Steven H. Chaffee (1935 –2001) was an internationally recognized mass communication scholar who had a crucial role in developing and shaping the field of communication during the last third of the twentieth century. He was born in Los Angeles on August 21, 1935. He received a BA in history (with distinction) from the University of Redlands in 1957, and an MA in journalism from UCLA in 1962. In 1965 he completed a PhD in communication at Stanford where he studied with Wilbur Schramm and Richard Carter, who supervised his dissertation. He served in the US Navy as a public information officer (1958 –1961) and worked as news editor and reporter for various Los Angeles newspapers (1961–1962).
Chaffee began his teaching career in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1965. He established during his 16 years there a prolific research record: eight books and monographs, and 50 journal articles and book chapters. Much of his research was conducted in collaboration with Jack McLeod and graduate students in the Mass Communications Research Center where the innovative ideas for co-orientation and family communication pattern concepts were developed (McLeod & Chaffee 1972; Chaffee et al. 1973).
His summary of the scientific evidence for a connection between televised violence and adolescent aggressiveness for the US Surgeon General’s Committee on Television and Social Behavior in 1972 gave impetus to subsequent research on effects of media violence. His editing of Political communication: Issues and strategies for research (1975) can be given primary credit for founding the field of political communication. Chaffee served on a dozen key AEJMC and ICA committees during this early period and was elected president of ICA for 1980 –1981. He was awarded a prestigious Vilas Professorship in 1974 and served as director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 1980 –1981.
In 1981, Chaffee returned to Stanford’s communication department as professor and director of the Institute for Communication Research founded by Wilbur Schramm. He was named Janet Peck Professor of International Communication in 1987. His research productivity continued unabated with seven books and 42 journal articles and book chapters over the last 19 years. Most notable are three very different works: empirical research on measuring attention to media content (Chaffee & Schleuder 1986), the co-edited Handbook of communication science (1987), and the helpful monograph on concept explication (1991). During the Stanford years he received many awards: ICA Fellow, 1983; the Nelson Award for career contributions to education for journalism and mass communication from Wisconsin, 1990; the Fisher Mentorship Award for service to his students and communication research from ICA, 1992; and the AEJMC Presidential Award for his dedication and service, 1996. He was editor of Communication Research (1983 –1986) and served on the editorial boards of several other journals.
Chaffee left Stanford to accept the Arthur N. Rupe Endowed Chair in the department of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1999. He died unexpectedly from a heart problem at the age of 65 on May 15, 2001.
An essential key to understanding Chaffee’s career was his unusually strong commitment to the development of communication as a recognized autonomous scholarly field. From Wilbur Schramm, who stitched together a framework of the field, he learned that much more theorizing and empirical research needed to be done before claims of legitimacy could be made. He was able to see the weaknesses of the mid-twentieth-century models borrowed from other social sciences. The “minimal effects” Columbia model focused narrowly on persuasion in terms of conversion of candidate vote preferences. Selective exposure was almost an iron law leading directly to the flawed concept of “reinforcement”. Instead, Chaffee focused his early research on knowledge and other cognitive news media effects that were more likely than attitude conversion.
He later challenged Lazarsfeld’s “synthetic competition” between media and personal influences through research showing that the two forms of communication could be mutually facilitating (1982). He was also ahead of his time in questioning the then popular diffusion of information models that assumed knowledge and technology to be of unquestioned value and treated them as fixed quantities “transported” to the “underdeveloped” world. He also attempted to revise political socialization models that envisioned “transmission” of knowledge and values “functional to the ongoing system” from parent to child through simple modeling. A much more valid and sophisticated learning model can be found in Chaffee’s late work evaluating the “Kids Voting” school civic intervention program (McDevitt & Chaffee 2000).
Chaffee understood that progress in developing an autonomous field would depend on constructing a set of well-explicated communication concepts. Concept explication became a distinctive feature of the methods courses and group projects at Wisconsin. He insisted that the seemingly simple concept of “media use” was multidimensional and demanding of careful concept explication. Time spent with TV, the sole measure used by many social scientists, he showed, was totally inadequate. Exposure and attention to types of content within a medium were more important.
His devotion to hands-on teaching of graduate students beyond classroom hours was testimony to his strong commitment to the communication field. He mentored his junior colleagues toward tenure by providing encouragement and extensive feedback on their research. He believed in the benefits of the expression of diverse viewpoints, an idea empirically supported by his early political socialization work where families with pluralistic communication patterns facilitated adolescent learning.
Steven Chaffee was a leader among a handful of second generation “young Turks” who reinvigorated the mass communication field in the 1960 –1980. Chaffee was justifiably proud of the achievement of his cohort, but in historical essays on Schramm, Bleyer, Nafziger, and others he acknowledged their debt to the “founding fathers.” He was unsatisfied with past achievements and in a final essay on the future of political communication research (2001), he stressed the need to refocus research: “While questions of political content and direction will always be important, the direction in which the most inventive efforts are needed have to do more with the politics of communication than with the communication of politics.”
- Berger, C., & Chaffee, S. H. (eds.) (1987). Handbook of communication science. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Chaffee, S. H. (1972). Television and adolescent aggressiveness. In G. Comstock & E. Rubinstein (eds.), Television and social behavior, vol. 3. Washington, DC: National Institute of Mental Health, pp. 1–34.
- Chaffee, S. H. (ed.) (1975). Political communication: Issues and strategies for research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Chaffee, S. H. (1982). Mass media and interpersonal channels: Competitive, convergent, or complimentary? In G. Gumpert (ed.), Inter/media: Interpersonal communication in a media world, 2nd edn. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 57–77.
- Chaffee, S. H. (1991). Communication concepts 1. Explication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Chaffee, S. H. (2001). Studying the new communication of politics. Political Communication, 18, 237–244.
- Chaffee, S. H., & Schleuder, J. (1986). Measurement and effects of attention to media news. Human Communication Research, 13, 76 –107.
- Chaffee, S. H., McLeod, J. M., & Wackman, D. (1973). Family communication patterns and adolescent political participation. In J. Dennis (ed.), Socialization to politics: Selected readings. New York: John Wiley, pp. 323 –340.
- McDevitt, M., & Chaffee, S. H. (2000). Closing gaps in political communication and knowledge. Communication Research, 27, 259 –291.
- McLeod, J. M., & Chaffee, S. H. (1972). The construction of social reality. In J. Tedeschi (ed.), The social influence processes. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, pp. 50 – 99.