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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, we will trace the evolution of communication as a discipline, outline the reasons why we believe that it is a discipline, and discuss three means for describing the content of communication as a discipline, outline the reasons why we believe that it is a discipline, and discuss three means for describing the content of the discipline.

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Communication is a subject that has intrigued both academics and commoners since the dawn of human civilisation. There are traces of writing on the topic in most ancient civilizations throughout the world, but the most comprehensive discourse on the topic comes from ancient Greece, where rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, was vital to any debate of how to be an effective democratic citizen. During the Greek era, communication writing tended to emphasize on how to be a more effective communicator or the function of communication in society. On this subject, the philosopher Plato and his student Aristotle engaged in a heated argument. Plato argued that rhetoric was useful for the pursuit of beauty and for entertainment, but that it should not be used in society because it could lead people away from the truth and force them to make poor choices. Plato favored a philosophical technique he termed dialectic, in which individuals explored attentively for new truths based on what was already known. Aristotle, on the other hand, argued that the purpose of rhetoric was to assist individuals in constructing plausible truths from what was known or might be derived. Aristotle believed that rhetoric was essential to both the content and form of communication.

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Rhetoric as a Key to Communication

Throughout history, rhetoric was an essential subject for educated people to learn, but how it was studied depended to some degree on the makeup of the culture in which the study took place. In the days of ancient Roman democracy, for instance, Cicero penned a guide for organizing the substance of public speaking that is still used in courses on the subject. Quintilian, the era’s foremost educator, defined rhetoric almost entirely in terms of style when he claimed that rhetoric consisted of “a good man speaking well” during the Roman Empire’s more autocratic control.

The style aspect of rhetoric started to predominate, to the point that it was believed that good rhetoric was not only stylish but also stylized. Entire volumes were published on elocution, which professed to educate a speaker on the proper forms of speech, acceptable diction, and how the body should be positioned to communicate specific emotions. Observe the players in a Restoration-era play (from 1660 to the early 1700s) and you will observe the highly stylized behavior that contributed to the success of those works of entertainment.

The publication of George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric in 1776 brought rhetoric back to a concentration on substance. Campbell highlighted that diverse reasons for speaking (to inform, to convince, and to entertain) required different approaches. The quality of one’s ideas, according to Campbell, was the key to success. Campbell claimed that since ideas possessed their own vitality, rhetoric did not need to be disguised with excessive style. This strategy was highly tempting to intellectuals in the newly founded United States of America, who viewed the pursuit of innovative ideas as fundamental to the development of a functional democracy. In the early days of the United States, while professors of literature at colleges and universities continued to investigate how rhetorical style was utilized to create beautiful essays, novels, and poems, debating societies argued about the best ideas for constructing a stronger democracy. Typically, these debating organizations were not an official part of the university curriculum, but soon colleges and universities began recruiting instructors who were skilled at teaching students how to utilize rhetoric to successfully communicate their ideas vocally and in writing.

Technology and the Beginnings of Professional Journalism

The invention of printing and the accompanying rise in literacy, or the ability to read and write, among common people contributed not only to the preservation of ideas but also to the advancement of public discourse on significant problems. As a means of generating a consistent income for their businesses, printers began to report and publish the news, and they trained their apprentices to gather and compose the news for distribution. Edmund Burke, a British politician, is credited with naming the press “The Fourth Estate” (the other “estates” were the clergy, the aristocracy, and the commoners) and recognizing the press as the most influential of them all. His tenure highlighted the significance of journalism in a democratic society. In addition to including freedom of expression and a free press in the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers of the United States understood the significance of these concepts.

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

With the introduction of big public colleges in the United States, particularly “land grant institutions” whose goals included the promotion of agriculture and technology in the regions they served, formal teaching in oral rhetoric, or speech, and journalism entered higher education. Land grant colleges sought to educate exceptional students whose parents were not among the elite; these students were unfamiliar with the notion that they could utilize their education to become leaders in society. Therefore, speech education centered on developing and supporting one’s ideas for oral presentation in a manner that appealed to the specific audience the speaker intended to address. In contrast, journalism has shifted from being taught as a trade to being taught as a career. Journalists, as members of the Fourth Estate, were required to grasp not just how to report and write accurately and effectively, but also the background and history of the problems they reported on. Land-grant universities prioritized democracy above all other values, and effective speech and a free press were the pillars of democracy.

In the English departments of many colleges and universities, speaking and journalism were taught. As English shared an interest in rhetoric with speech and an interest in writing with journalism, this arrangement made some sense. The fact that English academics approached rhetoric differently than speech instructors and that English professors viewed writing as a liberal art while journalism professors viewed it as a career further generated difficulties. Thus, journalism and speech instructors began to withdraw from the English department and establish independent programs. In addition, they each established independent professional associations from the National Council of Teachers of English. The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication was created in 1912 by journalism faculty, while the National Communication Association was established in 1914 by speech professors.

Both speech and journalism academics were more concerned with teaching than research. They were aware that universities were focusing on both teaching and research that generated new information, but they resisted becoming researchers. Many journalism faculty members had professional experience as working journalists, and they wished to keep their professional identity while preparing the next generation of journalists. In the case of speech teachers, the majority were focused on teaching students how to become more effective oral communicators, and there was considerable dispute as to what constitutes legitimate scholarship. Although speech professors began publishing a scholarly magazine almost immediately after creating their association, the majority of the scholarship published in that journal focused on the diagnosis and treatment of speech problems such as stuttering.

Communication as an Agent of Social Order and Change

In the meantime, a second new branch of study, sociology, was gaining traction across the nation, particularly at the University of Chicago. Sociology was a natural topic of study at the University of Chicago, which was intended not just to be a premier educational institution but also to research and improve the poor and working class communities that surrounding the city. The sociology program at the University of Chicago became crucial to the university’s goal, and it created its own expertise or fostered knowledge in other disciplines that would assist it in achieving its objective. The emergence of several channels of mass communication, such as, in large cities, rival newspapers, film screenings for entertainment, and, later, radio, prompted Chicago professor Robert Park and others to develop the first theories of mass communication.

John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, two prominent philosophers, also lived in Chicago. Together, Dewey and Mead landed in Chicago and became great friends. Even though Dewey moved from Chicago to Columbia in 1904, Mead and Dewey maintained touch. Both were concerned in how people employed symbols in their thinking and how they gained and communicated meaning with others. Therefore, Mead and Dewey can be regarded as early theorists of face-to-face communication, despite the fact that neither of them probably viewed themselves as such. In spite of this, both Mead and Dewey’s views continue to impact communication researchers today. In addition, Chicago’s sociology program was particularly inspired by Mead, and it became a champion of Mead’s views regarding symbolic interaction and its significance in the formation of societies. Formal communication scholarship may have begun in Chicago, but communication there was more of a subset of a larger attempt to define and enhance communities and the larger society in which they were situated.

Unquestionably, the growth of media technology and the unrest in the world following World War I contributed to the advancement of communication study. Radio’s immediacy and capacity to offer information that was even more recent than what was sent by the telegraph likely prompted researchers to become concerned about how the media would influence politics and public opinion. Both researchers and policymakers were worried about the use of various forms of media for propaganda goals during World War I, which remained in Europe after the conclusion of that war.

In diverse ways, a number of researchers, the most of whom were working outside the mainstream of their academic fields of study, began to investigate these topics. Notable among these scholars was a group of European refugees (such as Paul Lazarsfeld and Kurt Lewin) who fled to the United States to avoid persecution. These researchers contributed considerably to the knowledge of how media content and presentation interacts with face-to-face communication in order to shape and alter public perceptions.

During World War II, a group of academics and artists assembled in Washington, D.C., to use what they had learned about the effective use of media in producing and fighting propaganda. This group worked at the Office of War Information; among them was Wilbur Schramm, who had resigned as director of the renowned Iowa Writers Workshop in order to contribute to the war effort. Schramm was captivated by what his social science colleagues had learnt, and after his time in Washington, he desired to put this information to use. Additionally, he desired to return to the University of Iowa, where the only suitable position available was director of the School of Journalism. Schramm accepted the position and utilized it to establish a Bureau of Communication Research and commence a PhD program in mass communication. Before his retirement, Schramm’s career would take him to the University of Illinois and Stanford University, where he would develop a distinguished communication department centered on mass communication research.

Similarly, the social psychologist Carl Hovland, who was also among the scholars in the Office of War Information, returned to Yale and continued to study propaganda and mass communication. This research inspired him to broaden his communication studies, focusing on social interaction and attitude modification. Among Hovland’s classmates at the Yale Program in Communication and Attitude Change were future social psychology luminaries.

Journalism and Speech Become Communication

Scholars in journalism programs engaged in social science study in mass communication, in part at the encouragement of Schramm. Speech experts, led by Elwood Murray of the University of Denver and others, began to do the same for face-to-face and group communication. Murray and a group of academics founded the International Communication Association. Despite the group’s decision to be multidisciplinary, it was controlled by speech researchers and acted as a mechanism for them to become involved in communication research.

The publication of David K. Berlo’s book, The Process of Communication, in 1960 marked a turning point for speech scholars. Berlo outlined a communication model that, while not radically distinct from those proposed by other researchers, emphasized face-to-face communication. The model outlined variables that could be examined to gain a better understanding of face-to-face communication, and it introduced the term process to indicate that theorizing about communication could not simply focus on its individual components, but must also consider how those components fit together.

A group of speech researchers gathered in New Orleans in 1968 advocated redefining the academic study of speech to include the study of communication.

Over time, speech became less prevalent and communication took its place in conveying what transpired when individuals spoke. In a similar manner, the word mass communication has gradually been superseded by media studies. And “communication” experts stopped discriminating between mediated and face-to-face contact and began to use the term more broadly to define a field of study.

Communication as a Topic, Field, and Discipline

Thus, communication evolved from an area of research within sociology, social psychology, and political science to a subject of study within journalism and speech, and then to a discipline that embraced and transcended the bounds of both speech and journalism. Communication remains a topic of interest in sociology, social psychology, and political science, among other disciplines, and this continued interest has led some scholars to argue that communication is an interdisciplinary field of study rather than a true academic discipline.

The argument for communication as a subject centers on the fact that communication scholars have historically conducted research utilizing theories and methods created by other disciplines and have desired publication of their research findings in the journals of other fields. This argument is mostly predicated on the notion that communication scholarship is inferior to scholarship in other fields and that communication as a field of study lacks status. This claim is supported by the fact that communication journals cite articles from other disciplines more frequently than journals in other disciplines cite communication scholarship. Evidence is also derived from the fact that communication is underrepresented as a field of study in prominent U.S. colleges and from the perception that communication researchers and, by extension, communication scholarship, are generally unknown.

The case for communication as a discipline recognizes the evidence for the opposing argument, but adds evidence that illustrates the evolution of scholarship in communication. This evidence includes the proliferation of communication journals, the shift away from self-publication of these journals by scholarly associations and toward publication by academic presses, and the continued low rate of articles accepted for publication, despite the proliferation of scholarly journals devoted to some aspect of communication. The evidence also includes the National Research Council’s upcoming ranking of communication doctoral programs for the first time; the National Science Foundation’s classification of communication as a scholarly, as opposed to professional, discipline; and the National Institutes of Health’s creation of funding categories for health communication research. And prominent U.S. colleges are beginning to finance venues where communication scholarship occurs in some way, even if they lack a designated academic department for communication.

Communication’s Subfields of Study

A discipline has its own body of knowledge, its own set of theories and accompanying research methodologies, and a number of distinct subfields of study. A large variety of publications, including one devoted just to publishing theoretical essays, contribute to the growth of communication’s body of knowledge (Communication Theory). Initial research methods may have been copied, but communication scholars have modified them to match the type of studies sought. Moreover, there are subfields that produce a steady stream of doctoral-level scholars. In 2004, the National Communication Association ranked PhD schools in communication that focused on subfields. The analysis identified nine subfields from which at least 15 of the 67 responding universities produced PhD graduates. 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 were the subfields included.

Numerous of these subfields discuss the situations in which communication takes place, such as one-on-one or in small groups, organizations, politics, and health care settings. Rhetorical studies and mass communication are well-known early study subjects within the discipline. Two of the subfields, communication and technology and intercultural/international communication, examine how humans use and engage with various technologies and new media, as well as with individuals from other nations or cultures within the same country. Lastly, critical/cultural studies of communication/media examine how face-to-face communication and the media both reflect the power structures of the societies in which they occur and are an integral part of the construction of those power structures, which have a significant impact on how we comprehend our cultures and interpret symbols within those cultures.

Three Approaches to Describing the Communication Discipline

There are at least three other methods for characterizing the communication field that should be discussed in this research paper. The first is an academic description of communication as a set of scholarly “traditions.” The second is a description of the communication field established by the National Center for Educational Statistics for the purpose of collecting and reporting data on higher education instructional programs in the United States. In addition, the organization of this reference work facilitates comprehension of the communication discipline’s subject matter.

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 ought to be a familiar topic at this point. According to Craig, the emphasis of the rhetorical tradition is on speech, which can be communicated face-to-face and via media. Rhetoric has traditionally been viewed as an art rather than a science, thus the best method for studying it has been through the application of critique, that is, by examining the discourse itself and determining how its makers utilized various tactics to optimize the consequences of the discourse. Consequently, whether reviewing the text of a speech, a newspaper editorial, a film, or a television program, the critic looks under the surface to determine how language is being utilized for the objectives of persuasion.

The Semiotic TraditionSemiotics is the study of signs and symbols, as well as their utilization. Scholars who follow the semiotic tradition investigate how people collaborate to make meaning and how meanings can be changed through the same process. The most prevalent use of the semiotic tradition has been to analyze media content in order to expose how signs and symbols have been utilized to produce aesthetic forms of meaning.

The Phenomenological TraditionThis tradition takes a philosophical approach to the communication process. It encourages transparency and honesty in both voice and behavior and views effective communication as a dialogue. This tradition analyzes communication in search of misunderstandings and ways to repair them for the greater good of society as a whole.

The Cybernetic Tradition. Cybernetics is the study of system control. Using a mechanical system, the most frequent example is a thermostat, which controls when heating or air conditioning should be switched on and off to maintain a comfortable environment. Similarly, the basic cybernetic function of a communication system is feedback, with positive input urging the system to continue running normally and negative feedback signaling that something must be altered. Cybernetic scholars typically investigate how communication networks are governed and how they might be modified to be more efficient and productive. Information flow inside a cybernetic system is the subject of cybernetics research.

The Sociopsychological TraditionThis tradition has historically produced the most scholarship in the field of communication. In this paradigm, scholars are often concerned in attitudes, behaviors, and interaction patterns that can be isolated and examined as objects that exist in the real world, as opposed to as something that is manufactured. This type of research frequently isolates factors to be studied (e.g., do women and men speak differently?) and investigates these variables using methods that can be quantified and statistically examined. This tradition serves as the foundation for numerous theories of interpersonal communication and media effects.

The Sociocultural TraditionThis tradition stretches back to the sociological roots of the study of communication, however communication researchers who adhere to this tradition often avoid thinking in terms of “causes” and “effects.” Instead, these researchers believe that communication is formed by the participants, and that, in turn, these constructs influence our perceptions of society and culture. Communication develops and reproduces the societal and cultural patterns we recognize.

The Critical TraditionIn part, the critical tradition derives from the sociocultural tradition. This tradition also examines media and communication at the societal and cultural levels, but focuses on how communication contributes to the formation and re-formation of power structures within a society. In turn, these power structures aim to sustain themselves by normalizing themselves through both discourse and media content. Scholars within this school view critique of society as both a natural and essential component of their work.

Craig’s essay argued that communication scholars gravitate toward one of these traditions, identify with it, and then pursue scholarship only from that tradition, although he acknowledged that some scholarship has been accomplished by generating findings from multiple traditions and then attempting to use those findings to produce a richer view of a particular communication topic than would otherwise be possible. Craig felt it positive that this type of integration was occurring, as it tended to diminish the false distinctions between techniques. Craig stated, however, that performing scholarship from these diverse traditions could actually increase the knowledge base of the discipline, provided that scholars working within these traditions are prepared to integrate the scholarly ideas coming from these traditions. Despite the fact that there was once a time when proponents of each style supported their own type of scholarship at the expense of scholarship from the other traditions, this argument appears to be mostly irrelevant today.

Communication as a Collection of Programs of Study

The second way to characterizing the field focuses on what we teach, specifically the types of undergraduate programs we offer. The federal government of the United States collects voluminous data on programs of study at colleges and universities across the nation; to do so, it requires a category system for the data. The National Center for Educational Statistics maintains this system, which is known as the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP). The “Communications” category of the CIP was established in 1980 and primarily comprised definitions of programs offering professional education in media sectors. The 1980 system also included a category titled “Communications, General” that contained the majority of the scholarly work in the field. In addition, there was a category titled “Speech and Rhetorical Studies” listed under the general name “English.”

In the 2000 revision of the CIP, the “Communications” category lost the s, making the title more comprehensive (communications generally refers only to the media). Professional programs of study remained an integral part of the category, but the “General” section was abolished and “Communications and Media Studies” was added in its place. This section described the liberal arts programs in the field, which emphasized instruction based on theory development as opposed to professional practice research. Unfortunately, the CIP’s architects kept the “Speech and Rhetorical Studies” area under “English.” The use of the word speech as a subtopic of English is possibly confusing.

Or possibly not. In fact, there is a category in communication and media studies called “Communication Studies/Speech Communication and Rhetoric” that includes the word “speech” in its title. 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 is distinguished by the context in which communication occurs: two-person face-to-face (interpersonal), three or more people face-to-face (group), an organization in which not everyone interacts face-to-face (organizational, professional), and face-to-face interaction between people of different cultures (intercultural). Aspects of the communication process are described by the second set of these domains (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 persuasive messages and communication situations); 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 and appreciating how technology influences communication); and technologically mediated communication (understanding and appreciating how technology influences communication) (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

“Public Relations, Advertising, and Applied Communication” is the title of the second major section of the “Communication” CIP description. In contrast to the liberal arts focus of “Communications and Media Studies,” the courses listed in this area are predominantly professional in nature. Typically, courses with a professional orientation attempt to base students in what we know about a certain subject, but they also emphasize how to use this knowledge in the workplace. 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 main section is labeled “Journalism,” and it is also the segment where undergraduate professional education is the standard. The subjects mentioned under journalism can be found in the majority of undergraduate programs at U.S. universities. Broadcast journalism is recognized as a distinct category inside the “Journalism” rubric, but at the majority of U.S. colleges, it is more likely to be a concentration within a journalism degree than a separate field of study.

The final major section is titled “Radio, Television, and Digital Communication.” This section focuses on the production of media material from a technological standpoint. Radio and television production and digital media production are the two primary genres included here (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 contains a section on management, which entails knowing how broadcast media are programmed and assessing the entertainment demands and wishes of consumers. This group is also likely to operate from a professional education standpoint at the majority of U.S. higher education institutions. In fact, some 2-year colleges and universities provide degrees leading to professional or technical certification in media creation (i.e., community or technical colleges).


Communication is a complicated field that defies simple categorization. I have attempted to describe it by (a) tracing the history of the fields of study that led to what we now call 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 collection of scholarly traditions, (2) a collection of undergraduate programs, and (3) a collection of graduate programs. Although each of these accounts is reasonably accurate and exhaustive in its own manner, none of them is entirely so. The good thing about the communication field is that it is constantly growing and changing, and the direction of that growth and change depends on bright and dedicated individuals becoming so fascinated with this thing we call “communication” that they produce the scholarship that propels 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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