The Tao that can be explained is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.
— Lao Tzu
Before beginning my graduate communication studies, I knew I was entering a conflicted field. The fact that every scholar I’ve spoken to or studied with defines communication slightly differently and citing different theoretical perspectives is exciting, not daunting — and, surprisingly, not that confusing. It is large, this field; it contains multitudes. Translation: there’s still much to be done — more than ever, now that the communication of information is a vaunted pillar of modern society — so come on aboard.
Thus, a new missive questioning the standing, ambition and overall health of communication scholarship — “Communication Scholars Need to Communicate” by USC Annenberg’s dean, the earnest Ernest J. Wilson III — is merely the latest in a long series of semi-perennial glances toward our brainy navels. The field, it seems, is still fermenting.
Existential crisis apparently is a rite of passage in communication scholarship — and has been since Bernard Berelson signaled the field’s coming of age by writing its obituary in 1959. Since then, questioning our right to exist has been a requisite sport of each communication generation, including notables such as George Gerbner’s examination of “ferment in the field” (1983); a re-examination of the same phrase and similar queries a decade later in the same journal (1993); the hand-wringing of Finnish researcher Kaarle Nordenstreng in 2004 and in 2007; and Susan Herbst’s 2008 forecast. Take, for example, the title of one of my master’s-level textbooks (a 2003 compilation of commentaries) as an indication of how laughably insecure the field’s ringmasters remain: Canonic Texts in Media Research: Are There Any? Should There Be? How About These?
My favorite examination has been Robert T. Craig’s “Communication Theory as a Field” (1999), which has this as its central thesis: “Communication theory as an identifiable field of study does not yet exist.” Never mind Berelson’s last rites — Craig said the field was never born in the first place. He then set up a carefully constructed formula — complete with two defining tables seemingly designed to be clipped and hung on a professor’s office wall for future reference — compounding the various traditions he saw as comprising the DNA of the unique communication organism, one independent from its sociological, psychological, political, economic and historical parentage. To his credit, Craig did not attempt to craft a “unified theory” for communication scholarship but rather to point everyone through the same doorway into a space for common discussion and debate — a legislative hall run by Robert T. Craig’s rules of order.
A few rules of order wouldn’t be such a bad thing, as long as they’re very loose. Wilson’s call for a tightening of goals, a clear mission statement — something to present to the outside world, which is his key point — is understandable. The buzz within and about new media, not to mention amateur studies of them within popular culture and journalism, makes a good case for putting together an intellectually honest Eleanor Rigby face to keep in a jar by the departmental door (but then, who is it for…?). In fact, let’s nail a 99 theses of communication to that door — as long as we, like Luther’s own followers, are prepared for and understanding if not welcoming of the countless interpretations to come, the endless cleaving into various denominations all following the same cross but advocating a different route up the hill. (I used to describe communication theory with another tortured religious metaphor: as academia’s Holy Ghost, a spirit that’s there but not there, permeating the faithful’s earthly divisions, yet enough of a unifying force to compel many of us to enter these monasteries in order to write more scripture. And that was before I read John Durham Peters’ churchy examination of the field.) But Wilson’s buzzword here is “rigor” — 21 times! — which to me reeks of a capitalist return-on-investment argument that’s made far too many inroads into education in recent years. He seeks a roster of products to show investors, a handy checklist for the field, which now as a department head he could use to effect any needed downsizing and thus ease his slumbers. But evaluating the quality of comm research isn’t as simple as summing or subtracting the quantities. His five suggested attributes — which beg to be built upon — could only stand before us as, say, objectivity stands before journalists: an ideal to strive toward always, even if we know that as inherently messy, subjective humans we’ll never precisely attain it.
The chasm between theory and practice Wilson sees is a constant concern — in any field, but he’s right to point out the particular poignancy of ours. I still don’t fully understand the separation between communication and journalism departments on many campuses. My bachelor’s degree is in mass communication, a study that seems a natural subdivision to communication as a whole (yet in my sub- prefix lies the campus-politics power struggle, I know); I’m not sure I was then aware that my university had a separate comm department. But later when as a communication grad student I pored through the history of media studies, I experienced pangs of regret, thinking of how useful it would have been to have many of these theoretical perspectives at the forefront of my mind during my journalism career. My journalism degree was a trade degree, no question — and I don’t think that’s a perspective unique to my particular institution. Theory should be the bedrock of comm studies, whether the students eventually remain steeping in it or move toward Wilson’s beloved practice. (And I must add: the Annenberg school isn’t the only place where journalists and others turn when “seeking answers to important questions they believe scholars might help them answer” — my thesis adviser seems to be on the news media’s speed dial for comment on anything that remotely involves the Internet or an mp3 file — and I am not aware of any scholar ever “turn[ing] away from the entreaties of practitioners.”)
So, yes, let’s remind ourselves to clean up good for the banquet every now and then, but let’s keep comm broad, deeply infused and a occasionally a little bit wiggy. Let’s not necessarily get “sloppy,” but the catholic tastes of this commenter at the end of Wilson’s piece should be cheered: “I’ll stick with a sloppy discipline that uses everyone from Mead, to Kierkegaard, to Plato, to Lacan, to Weick, to Goffman. I’ll stick with a sloppy discipline that can do stats, and focus groups, and autoethnography, and rhetorical analysis.” Amen.
I'm THOMAS CONNER, communication researcher and culture journalist.