What is communication?

A number of students have been asking me lately to define a set of terms that are used quite often in communication studies. One of my colleagues, Dr. Kanan Sawyer, has asked her students to ask other faculty for these definitions as part of an assignment in her class on communication careers. While I’m always happy to speak with students, I thought it might be useful to record my responses on my blog for consistency and expediency.

Dr. Sawyer asked students to seek out definitions for the following terms:

Speech Communication
Communication Studies
Communications
Communication Technology
Mass Communication

Below is my attempt to define these terms, primarily from a disciplinary perspective. For the convenience of Dr. Sawyer’s students, I’ve added these terms as section titles so that they may go directly to a specific term of interest. Still, I would encourage students to read the entire blog post if time permits.

Speech Communication
For me, the term “Speech Communication” is mainly of historical significance. It’s the term that arose in the 1960s to describe the growing scope of the academic study of speech. It was a sort of compromise term to appease both those who taught speech and those who taught other subjects being offered by speech programs (such as journalism, broadcasting and public relations). The discipline of communication studies typically traces its origins to the establishment of speech departments in the early 20th century (most notably at Cornell and Iowa). These early speech departments were formed primarily by disgruntled teachers of rhetoric within English departments, who felt that English departments didn’t give the study of rhetoric much respect. So from about 1912 to the mid 1960s, speech grew as an academic discipline, and speech departments became established at schools around the country. In many cases, speech joined with theater to create “speech and theater” departments (which I believe is what our department here at West Chester was called many years ago). But by the 1950s, many speech (and “speech and theater”) departments were offering courses in many things besides speech, and the discipline was starting to experience some growing pains. It was becoming obvious that speech departments were teaching much more than “speech,” so the term “speech communication” arose as a more descriptive term for what we did. It became official in 1970 when the Speech Association of America changed its name to the Speech Communication Association. It would change its name again to the National Communication Association in 1997, reflecting what many believe to be the shrinking role of speech studies in the overall scope of the discipline. Still, scholars of speech and rhetoric remain a vital part of our discipline, and the term “speech communication” today is often used to describe the study of speech within the broader discipline of communication.

Communication Studies
“Communication Studies” is a more recent term that reflects our discipline’s move beyond our origins in the study of speech. Of the terms in the above list, this one is probably the broadest in scope. As such, it is often the preferred term to describe our discipline (some prefer to use simply “communication”). Many departments that were previously known as departments of “speech,” “speech and theater” or “speech communication” have changed to departments of “communication studies” or “communication.” This includes the department here at West Chester University, which was previously known as the Department of Speech and Theater, prior to theater breaking off to form its own department in the early 1980s.

Communications
Note that as I’ve used the term so far in this blog post, I have typically not added an “s” at the end of communication. There’s a good reason for that. The term “communications” typically is used to describe the products of communication: things like newspapers, radio programs, TV shows, films, etc. Within the discipline of communication, there are those who take offense when an “s” is added to the end of the term. This is especially true among those who don’t study media, since the term “communications” implies a focus on media and media products. In common use, when people refer to communications as a discipline, they typically mean some kind of applied media study, such as that offered by journalism schools and radio-TV-film programs. As you might imagine, I’m not too bothered by students who say they are “communications” majors, but some of my colleagues cringe when they hear that.

Communication Technology
“Communication Technology” is the newest term among those on this list. Within the discipline of communication studies, those who study “communication technology” focus on the increasingly important role of technology, and especially computer technology, in human communication. Many who study communication technology, including myself, began their careers studying broadcast technology. As broadcasting became increasingly digital, and with the growth of the internet as a platform for distribution of broadcast content, the term “communication technology” arose as a more descriptive term for those who study the media and especially the production of content for the media. “Computer-mediated communication” was a term that was used by many for awhile (including myself) but it never really received wide acceptance. (I think that’s because the concept of “mediated” is not as commonly associated with “media” among non-specialists as it is among communication scholars.) “Media studies” has come to imply a more narrow focus on the media, usually emphasizing the sociocultural impact of media. The term “communication technology” still retains a broader scope for most in the field. For this reason, I tend to say that I’m a “scholar of communication technology” (although sometimes I prefer to use the term “media ecologist,“ reflecting my particular interest in media environments.)

Mass Communication
“Mass Communication” is a term that is still widely used, although it is gradually being replaced by the terms “media studies” (to describe the study of media from a historical, social, cultural or economic perspective) or the term “communication technology” (to describe the study of media technology and its role in the production of content for the media). The term is still officially used in the title of COM 212, but I often prefer to use the terms “media of communication” or “communication media” when talking about this course. That’s because most of the media have become “demassified.” Essentially, the media today tend to target narrow audience niches rather than “the masses.” So while many people still use the term “mass communication” to describe the practice and study of communication through the media, the “mass” part of the term is gradually being phased out as the media continue to demassify. In common use, when people use the term “mass communication,” they typically include the broadcast media of radio and TV, and may include the legacy print media (books, newspapers and magazines) as well as film, sound recordings, and newer media, including the internet. A similar term that has fallen out of favor in some circles is “telecommunication” (which seems to have become a synonym for telephone communications, although historically the term has included a much broader range of technologies).

Of course, any attempt to define a term is going to make generalizations that reflect the biases of the one making the definition. Yet perhaps these brief attempts to define these terms will be useful to students as they seek out other definitions, and work to develop their own perspectives.