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Popular communication is an interdisciplinary, multi-theoretical, multi-methodological philosophy of media and audiences. It has evolved as a nonhierarchical perspective that emphasizes the value of objects, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs associated with everyday life. Gunn and Brummett (2004, 705) ask provocative questions about popular communication that capture the difficulty of defining the term: “Whose child is it, and who invented it? What sort of side dish did it contribute to the feast?” In many ways, the term defies definition because of the resistance to categorization inherent in a postmodern vision, which values all products of human endeavor. Popular communication research is often critical of systems of power. A philosophy behind popular communication research is a “skepticism toward dominant institutions (including the university), ideologies, and social relations and an implicit commitment to a more democratic, egalitarian, and humane social order” (McChesney 1994, 340).
It is the ideology inherent in mass communicated messages that is of the utmost importance to popular communication scholars. Through three related processes, “domination, contradiction, and struggle,” the global arena of popular communication research focuses on the role of media and the construction of meaning in capitalist and postcapitalist society (Lembo 1986, 390). Mosco (1983, 244–245) elaborates: “research offers an alternative way of seeing the place of communications in society by focusing on the transformation of social relations . . . [however] the critical view does not end with a description or even an explanation of existing reality, but is guided by an explicit value: to free people for self-determination. As such the growing area of popular communication research reflects the ideological struggle over who does and will control media and information in global society. The emphasis is on media power and knowledge.”
Hence, one approach reveals the power of dominant institutions, such as the mass media, through examination of the messages and their potential impact on audiences. Another key interest of the field is the way(s) people make meaning from the media (visual and verbal) texts they consume. This view holds that the mass media are ideological tools with which dominant society maintains power and controls resources by presenting assumed mainstream attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Meaning is thereby both an “agency of influence” and “the goal of influence” (Gunn & Brummett 2004, 710).
Much popular communication content is produced in the United States (films, television programs, recorded music). The reach and effects, however, are global. Many nations are, however, developing media production facilities. There is a sizable film industry in India, for example. In addition to traditional means of production, the Internet and the world wide web extend the reach of content producers and providers, whereas distribution might have been too expensive or too regulated in the past. Reclamation of indigenous culture in postcolonial nations such as Africa, India, Bhutan, and the Cook Islands, and producing content by and for local people, is a positive aspect of new media technologies.
Articles in this section encompass the three Cs of popular communication research: (1) corporations are explored, as well as the relationship between popular culture and media and media-related industries (television, music, Internet, consumer culture, tourism); (2) content includes examinations of specific genres and forms, such as anime, drama, fashion, news, popular culture, reality TV, situation comedies, sports as popular communication, video games, and zines; and (3) consumers are discussed in articles such as those about girl culture, celebrities, fans, subaltern communities, youth, and social class. In addition, more theoretical articles include reification, ritual, mythology, symbolic annihilation, politics, and the developing area of media ecology.
In order to understand what popular communication is and does, it is necessary to consider how the term evolved and the context within which it developed. Popular communication as a component of everyday life is an area of concern and interest to scholars. Therefore, the following sections first define the terms “communication” and “popular,” demonstrate how and where these ideas came together, and discuss the history of popular communication as a philosophy and field of study. This is followed by a brief look at typical theories and methodologies, illustrated by examples of research. This article concludes by speaking to the future of the field.
What Is “Popular”?
It was in relation to folk culture and folklore that widely understood, accepted, and enjoyed (as in “the people”) culture became thought of as culture of the masses, a vast, undifferentiated body of people with common tastes. Traditionally, the term “popular” was used to express favorability, high regard, and appreciation by the general public (as opposed to small, elite segments). Popular “culture” is culture of the people by the people and for the people. At one time popular culture was thought of as the product of something made by hand, but it can also mean widespread fame, popularity, and commercialism, as well as the idea of a shared culture. Sometimes viewed as the opposite of high cultural art forms (ballet, classical music, and opera), popular culture is a shared set of practices as well as the product of those interactions. It includes television programs, comic books, popular music (jazz, hip hop, rock), fashion magazines, sports, advertising, food ways, festivals, and rituals. Whereas the high/low culture distinction views culture hierarchically, the “pop comm” approach is a linear, non-evaluative perspective. Thus, the idea of “mass culture” is intimately connected with valuations of popular culture.
Mass society theory views audiences as essentially passive, easily entertained, malleable sops for consumerism and advertising, predetermined to have bad taste, and devoted to repetitive formulaic forms of culture. Mass society theory presents a view of citizens as audiences for mass media products that are a homogeneous grouping of people, whose only connections to one another are through that which they find in common, that which is popular. Related to this is a belief in the decline of what is regarded as authentic, traditional, more personal forms of relating.
The theory of mass audiences can be traced to the early development of American consumer society and mass production around the turn of the twentieth century through the 1920s and 1930s, with the rise of the market economy. While industrialization, urbanization, and modernization originated in Europe, mass production and selling imperatives exploded in the US. What was identified as popular was not necessarily identified as such by the people it appealed to, but rather by those who produced it. In advanced capitalist societies, the popular is typically tied to the commercial and, given that, the term generally means the culture of ordinary people, i.e., working class, nonelite members of society, or that which is left over after what is elite is defined – hence the hierarchical, elitist view of the popular as inferior.
Cultural theorist Raymond Williams (1976, 199) points out that two characteristics identified early popular culture products – “inferior kinds of work” (popular press versus literature) and “work deliberately setting out to win favor” (pop celebrity or popular journalism versus serious, democratic work). Furthermore, Williams (1976, 90–91) articulates four meanings for the word “popular” in relation to culture and communication. (1) “A pejorative meaning referring to objects or practices deemed lesser than or inferior to elite culture,” i.e., appeal to a mass audience; for example, popular Hollywood movies versus independently produced films; Telenovelas versus BBC or PBS programs. (2) “Objects or practices well-liked by many people,” i.e., not the small groups of elite or wealthy. Examples include rock and country music concerts versus attending the ballet or opera. (3) “Work designed with the intention of appealing to a great number of people,” i.e., commercial culture meant to be widely consumed. Popular press magazines, cable and network television programs, and other advertising-supported media are examples. (4) “Things people make for themselves,” for example, knitted scarves, community theatre, or musical performances.
The expression “popular culture” is, unfortunately, often used as a pejorative term, viewed as lesser than so-called high-culture pursuits because it originates among and is widely available to a vast majority of everyday people, and is deeply embedded in daily life. Traditionally thought of as the product of something made by hand, popular can also mean widespread fame, popularity, and commercialism as well as the idea of a shared culture. Popular culture’s definitional fluidity is made clear by remembering that, in their time, Shakespeare’s plays were the popular culture of their day. During the 1960s, the music of the Beatles, for example, was considered vulgar. Parents worried that their children would be corrupted citizens and sexual deviants as a result of listening to the band. Today, however, songs such as “Love me do” and “Strawberry Fields” are played on oldies and soft rock radio stations.
The contents of popular culture are perpetuated through a nation’s vernacular (spoken, written), i.e., visual or verbal language. The quality of and value placed upon the products are socially constructed. Popular culture carries and articulates social class and social group distinctions. Horkheimer and Adorno’s classic work Dialectic of enlightenment posits that the production and distribution of popular culture constitutes a “culture industry” (1997, 120). This argument holds that cultural products such as art become commodities that reflect dominant ideology and in fact convey norms. Fashion is an example of this process, which not only has the power to democratize but also to establish and affirm borders. The popular, therefore, is that which is representative of larger social conditions and opposition between authenticity and commercialization/globalization. Expressions such as “high art” and “low art,” for example, have immediate associations with social class. High art can feature nude bodies, while low art is pornographic. While Gans (1975) orders the products of popular culture in a hierarchical manner (from classical to kitsch), the intent was to de-privilege forms of cultural narrative from their economic foundations.
What Is “Communication”?
Communication is a theoretical field as well as praxis that includes mediated and nonmediated forms. Communication is also a process, a product, and a discipline. As a process, communication includes gestures, signs, symbols, sounds, painting, speaking, writing, facial expressions, and the transmission of these through a form of human and electronic technology (such as books, television, film, and radio). It is “interaction by means of mutually recognized signals” (Hartley 2002, 32). Communication includes what is known as a speech act, an example of which is dialogue. Interpersonal communication has the advantage of immediate feedback between sender and receiver, as in a frown, a nod, or a shrug. This type of nonverbal response is not as immediate in mass mediated communication; however, this is rapidly changing. Email, web-based polls, and audience/user ratings are examples of interactions that viewers, readers, and listeners can have with content providers. YouTube, a website where users post videos, film clips, and other material is an example of audiences creating content. In the case of television programs such as American Idol, viewers vote for their favorite performer by telephone and learn the results during the next episode.
As a product, mass (simultaneously, widely available) media contain the symbolic products of human communication – language, music, images, signs, and symbols – as well as the technologies that send them. Thus, communication is the transmission of these products by way of books, television, film, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, and radio. An example is the BBC television series Hex, the plot of which revolves around the perennial battle between good versus evil. The program contains dialogue, plot, and story lines emphasizing love and hate, but also significant alchemical pagan symbolism. Thus, the program is coded in ways that those familiar with magic and mystery understand, but is also accessible to new viewers.
As a discipline, or area of academic study, the field of communication includes speech communication, organizational communication, interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, performance studies, and mass communication. The study of popular communication is also part of this array and, as described below, includes an emphasis on identifying sources of media control and power, analyses of visual and verbal texts, and appreciation of the role audiences play in the give and take relationship with content.
What Is “Popular Communication”?
If communication is a process, product, and discipline involving the exchange of signs and symbols and the popular consists of objects or practices that appeal to a wide audience, then it follows that popular communication is the transmission of signs and symbols, via written and visual rhetoric, widely available to audiences. At the same time, the popular communication perspective recognizes that people are capable of making their own meaning from content, resisting and transgressing messages of expected behaviors and roles. Audiences often participate in the creation of content as well, such as on Internet fan sites.
Scholars in the field of popular communication resist fixing the meaning of the term by narrowly defining it. Gunn and Brummett (2004, 708) suggest a definition as “the study of objects that are widely circulated by means of mass media. These objects are studied with a view toward explaining their meaning, structure, and impact.” These areas have in common a concern with a particular set of problems; they ordinarily focus on mass media, specifically the interrelated “three Cs” – content (text), corporations (producers), and consumers (audiences) – have a predilection to use specific methods, and share similar political views.
Some popular communication scholars examine the context within which dominant social, political, and economic institutions use the media to retain power. Others focus on structures that contribute to the maintenance of boundaries between those with and without power and resources. Hegemony is control of people through use of ideas (instead of physical force), which requires their consent. Agreement is accomplished through an interwoven structure of mainstreamed attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors constructed as “normal” and reinforced through institutions such as family, education, religion, politics, and government. Ideology, a term that refers to a set of ideas or a vision, can be presented symbolically in media content through signification (meaning making) and articulated in representations (or lack thereof). Individual and social identity and belonging are thereby reinforced by the existing hierarchical power structure. Thus, through subordination, domination, oppression, and repression, a structured, predictable social order is maintained.
In a foundational essay exploring popular communication, Zelizer (2000, 303) described characteristics of popular communication scholarship that provided a framework for unpacking key ideas. As such, popular communication is: (1) interdisciplinary; (2) eclectic in its “theoretical focus, methodological perspective, and focus of inquiry”; and (3) connected to the academy and daily life.
Popular communication research is a product of merger or, as Geertz (1980, 167) points out, “blurred genres” between sciences and the humanities. The humanities and social sciences have been in dialogue for hundreds of years. However, in the early part of the nineteenth century, the humanities dominated European thought and enveloped a broader range of disciplines than today. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the social sciences institutionally broke away from the humanities. Since that time, these areas have been in dialogue but seek answers to questions in different ways using distinct methodologies. Geertz (1980, 167) identified this as a kind of freedom in which scholars from seemingly different disciplines became “free to shape their work in terms of its necessities rather than received ideas as to what they ought or ought not to be doing.” Popular communication research enjoys this exchange or flow of ideas back and forth between disciplines.
What is regarded as the production of knowledge in science is the production of meaning in mediated communication, both of which rely on intersubjectivity – ways in which shared understandings of phenomena are created. While traditional science argued for an objective unified reality, communication and popular communications argue that all meaning is socially constructed, the interpretation of which is individual. Symbols are an example of the fluidity of meaning in a particular time and place. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, with the bombing of New York City’s World Trade Center towers and the Washington, DC, Pentagon building, the American flag came to have much more solidified meaning to many Americans. Where at one time the meaning of patriotism was fluid, and many definitions of allegiances accepted, after America’s retaliation, meaning became fixed. The emblem recognized as the Nazi swastika has ancient origins, but was appropriated by this ruling party as a sign. Thus, the philosophical underpinnings of communication, particularly popular communication, are traced through a series of linguistic, anthropological, historical, psychological, and social science disciplines. Popular communication studies bridge these areas with interdisciplinary philosophy, methods, and theories. It is this amalgamation that fuels debate on whether or not communication can be considered a discipline separate from other forms of social science and humanities.
The humanities further influence the trajectory of popular communication research through four interdisciplinary theoretical traditions that, in particular, inform philosophy and method in the field: hermeneutics, phenomenology, rhetoric, and semiotics. These ways of knowing about the production, consumption, and content of communication are the foundation on which popular communication research is built. Hermeneutics, a reading of texts and/or understanding a culture from the perspective of that culture in order to understand how meaning is made and changes, is considered by many to be a philosophy, theory, and method of analysis. A phenomenological approach considers and values everyday life and ways of being in the world, i.e., lived experiences. A rhetorical analysis examines the power of language to describe and persuade, including nonverbal forms of communication such as symbols. It is a philosophy, a skill, a method, and a technique that recognizes the power of communication.
Discourse (language) analysis adds the dimension of questioning taken-for-granted meanings and deconstructing them in ways that reveal sources of power by revealing hidden motivations. For example, a discourse analysis of the contents of a political speech might reveal motivations around the topic of war. A discourse analysis of advertising copy might examine the use of nature-based references as ways of constructing wholesomeness around products. Film narratives often examine the construction of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality. Associated theorists who have looked at the power of language, metaphor, and the relationship with power include Michael Foucault, George Lakoff, and Mark Turner.
Semiotics, another tool for examining visual and verbal representations in media content, is the study of signs and symbols and the way meaning is constructed and understood. Semiotics is also used in architecture and art. For example, a semiotic analysis of perfume ads could reveal social class biases, techniques of branding, and status conferral by examining product packaging, naming, use of color, typography, and models. Associated scholars include Charles Sanders Peirce, Ferdinand de Saussure, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Umberto Eco.
Scholarship is organized according to three broad areas: (1) the content of communication, (2) control of distribution, and (3) consumers/audience members who view or read the content. Examples of content-focused research include studies of television programs, Internet sites, and music lyrics, and visual analyses of news photography, portrayals of women and girls in advertising, and the male body in popular culture.
Examples of studies that examine corporations and control of the production of media products, and thereby construct meaning for society, include the related area of political economy. Political economy, defined as the production and distribution of power and resources in society, is concerned with the internalization of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of dominant culture. This perspective is particularly global in nature. For example, studies have examined media ownership in Scandinavian countries, the production of film in India, and the film industry in Taiwan. A more extended example of research includes the subject of daytime television. Media corporations that own broadcast television operations produce programming to attract advertisers, which want to attract audiences to see their commercials. All parties – the media corporations, the television stations, the advertising agencies, and the companies whose products are for sale – are interested in making a profit. The programs generally reflect aspirational values of upper-class, high-consumption lifestyles. Thus, the programs echo the goals of media and marketing to encourage people to buy products and emulate the lifestyles seen on television, even if doing so is out of the financial reach of most viewers. Associated scholars include Karl Marx, Oliver Boyd-Barrett, and Dallas Smythe.
Communication studies are credited with bringing attention to the importance of what audiences think about, feel about, and do with mass media content. In traditional media research, the idea of audience is an abstraction. Audience research, while conducted by corporations to ascertain the size and demographic characteristics of a group, in this case is about the experience of viewing, reading, and hearing and interpreting media content. One of the earliest applications of this perspective came from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham (UK). In the 1970s, researchers began studying the relationship between media texts and audiences. Stuart Hall is closely associated with work on the idea of encoding/decoding discussed earlier in this article. David Morley and Charlotte Brundson conducted the Nationwide Project in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This audience and reception theory study examined the BBC program Nationwide using encoding and decoding. Their concern was with “the programme’s distinctive ideological themes and with the particular ways in which Nationwide addressed the viewer” (Moores 1993, 19). Interviewing viewers from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, the researchers found that even within particular social class groups there were individual differences in the way media content is read.
Eclectic in Theoretical Focus, Methodology, And Focus of Inquiry
Grossberg (1994, 332) identifies three characteristics of communication scholars that are reflected not only in what becomes the topic of research but in the theory and method used: researchers are (1) committed to the fact that reality is continually socially constructed, (2) drawn to the “popular” as the terrain of everyday life and cultural practices, and (3) committed “to a radical contextualism” of power and culture.
Critical studies, genre studies, image and characterization research, cultural studies, cultural history, and audience-focused consumption research are examples of theoretically driven areas. Topics include analyses of postmodernism, blackness, and art; telenovelas; the cultural politics of race; television makeover programs; political culture jamming and the Daily Show; hip-hop culture; the Israeli song contest and men; television shopping; gender transgression; boys’ and girls’ responses to and interactions with the X-Files; and Japanese popular culture. Scholars used a variety of methods, such as historical, textual analysis, critical analysis, and semiotics.
Eclectic in Theoretical Approaches
Communication research has developed through a long history of scientific, empirical ways of knowing and, more recently, qualitative inquiry. The theories, methods, and objects of study contained within the domain of popular communication include critical studies, cultural studies, media criticism, and feminist, queer, and game theories.
As discussed previously, popular communication scholars view audiences as active participants in the reception and decoding process of mediated messages. As such, there are individual differences in interpretation and understanding, therefore “media content is always polysemic, or open to interpretation” (Morley 1994, 255). Whereas traditional, linear theories of the flow of communication support the high/low culture distinction and view culture hierarchically, popular communication studies’ nonlinear, non-evaluative perspective is illustrated by Stuart Hall’s (1981) circuit of culture model (Fig. 1). Hall’s work came out of the 1960s British cultural studies movement from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. This early work, based on the writings of Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, emphasizes the role of hegemonic consensus in maintaining institutionalized power and the ways mass media serve as tools that communicate dominant ideologies of industrialized, western democratic states.
In this view, power resides both with the sender and in the transmission process, but once the message is received, audience members make decisions about how it will be interpreted. Hall (1981) posited that both sender and receiver at different sites produce meaning, which is circulated through products and practices. Mass media content is viewed as text to be read, the meaning of which changes over time just as language and symbols do. Whether this content is the lighting, camera angles, and actors in a film, the pose and position of a model in an advertisement, or the language used in a televised presidential speech, the entire product or elements within a television program, film, web page, or book are viewed as encoded elements in the construction of the product. The power of the media, as an “ideological state apparatus” (Althusser 1977), reinforces and circulates beliefs about values, beliefs, and behaviors that are constructed as normal and desirable.
Eclectic in Methodology
According to this perspective, there are three primary lenses through which the audience decodes messages: preferred (as the sender intended with little to no critical evaluation of content) or “structured polysemy” (Morley 1994, 255), negotiated (audience is aware of the intent of the message, but goes along with it anyway), and resistant (audience awareness is high regarding the persuasive intent of the message and the audience actively works to decode the denotative and connotative meanings within and behind the text). Fiske (1987) added that audiences at times modify and even deflect senders’ intentions. An important consideration is that ideologies are not necessarily static and, in fact, “hegemonic discourse is always insecure and incomplete” (Morley 1994, 256). This view suggests a lower level of effects and higher level of audience choice making. Budd et al. (1990, 170) point out, “Whatever the message encoded, decoding comes to the rescue.” In this view, making and remaking of culture by audiences can work to resist commercial imperatives.
James Carey (1989, 15) identified the transmission view of communication as “a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people.” Furthermore, he posited a ritual model of communication (versus the traditional transmission model) that provides the context within which much popular communication research develops. The traditional transmission model emphasizes a linear sender– receiver model. This social scientific concept is based on Lasswell’s (1966) classic questions: “who/says what/in which channel/to whom/with what effect?” Similarly, Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) mathematical model of communication views communication as engineered as a series of signals. These models only minimally consider the audience as active in the reception process. Early theories of media effects shared the view of media having uniform, immediate, and long-term effects on audiences. The ritual model, however, emphasizes the social construction of texts and the creation and transformation of shared meaning. First articulated by James Carey, the ritual view sees culture and communication as inseparable, and communicating as reinforcing shared values and beliefs. Gunn and Brummett (2004, 712) take this further by declaring that communication brings “reality” into existence and affirms and maintains this established, constructed way of being as “normal.” Communication, then, is the deliberate construction, with hegemonic origins and ideological goals, of information, as well as “the terrain upon which symbolic action takes place.”
Therefore, studying communication through the lens of cultural theory and popular communication is to examine the sources and content of mass media messages and the responses to them by audiences. In order to do so, according to this perspective, quantitative research methods, while useful and important, are not sufficient ways of getting deeper into material and human understanding or accessing lived experience. Qualitative methods commonly used include in-depth personal interviews, participant observation, production research, ethnography, textual analysis, discourse analysis, and audience studies, with, as discussed above, theoretical bases in hermeneutics, phenomenology, semiotics, rhetoric (visual, verbal), aesthetics, and texts.
Eclectic in Focus of Inquiry
Objects of inquiry for popular communication research include sports; sub-culture/ ritual; music; communication symbols, forms, and phenomena; analyses of youth culture; representations of race, gender, age, and social class; fandom; media as text, film, and spectacles; the digital revolution; sexuality; television, radio, and magazines; and advertising/consumer culture.
A developing focus of inquiry that touches all areas of popular communication is identified by scholars such as McAllister (2003), who asks the question, “Is commercial culture popular culture?”. Certainly, in western countries, commercialism is a defining characteristic of mass culture that is exported globally. Whether that exportation is exploitation or simply opportunistic, commercial culture is farreaching, and does not necessarily require the integration of advertising and entertainment. According to Mosco (1996, 144), commercialization is “a process that specifically refers to the creation of a relationship between an audience and advertisers.” This suggests an overlap with consumer culture. Ads are commercial culture, as are other objects, such as films. They become commercialized particular when they involve product placement and merchandising. Fowles (1996, 11) asserts, “advertising, while sharing many attributes with popular culture, is a categorically different sort of symbolic content.” By its very nature, advertising is self-serving and therefore pleasure oriented, eagerly appropriated by audiences. These approaches to media content call for new techniques, theories, and methods with which scholars can study both the popular and the people in a culture.
Connected to The Academy and Daily Life
Two conceptual binaries describe the anxiety associated with defining the term “popular communication” and stimulate debate and tensions within the academy: (1) the low culture/high culture binary, and (2) the notion that texts that attract the masses are insignificant and therefore not worth serious scholarly attention (Gunn & Brummett 2004). What is viewed within the academic world as the everyday world contains a general tendency to dismiss what is widely available and popular as not worthy of serious academic study. For example, how can studying something as mundane and everyday as television, for example, be valuable? Popular communication scholars address this dismissal by emphasizing the importance of what is within people’s everyday lived experience as perhaps the most important aspect of culture.
An associated tension involves assumptions about audiences for popular communication – if the product is widely available, wildly popular, and easy to access and understand, the common assumption is that audiences for it must not be very smart and part of the “unwashed popular” (Gunn & Brummett 2004, 706). An example is the lack of communication research on National Geographic magazine, most notably the magazine’s lack of focus on gender and race and its role as a middlebrow source of colonial discourse. This oversight suggests a kind of blindness to these institutionalized values, even within the field (Parameswaran 2005). It was anthropologists Lutz and Collins (1993) who first identified the “special cultural niche occupied by the Geographic” and the notable absence of scholarship among media scholars. Today, many popular communication scholars have addressed this lack by making connections to the importance of popular engagement as reflected in economic, cultural, and social contributions to society.
While popular communication studies scholars could be viewed as engaged in a disproportionate amount of navel gazing, it is this reflexive practice that lends itself to ongoing questioning of premises of research as well as ways to refine and clarify methods.
In the early 1980s, the editor of the Journal of Communication (JOC), George Gerbner, challenged scholars to review the field of communication. The seminal 1983 special issue of JOC, Ferment in the field, contains 35 original essays from 10 countries responding to the question of the state of the field of communications research. Collectively, the essays converged around three processes surrounding the social relations of communication: domination, contradiction, and struggle. Mosco (1983) posited that the growth in critical research is reflective of the developing (at the time) information society and the control of it. Gerbner (1983, 358) noted that “common consciousness” had become a “largely manufactured product . . . and the concept of class or any other authentic public consciousness may be obsolete.” The scholars predicted a convergence between disciplinary perspectives (humanities and social sciences) as well as methodologies (quantitative and quantitative). There was also increased recognition not only of the growing convergence in mass media technology and production, but also between quantitative and qualitative research in the field. Gerbner’s (1983, 348) epilogue noted, “If Marx were alive today, his principal work would be entitled Communications rather than Capital” – a bit bold, even arrogant, perhaps, but the statement certainly addresses the importance of keeping the relationship between knowledge and media power always in sight.
Not only has there been a coming together of humanities and social sciences evident in popular communication research in the past few years, but also cross-pollination of media studies areas. Challenges to the field have come from postmodernism, cognitivism, and feminism in particular. Parameswaran (2005) examines engagement between feminist cultural studies and media studies in regard to issues of political voice, citizenship, and gender with those of mediated culture. If, as Appadurai and Breckenridge (1995) note, public culture is a “shifting array of texts and experiences, which constitute evolving contexts for one another,” then certainly popular culture as part of popular communication is similarly fluid. While many popular communication scholars study artifacts from popular communication, journalistic media, such as CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and other news organizations and content, also fall under this purview. Zelizer (2004, 114) challenges the field to reposition “journalism at the forefront of inquiry.”
Deetz and Putnam (2001) challenge communication studies scholars to consider less the obviously popular (as in entertaining) and more the pragmatic projects that address “significant problems of our times,” such as the democratic process and joint decision-making with governmental authorities. Funding initiatives and grant opportunities are likely to come from global concerns, health communication interests, and emphases on technology. They argue for more of a balance between pragmatic interests (of which popular communication scholars tend to be critical) and too much emphasis on trendy, popular topics. In addition, outreach to and activism within human communities, a basic tenet of communication and cultural studies research, offers promising possibilities for social change.
A decade after “Ferment in the field,” the follow-up report, Defining media studies (Levy & Gurevitch 1994), cautioned communication studies scholars to be mindful of the possible pitfalls and prejudices inherent in researching from positions of privilege while arguing for equity and other socially constructed differences. Furthermore, the field is so eclectic and interdisciplinary it would be easy to get lost in the mire of definitional fluidity, or what Nordenstreng (2004, 13) calls “surfing syndrome” by studying only fashionable topics.
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