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Is communication a “real” area of academic study? If so, how did it evolve as a discipline? In this research paper, I will trace the evolution of communication as a discipline, outline the reasons why I believe that it is a discipline, and discuss three means for describing the content of communication as a discipline, outline the reasons why I believe that it is a discipline, and discuss three means for describing the content of the discipline.

Communication is a topic that has fascinated both scholars and ordinary people from the earliest days of human civilization. Traces of writing on the subject can be found in most ancient civilizations around the world, but the most complete discourse on the topic came from ancient Greece, where rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, was an essential part of any discussion of how to be effective as a citizen in a democratic society. Writing on communication in the Greek era tended to focus either on how to be a more effective communicator or on the role of communication in society. A major debate erupted between the philosopher Plato and his student Aristotle on this topic. Plato contended that rhetoric was important for the pursuit of beauty and for entertainment purposes but its use should be ignored in society because rhetoric could lead people away from what was true and cause them to make bad decisions. Plato preferred a philosophical method he called dialectic, where individuals carefully searched for new truth based on what was already known. Aristotle, on the other hand, contended that the importance of rhetoric was to help those in society create probable truth out of what was known or could be deduced. Rhetoric, then, in Aristotle’s way of thinking, was important to the substance of communication as well as to the style a communicator might use.

Rhetoric as a Key to Communication

Rhetoric was an important area of study for educated people throughout history, but how it was studied depended to at least some degree on the nature of the society where the study was taking place. In the days of ancient Roman democracy, for example, Cicero wrote a manual for structuring the content of public speaking that is still referenced in public speaking textbooks. But by the time the more autocratic rule of the Roman Empire was established, Quintilian, that era’s leading educator, defined rhetoric almost completely in terms of style when he wrote that rhetoric consisted of “a good man speaking well.”

The style side of rhetoric became dominant, to the point that good rhetoric was thought to be not just stylish but also stylized. Entire books were written on elocution, which purported to advise a speaker on the proper forms of speech, appropriate diction, and the ways in which the body should be positioned to convey particular emotions. Watch a play from the Restoration Era (from 1660 and into the 1700s), and you’ll observe the actors behaving in the very stylized manner that was an integral part of the success of those pieces of entertainment.

Rhetoric began to focus on substance again with the publication, in 1776, of George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric. Campbell emphasized that there were different purposes for speaking (to inform, to persuade, and to entertain), and each type required a different approach. The key to success, according to Campbell, lay in the quality of one’s ideas. Ideas themselves had vivacity, Campbell argued, and thus, rhetoric need not be covered up with excesses of style. This approach proved to be very appealing to intellectuals in the newly formed United States of America, as they saw the pursuit of lively ideas as essential to building an effective democracy. So while professors of literature teaching at colleges and universities in the early days of the United States continued to examine how rhetorical style was used to create beautiful essays, stories, and poetry, debating societies focused on arguing about the best ideas for building a better democracy. Typically, these debating societies were not a formal part of the university curriculum, but eventually colleges and universities started hiring faculty who were adept in teaching students how to use rhetoric in order to communicate ideas effectively, both orally and in writing.

Technology and the Beginnings of Professional Journalism

The development of printing and the subsequent increase in literacy, the ability to read and write, among ordinary people also helped not only to preserve ideas but also to contribute to public debate on important issues. Printers began to report and publish the news as a means of having a steady income for their businesses, and these businessmen would train their apprentices to gather and write the news for distribution. The British parliamentarian Edmund Burke was credited with having dubbed the press “The Fourth Estate” (the other “estates” were the clergy, the nobility, and the citizenry) and with having acknowledged the press as being the most influential of them all. His term underscored the importance of journalism in a free society. The founders of the United States recognized that importance as well by including both freedom of expression and a free press in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Speech, Journalism, and the Democratizing of U.S. Higher Education

The advent of large public universities in the United States, especially those known as “land grant institutions,” whose missions included the development of agriculture and technology in the regions they served, brought formal instruction in both oral rhetoric, or speech, and journalism into higher education. Land grant institutions reached out to educate talented students whose parents were not among the elite, and these students were not used to the idea that they might use their education to become leaders in society. So speech education focused on developing and supporting one’s ideas for oral presentation in a manner that would appeal to the particular audience that the speaker was planning to address. Journalism, on the other hand, made a transition from being taught as a craft to being taught as a profession. As members of the Fourth Estate, journalists needed to understand not only how to report and write accurately and clearly but also the context and the history of the issues on which they were reporting. Land grant universities valued democracy above most other ideals, and effective speech and a free press were the cornerstones of democracy.

At many colleges and universities, speech and journalism were taught in the English department. This arrangement made some sense, as English shared an interest in rhetoric with speech and an interest in writing with journalism. But it also produced tensions, as English professors treated rhetoric differently than did speech professors, and English professors regarded writing as a liberal art, while journalism professors regarded it as part of a profession. As a result, both journalism and speech professors began to break away from the English department and start separate programs. They also each formed professional organizations that were separate from the National Council of Teachers of English. In 1912, journalism faculty founded what today is called theAssociation for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, while in 1914, speech professors founded what today is called the National Communication Association.

Both speech and journalism professors were focused on teaching rather than on scholarship. They recognized that universities were concentrating both on teaching and on scholarship that generated new knowledge, but they resisted becoming scholars. In the case of journalism faculty, many had professional experience as working journalists, and they wanted to maintain a professional identity as well as help prepare the next generation of journalists. In the case of speech faculty, most were focused on teaching students to be better oral communicators, and there was some disagreement regarding what would constitute appropriate scholarship. While speech faculty began publishing a scholarly journal almost immediately after forming their association, much of the scholarship that was published in that journal was related to the diagnosis and treatment of speech disorders, such as stuttering.

Communication as an Agent of Social Order and Change

Meanwhile, another new field of study, sociology, was taking root around the country, most notably at the University of Chicago. Sociology was a natural field of study at Chicago, as that university had been founded with a mission not only to be a first-rate educational institution but also to study and improve the poor and working class neighborhoods of the city that surrounded it. Chicago’s sociology program became one that was central to the university’s mission, and it developed its own expertise or cultivated expertise in other disciplines that would help it accomplish its mission. The rise of various avenues of mass communication, including, in large cities, several competing newspapers, film screenings for entertainment, and, later, radio, led to the Chicago scholar Robert Park and others constructing the first theories of mass communication.

Chicago also was the home of the philosophers John Dewey and George Herbert Mead. Dewey and Mead arrived at Chicago together and were close friends. Even though Dewey left Chicago in 1904 to move to Columbia, Mead and Dewey stayed in contact. Both were interested in how people used symbols in thought and how they acquired and shared meaning through interactions with others. So Mead and Dewey can be thought of as early theorists of face-to-face communication, even though neither of them probably would have thought of himself in those terms. Nevertheless, both Mead and Dewey’s ideas have continued to influence communication scholars to the present day. In addition, Chicago’s sociology program was influenced by Mead in particular, and it became a champion of Mead’s ideas about symbolic interaction and its role in creating societies. Formal communication scholarship may well have begun at Chicago, but communication there was more of a topic in a larger effort to determine how to define and improve communities, as well as the larger societies in which they were located.

Undoubtedly, the development of media technologies and the unsettled world conditions following World War I led to additional advances in communication scholarship. While the telegraph provided a means of reporting the news from distant places quickly, and films proved to be an excellent supplement to live entertainment, it was radio’s immediacy and ability to provide information that was even more current than what was communicated by the telegraph that probably spurred scholars to begin to worry about how the media would affect politics and public opinion. The use of various forms of media for propaganda purposes during World War I, which was continued in Europe following the conclusion of that war, also concerned both scholars and policymakers.

A group of scholars, most of whom were working outside the mainstream of their academic fields of study, started to pursue these issues in various ways. Notable among these scholars were a group of European immigrants (e.g., Paul Lazarsfeld and Kurt Lewin) who were escaping persecution by fleeing to the United States. These scholars produced a number of insights about the nature of media effects and also contributed significantly to understanding how media content and presentation interacted with face-to-face communication to form and change public attitudes.

During World War II, a number of scholars and artists gathered in Washington, D.C., to put to use what had been learned about effective media use in producing and countering propaganda. This group worked at the Office of War Information; it included Wilbur Schramm, who had left his position as head of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop to participate in the war effort. Schramm was fascinated by what his social science colleagues had learned, and following his stint in Washington, he wanted to put his newfound knowledge to work. He also wanted to return to the University of Iowa, where the only appropriate position open was as director of the School of Journalism. Schramm took up the position and used it to form a Bureau of Communication Research, as well as to begin a doctoral study in mass communication. Schramm’s career would take him to the University of Illinois and to Stanford University before his retirement, and in each place, he would establish a distinguished communication program that focused primarily on mass communication research.

In a like manner, the social psychologist Carl Hovland, who was also among the scholars at the Office of War Information, returned toYale and continued to do research on propaganda and mass communication. This research led him to study communication more broadly, focusing on social interaction and attitude change. Among Hovland’s group at theYale Program in Communication and Attitude Change were individuals who would become renowned figures in social psychology over the next generation.

Journalism and Speech Become Communication

Partly at Schramm’s urging, scholars in journalism programs took up social science research in mass communication. Likewise, speech scholars began to do the same for face-to-face and group communication, led by Elwood Murray of the University of Denver, among others. Murray and a group of scholars established what is now called the International Communication Association. Though this group had decided to be interdisciplinary, it was dominated by speech scholars and served as a means for those individuals to become active in communication research.

A watershed mark for speech scholars occurred in 1960 with the publication of David K. Berlo’s book, The Process of Communication. Berlo delineated a model of communication that, while not enormously different from those offered by other scholars, focused on face-to-face communication. The model outlined variables that might be studied to understand face-to-face communication better, and it introduced the word process to indicate that theorizing about communication could not simply focus on its individual parts but needed to take into account how those parts fit together.

By 1968, a group of speech scholars meeting in New Orleans had proposed to rewrite the definition of the academic study of speech to include the study of communication.

Over time, the use of speech waned and was replaced by communication in describing what was going on when people talked with one another. Likewise, the term mass communication waned over time and has been gradually replaced with media studies. And “communication” scholars stopped distinguishing between whether communication was mediated or face-to-face and started to use the term more generally to describe an area of study.

Communication as a Topic, Field, and Discipline

So communication progressed from being a topic of interest in disciplines such as sociology, social psychology, and political science to becoming a field of study within journalism and speech and then to becoming a discipline that encompassed and moved beyond the boundaries of both speech and journalism. Communication is still a topic of interest in sociology, social psychology, and political science, among other disciplines, and that interest has been substantial enough to prompt some scholars to contend that communication is an interdisciplinary field of study and not a true academic discipline.

The argument for communication as a field revolves around the fact that communication scholars have historically done research using theories and techniques developed by other disciplines and have coveted publication of research findings in other disciplines’ journals. But, primarily, this argument is based on the idea that communication scholarship is inferior to scholarship in other disciplines and that communication as an area of study lacks prestige. Evidence for this argument comes from the fact that publications in communication journals cite articles from other fields more often than publications in journals of other fields cite communication scholarship. Evidence is also drawn from the fact that communication is not well represented as an area of study in the elite universities of the United States and from the perception that communication scholars, and thus communication scholarship, are generally not well-known.

The argument for communication as a discipline acknowledges the evidence for the opposing argument but adds evidence that indicates that scholarly life in communication is changing. Such evidence includes the proliferation of journals in communication; the movement away from self-publication of these journals by the scholarly associations and toward publication by academic presses; and the continuing low rate of articles accepted for publication, despite the proliferation of scholarly journals devoted to some aspect of communication. The evidence also includes the upcoming first-time ranking of communication doctoral programs by the National Research Council; the classification of communication as a scholarly, as opposed to professional, discipline by the National Science Foundation; and the creation of categories of funding for health communication research by the National Institutes of Health. And elite U.S. universities are starting to sponsor places where communication scholarship occurs in some form or another, even if they do not include communication as a formal academic department.

Communication’s Subfields of Study

A discipline has its own body of knowledge, its own set of theories and research methods associated with those theories, and a number of recognizable subfields of study. Communication’s body of knowledge is being developed by its substantial number of journals, including one devoted exclusively to publishing theoretical articles (Communication Theory). Its research methods may have been borrowed initially, but communication scholars have refined those methods to fit the type of scholarship being pursued. And there are recognizable subfields that are producing a stream of doctoral-level researchers. In 2004, the National Communication Association did a ranking study of communication doctoral programs focusing on subfields. The study identified nine subfields producing doctoral graduates in at least 15 of the 67 universities that responded. The subfields were communication and technology, critical/cultural studies of communication/media, health communication, intercultural/international communication, interpersonal/small-group communication, mass communication research, organizational communication, political communication, and rhetorical studies.

Many of these subfields describe the contexts in which communication occurs: one-on-one or in small groups, organizations, politics, and health care settings. Rhetorical studies and mass communication are familiar as topics of early study within the discipline. Two of the subfields, communication and technology and intercultural/international communication, deal with how individuals use and interact with various technologies and new media or with people from other nations or other cultures within the same nation. Finally, critical/cultural studies of communication/media concern how both face-to-face communication and the media reflect the power structures of the societies in which they occur and are an integral part of the construction of those power structures that greatly influence how we understand our cultures and how we interpret symbols within those cultures.

Three Approaches to Describing the Communication Discipline

There are at least three other approaches available for describing the discipline of communication that should be outlined in this research paper. One is an intellectual description of communication as a collection of scholarly “traditions.” The second is the description of the communication discipline that the U.S. federal government’s National Center for Educational Statistics developed for purposes of collecting and reporting data on instructional programs in higher education in the United States. And, third, the structure of this reference work also provides a means of understanding the content of the communication discipline.

Scholarly Traditions

Robert T. Craig (1999) of the University of Colorado, Boulder, has noted that communication scholarship is conducted in a number of different ways, and he has identified seven of these overarching approaches that he calls “traditions.” These seven traditions are (1) rhetorical, (2) semiotic, (3) phenomenological, (4) cybernetic, (5) sociopsychological, (6) sociocultural, and (7) critical. I’ll explain each one briefly in the paragraphs that follow.

The Rhetorical Tradition. Rhetoric should be a familiar topic by now. For Craig, the rhetorical tradition focuses on discourse, which can be expressed both face-to-face and via media. Rhetoric has always been conceived as an art rather than a science, and so the best way of examining it has been through the use of criticism—that is, examining the discourse itself and discovering how the creators of the discourse used various kinds of strategies to maximize the effects of that discourse. So whether examining the text of a speech, a newspaper editorial, or a film or television program, the critic is looking to get underneath the surface to see how language is being used for purposes of influence.

The Semiotic Tradition. Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and how they are used. Scholars using the semiotic tradition look at how people cooperate to produce meaning and how meanings can be manipulated through the same process as they are created. The most common use of the semiotic tradition has been to examine media content to reveal how signs and symbols have been used to create artistic forms of meaning.

The Phenomenological Tradition. This tradition looks at the communication process from a philosophical standpoint. It treats effective communication as dialogue and values openness and authenticity in both speech and action. Scholars using this tradition analyze communication looking for misunderstandings and seeing how they can be corrected for the betterment of society as a whole.

The Cybernetic Tradition. Cybernetics deals with the control of systems. The most common example, using a mechanical system, is a thermostat, which controls when heating or air conditioning should be turned on and when it should be turned off to maintain a comfortable environment. Likewise, the primary cybernetic function in a communication system is feedback, with positive feedback encouraging the system to keep operating as is and negative feedback indicating to the system that something needs to be changed. Scholars who use a cybernetic approach tend to study how communication systems are regulated and how they can be changed to make them more efficient and productive. The focus of scholarship in a cybernetic system is how information flows within the system.

The Sociopsychological Tradition. This tradition is the one that has generated the most amount of scholarship, historically, in communication. Scholars working within this tradition are typically interested in attitudes, behaviors, and patterns of interaction that can be isolated and studied as objects that exist in a real world rather than as something that is created. This sort of scholarship often isolates variables to study (e.g., do women speak differently than men?), and it often studies these variables using methods that can be quantified and analyzed statistically. This tradition is at the root of many theories of both interpersonal communication and media effects.

The Sociocultural Tradition. This tradition reaches into the sociological roots of the study of communication, but scholars who study communication from within this tradition typically eschew thinking in terms of “causes” and “effects.” Rather, these scholars take the viewpoint that communication is constructed by the participants and that, in turn, those constructions influence our views of both society and culture. Communication both produces and reproduces those patterns that we recognized as societal or cultural.

The Critical Tradition. The critical tradition arises to a degree out of the sociocultural tradition. Scholars in this tradition also look at media and communication at the societal and cultural levels, but they focus on how communication helps create and re-create power structures within that society. In turn, these power structures seek to maintain themselves by becoming normalized through both talk and media content. Scholars working within this tradition regard the criticism of society as both a natural and a necessary part of their scholarship.

Craig’s essay contended that communication scholars tend to gravitate toward one of these traditions, identify with it, and then pursue scholarship only from that tradition, though he acknowledged that some scholarship has been accomplished by generating findings from more than one tradition and then attempting to use those findings to produce a richer view of a particular communication topic than might otherwise be available. Craig found it encouraging that this sort of integration was going on, as doing so tended to break down the somewhat artificial differences among approaches. Rather than finding the discipline to be a hodgepodge of different approaches, however, Craig indicated that doing scholarship from these different traditions could actually strengthen the knowledge base of the discipline, assuming that scholars working from within these different traditions were willing to integrate the scholarly insights coming from these traditions. Though there has been a period where the defenders of each tradition supported their own kind of scholarship at the expense of scholarship from the other traditions, such an argument seems now to be largely passé.

Communication as a Collection of Programs of Study

The second approach to describing the discipline focuses on what we teach, particularly what sorts of programs of study we offer to undergraduates. The U.S. federal government collects extensive data on programs of study in colleges and universities around the country, and to do so, it needs a category system for the data. This system is called the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP), and it is maintained by the National Center for Educational Statistics. The “Communications” category within the CIP was originated in 1980 and featured mostly definitions of programs that provided professional education in media fields. The 1980 system also contained a vaguely defined category called “Communications, General,” into which much of the scholarly work in the discipline was placed. There was also a category called “Speech and Rhetorical Studies,” which was included under the general heading of “English.”

In the 2000 revision of the CIP, the “Communications” category dropped the “s” and therefore made the title more generic (communications generally refers only to the media). Professional programs of study were still an important component of the category, but the “General” section was eliminated, and in its place was added a section titled “Communication and Media Studies.” This section described the liberal arts programs in the discipline, where education focused on knowledge generated from theory development, instead of from research on professional practice. Unfortunately, the creators of the CIP retained the category of “Speech and Rhetorical Studies” under “English.” The word speech appearing as a subtopic of English is potentially confusing.

Or perhaps not. After all, there is a communication and media studies category titled “Communication Studies/Speech Communication and Rhetoric,” which uses speech as part of its name. Under this category are listed the following areas of study:

  • Theory and practice of interpersonal, group, organizational, professional, and intercultural communication
  • Speaking and listening
  • Verbal and nonverbal interaction
  • Rhetorical theory and criticism
  • Performance studies
  • Argumentation and persuasion
  • Technologically mediated communication
  • Popular culture

The first group of these areas of study is identified by the context in which communication occurs: two-person face-to-face (interpersonal), three or more people face-toface (group), an organization where not everyone may interact face-to-face (organizational, professional), and face-to-face interaction that takes place between people of different cultures (intercultural). The second group of these areas describes aspects of the communication process (speaking and listening, verbal and nonverbal interaction). The final group describes topics of study within this aspect of the discipline: rhetorical theory and criticism (understanding and critiquing messages and communication situations designed to be persuasive); performance studies (understanding and appreciating how performers interpret texts for audiences); argumentation and persuasion (understanding the nature of arguments and how audiences are influenced by advocacy); technologically mediated communication (understanding how people use technology in communication); and popular culture (understanding the role communication plays in cultural trends).

The second category is titled “Mass Communication/ Media Studies,” and under this category are listed the following areas of study:

  • The analysis and criticism of media institutions and media texts
  • How people experience and understand media content, and the role of media in producing and transforming culture
  • Communications regulation, law, and policy
  • Media history
  • Media aesthetics, interpretation, and criticism (i.e., appreciating and evaluating media as art)
  • The social and cultural effects of mass media
  • Cultural studies (i.e., studying how the media influences our understanding of culture)
  • The economics of media industries
  • Visual and media literacy (i.e., understanding and evaluating how the techniques of media production and visualization affect how richly we can take apart media content)
  • The psychology and behavioral aspects of media messages, interpretation, and utilization

The second major section in the CIP description of “Communication” is titled “Public Relations, Advertising, and Applied Communication.” This section includes courses of study that are primarily professional in orientation, as opposed to the liberal arts orientation of “Communication and Media Studies.” Courses with a professional orientation typically try to ground students in what we know about a given area, but they also focus on how to use what we know in some sort of occupation. Besides advertising and public relations, this section includes the following:

  • Business communication, which focuses on the production of printed and Web-designed materials for business use
  • Organizational communication, which, in this section, focuses on consulting skills for improving communication within organizations
  • Political communication, which, in this section, focuses on the knowledge and skills required to manage political campaigns and the constituent and media relations of officeholders
  • Health communication, which, in this section, focuses on the knowledge and skills required to improve communication in health care settings and between health providers and the public

Organizational, political, and health communication also have substantial bodies of theory associated with them, and so they are also topics of study in the “Communication and Media Studies” part of the discipline.

The third major part is titled “Journalism,” and it is also a section where professional education is the norm at the undergraduate level. The topics of study listed under journalism are likely to be found in most undergraduate programs in U.S. universities. Broadcast journalism is listed as a separate category under the “Journalism” rubric, but at most U.S. universities it is just as likely to be an area of specialization within a journalism program as it is to be a separate field of study.

The final major section is titled “Radio, Television, and Digital Communication.” This part focuses on how media content is produced, from a technical point of view. Included here are two major categories, radio and television production and digital media production (and several that describe related courses of study that are located in other fields, such as films or computer science). The “Radio and Television” category also includes a section on management, that is, understanding how broadcast media are programmed and how the entertainment needs and desires of audiences are assessed. This category is also likely to operate from a professional education perspective at most U.S. institutions of higher education. In fact, some of the practical courses in media production are offered as programs leading to professional or technical certification at 2-year institutions (i.e., community or technical colleges).


Communication is a multifaceted discipline that resists easy classification. I have attempted here to describe it by (a) tracing the history of the areas of study that led to what we now know as communication scholarship; (b) reviewing how communication can be considered a topic of inquiry in some fields of study but how it has emerged over time as its own field with identifiable subfields; and (c) discussing three approaches to conceiving of a communication discipline as (1) a set of scholarly traditions, (2) a collection of undergraduate programs of study, and (3) the contents of the reference work in which this essay is located. Even though all these descriptions are, in their own ways, reasonably accurate and complete, none of them is wholly so. The good thing about the communication discipline is that it is continually growing and changing, and the direction of that growth and change relies on bright and committed individuals becoming fascinated enough with this thing we call “communication” so that they produce the scholarship that takes our field of study in new and interesting directions.


  1. Berlo, D. K. (1960). The process of communication. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.
  2. Cissna, K. N., Eadie, W. F., & Hickson, M., III. (2009). The development of applied communication research. In L. R. Frey & K. N. Cissna (Eds.), Handbook of applied communication research (pp. 3–25). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory, 9, 119–161.
  4. Czitrom, D. J. (1982). Media and the American mind: From Morse to McLuhan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  5. Peters, J. D. (1999). Speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  6. Rogers, E. M. (1994). A history of communication study: A biographical approach. New York: Free Press.
  7. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Classification of instructional programs: 2000 (NCES 2002-165). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

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