new media, history, and law and public policy.
Critical research has gradually expanded in the United States over the past few decades to meet the growing desires of researchers to use their scholarship to promote change. European scholars with a long tradition of critical analysis continued to apply critical scholarship to politics and a growing number of other areas. American scholars applied critical research to the areas of politics, minorities, women, children, and new technology.
Critical research will continue to be important as the world uses and develops new technologies. These technologies place communication and information in positions of ever growing influence in a nation’s economic vitality. The same technologies also affect a country’s ability to control and maintain power. Communication scholars across the world recognize the potential importance of critical communication research in balancing world power.
As the expansion and development of new media and deregulation of existing media allowed increased global communication and made it possible to circumvent governmental barriers designed to keep outside messages out, many developing countries feared the influence of western messages bombarding their citizens through the media. They argue that western images, ways of life, and values subvert their traditional cultures which would therefore suffer from being opened up to new media. The result has been much research that is both critical in nature and concerned with global public policy. This body of research expanded after a United Nations resolution called for a “New World Order in Communication” in the mid 1970s, which was followed through with UNESCO’s appointment of an International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, known as the MacBride Commission. The Commission argued that before nations could enter into a truly global dialog, there must be equality in the distribution of global information resources and expertise.
Media effects scholars look beyond the individual level to try to understand how an audience as a whole is affected by a media message. Early media effects research focused on the effects of media violence, particularly in television and film, on children. Through decades of research using diverse methodology, samples, and media genres, scholars found that exposure to violent television and films, video games, and music increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts. Continued exposure to violent content desensitizes the viewer and undermines feelings of sympathy, empathy, or concern for victims. Scholars later applied similar methodology to the areas of pornography and women, children and advertising, and targeted audiences and health campaigns. Other studies of media content and their effects have explored issues such as sensationalism, stereotyping, and antisocial behavior. Communication scholars often classify media effects as either limited effects or powerful effects based on the impact on audiences’ attitudes and behaviors. These effects are mediated in complex ways and depend on audiences’ demographics, social context, values, beliefs, and emotional states.
Another area of media effects scholarship, uses and gratifications theory, posits that audiences actively consume certain media to meet specific needs. Many scholars have explored the relationship between mass media messages and their effect on popular culture. Some argue that mass communication simply reflects the status quo and doesn’t directly affect attitudes and behavior, while others maintain that the messages serve as informal education and persuasion. Much recent research has explored various aspects of media effects using new media. Media effects remains the most popular area of communication research in the United States.
Closely related to critical analysis and media effects is the area of cultural studies. As a result of the political turmoil in the 1960s, communication scholars began to explore the power of the expanding mass media and its influence on culture and societies. Cultural studies scholars often study issues of empowerment of disadvantaged people in a society (based on race, gender, or social class). To do this, they moved away from the simple study of reproduction of media messages in the individual to a contextual analysis of cultural practice as a struggle for power and identity. They argued that the media were not simply benign, but that the prevailing structure of media organizations and their messages helped secure social control by elites. Researchers in developing countries, in particular, were concerned with the increasing disparity between people in these countries and people in the richer nations that was a result of unequal access to new technology and information.
George Gerbner and his colleagues at the Annenberg School of Communication in the early 1970s introduced the term “cultivation analysis.” They created a model of television’s influence on behavior based on the theory of symbolic interaction. Television, they argued, creates an environment of symbols which “cultivates” an individual perception of reality. These shared symbols, in turn, influence culture at a societal level. Later scholars approached cultural studies with critical research perspectives and explored the process in which a society together creates, modifies, and transforms a shared culture.
Some critical scholars, who focus on the individual as opposed to the media as the acting agent, support an interpretive school where they look at how audience members individually interpret media messages. These scholars began to address questions about how and why people select media messages, how individuals and society create shared meaning, how individuals place new information into their realm of meaning, and how messages spread through channels and over time. Much of this research is based in theories of semiotics and cultural studies.
Early research into why people select media messages began with agenda-setting theory. In this body of research, scholars attempted to describe and define how the media selects what information and issues are important and, through this selection, controls what information the audience receives. McCombs’ and Shaw’s early work with presidential campaigns in 1968, 1972, and 1976 formed the foundation for later work that developed the ideas of priming and framing. Other attempts to understand media usage developed the ideas of uses and gratifications and dependency theory, which argued that people actively select media based on their own needs.
The study of new media began with what is often called the communication revolution, when audiences could control the flow of information through new interactive technology. The growing interactive nature of most media was the final blow to the linear model of communication and forced scholars to consider more convergent models of communication. Recent research has explored how individuals utilize new media, how they interpret and create meaning out of the messages they send and receive, how new media can limit or expand the information gap and knowledge gap, and how new media can play a role in government power.
Historians are now looking at long-run effects of media technology, control of the media, and the social effects of news, advertising, public relations, entertainment, and minority-controlled media. Media historians have expanded their focus from basic biographies and documentaries of particular media forms to more analytical discussions of how particular forms of media, groups of people, or social environments supported or forced change. In particular, media historians since the 1990s have compiled a great deal of work on the contributions of women and minorities in the media.
Legal scholarship in communication, traditionally related to First Amendment issues, has greatly expanded in scope in recent years. New communication technologies, together with the continuing deregulation of the media industry, have raised a plethora of new concerns and issues related to public policy. Media conglomerates can now legally own and operate cable, Internet, and telephone services as well as hold publishing interests. In fact, the industry is in such flux with the development of new technology that many would argue public policy often lags years behind.
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