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
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.

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.

Send a Valentine to FCC Chairman Martin

The media watchdog group freepress has produced a great little video valentine to send to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Kevin Martin. Whether you feel like sending the valentine to him or not, the video is worth watching! Just click on the picture below…

Valentine for Kevin Martin

By the way, the FCC Chairman will be holding a public hearing in Harrisburn on Friday, February 23. For more information, visit Stop Big Media, and/or view the FCC’s agenda for the meeting.

Say it isn’t so Torgeir!

As an American of Norwegian descent (my grandparents came over on “the boat” from the Bergen area) I was particularly disappointed to recently read Torgeir Waterhouse’s reaction to Steve Job’s “open letter” on music and FairPlay, the digital rights management (DRM) system used by Apple on the iTunes music store.

Job’s letter is in part a response to a complaint against Apple filed by Torgeir in his capacity as Senior Adviser to the Consumer Council of Norway. In that complaint (full text pdf here) Torgeir is quoted as saying that iTunes:

“blocks consumers from breaking the copy protection, or DRM, if they want to use other MP3 players than Apple’s iPod. This is a clear breach of the Copyright Act.”

Anyone who has used iTunes, at least in this country, knows this statement is simply not true. No one purchasing music on the iTunes Music Store is blocked in any way from listening to iTunes-purchased music on whatever device they wish. Yes, some players don’t support the AAC format, but that has nothing to do with the FairPlay DRM.
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The Disappointing State of SPSS

I recently installed SPSS, what is generally considered the premier statistical program for social scientists, onto a colleague’s Intel-based MacBook Pro. Rather than install SPSS for the Mac, we opted for installing SPSS for Windows (version 15.01) on a Bootcamp partition on the MacBook Pro. One reason for this is because our campus has a site license for SPSS for Windows, but not one for SPSS for the Mac. But more importantly, SPSS for the Mac is not currently supported by SPSS on Intel-based Macs (which includes all Mac models released in the last year).

It seems rather odd that SPSS would post this rather confusing disclaimer about SPSS for the Mac on their website:

SPSS does not support the use of any existing version of SPSS for Mac OS X on the new Intel®-based Mac hardware, including SPSS 11.x or 13.0. The use of the Rosetta emulation software interferes with the numerical calculations in SPSS. We therefore are unable to support any version of SPSS on Intel-based Macintosh machines.

In other words, if you want to run SPSS today on a new Mac, you have to run SPSS for Windows using a bootloader (like Bootcamp) or virtualization software (like Parallels or VMWare). Running SPSS for Mac OS X under Mac OS X on a new Mac is not supported, at least not now. SPSS does state that they plan on releasing sometime during 2007 a version of their program that will run on Intel-based Macs. For now, however, the most viable option for Mac users who need to run SPSS on a new Mac is to run SPSS for Windows using Bootcamp (which technically is still a beta product).
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Windows Vista and the Experience Index

Windows Experience Index scoreAmong the new features of Vista, Microsoft’s new operating system, is the “Windows Experience Index.” The index is a number that Vista calculates that offers a simple overall assessment of how well your computer can handle the demands of the operating system. Actually, the number Vista provides is based on an examination of five key attributes of your computer:

1. Processor speed (rated by calculations per second)
2. Memory speed (rated by operations per second)
3. Graphics (standard graphics performance)
4. Gaming graphics (3D graphics performance)
5. Primary hard disk (data transfer rate)

For each of these five areas, Vista calculates a score from 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest. It then reports the lowest of the five scores as your “Windows Experience Index” in a pretty blue box. Clicking on it will take you to a screen where you can see all five scores, as well as links to more detailed information about the index.

Windows Experience Index details

This seems like a useful feature to help one determine how well Vista runs on their computer and whether it’s time to install memory or processor upgrades. It could also be useful when comparison shopping for new computers.
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