Wilbur Schramm (1907–1987) has been called the founder of the field of communication study (Rogers 1995). More accurately, he is credited with creating the first PhD program in mass communication at the University of Illinois in 1948 (McAnany 1988) and setting the stage for the growth of university communication programs in the USA and abroad.
His original background was in English literature (PhD, University of Iowa, 1932), but he soon branched out into interests in social psychology and sociology at Iowa. During World War II, he served in Washington, DC in the Office of War Information and through contacts with many social scientists developed his vision for a future field in (mass) communication. He returned to Iowa in 1943, became head of the School of Journalism, and began the first independent PhD program in journalism with a focus on social science theory and methods. In 1947 he moved to the University of Illinois and became head of the Institute of Communication Research where the first PhD program in mass communication (not the traditional disciplines of speech or journalism) began in 1948. His early books Mass communications (1949) and The process and effects of mass communication (1954) became basic texts for the growing departments of mass communication. He moved to Stanford University in 1957 and became head of another communication research institute. At Stanford he taught a whole generation of PhD students who through research helped to promote his vision of the new field. He retired from Stanford in 1973 and moved to the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. He died in Hawaii in 1987.
In addition to his many books on mass communication, Schramm also wrote about interpersonal or human communication, as he called it with works that eventually influenced speech departments toward a more social scientific than a rhetorical approach. His work in international communication is best remembered in his widely influential Mass media and national development (1964). Development communication remained an interest for Schramm to the end of his life and is perhaps his most lasting legacy in the communication field.
Schramm’s contribution to the general field of communication, and mediated communication in particular, was unique. Many other scholars from a variety of fields during the 1930s and 1940s were beginning to recognize the importance of mass communication. Schramm’s particular contribution was his ability to synthesize and organize a wide variety of research into a coherent whole. More importantly, he identified this research as constituting a new academic field, and he was able to institutionalize the study of mass communication within the US university structure.
As a person of his time, he was influenced by the prevailing social science quantitative approach that looked at the effects of media on people. His Television in the lives of our children (1961) helped set the direction for this kind of research that still prevails in many parts of the world. Among his contributions was the expansion of communication departments (instead of journalism or speech departments), the creation of a social science research tradition that survives today, the beginnings of the public television and radio systems in the USA, significant contributions to educational and instructional technology, early promotion of information theory applications in communication research, and perhaps most importantly the promotion of the development communication field (McAnany 1988; Rogers 1995; Lerner & Nelson 1977).
The work of development communication came from a variety of sources, but Schramm’s UNESCO-sponsored book in 1964 catalyzed efforts to focus on the broadcast media of radio and television for economic and social change. The book used Daniel Lerner’s modernization theory from The passing of traditional society (1958) and Everett Rogers’s diffusion of innovations, as well as the work of other mainly US scholars, to argue for national promotion of mass media for development.
There have been numerous subsequent critiques of the Lerner, Schramm, and Rogers paradigm, but at the time Schramm’s book set in motion the discussion of communication for development. In UNESCO and other United Nations agencies, as well as in bilateral institutions and foundations, the discourse on development promoted numerous field projects. Schramm’s emphasis on research meant that the new field of development communication began to produce a strong database to feed better theory as well as improve application. The field began to expand university programs in the US as well as in many other countries, but there was an eventual reduction in US universities as development communication studies became specialized and migrated to programs of public health, education, nutrition, and agriculture. The other change that took place was that theory outgrew the original dominant paradigm of media effects and modernization and branched into concerns about participation and empowerment.
- Lerner, D., & Nelson, L. (eds.) (1977). Communication research: A half-century appraisal. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
- McAnany, E. (1988). Wilbur Schramm, 1907–1987: Roots of the past, seeds of the present. Journal of Communication, 38, 109–122.
- Rogers, E. (1995). A history of communication study: A biographical approach. New York: Free Press.
- Schramm, W. (1964). Mass media and national development. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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