Centre for Culture, Media & Governance organized a symposium on Interdisciplinarity in Communication Studies on 6 November 2013 at Tagore Hall, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The following scholars made presentations in the symposium:
1. Prof. David Deacon, Professor of Communication and Media Analysis and Head of Department for Social Sciences, Loughborough University, UK
2. Dr. Laura Stein, Associate Professor in the Department of Radio-TV-Film, University of Texas, Austin, US.
3. Prof. Biswajit Das, Professor and Director, Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi
4. Prof. Graham Murdock, Professor of Culture and Economy, Loughborough University, UK
5. Dr. Emily Keightley, Senior Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies, Loughborough University, UK
6. Prof. John Downey, Professor of Comparative Media, Loughborough University, UK
7. Dr. Pradip Ninan Thomas, Associate Professor and Co-Director, Centre for Communication and Social Change, University of Queensland, Australia
8. Prof. Bishnu Mohapatra, Professor, Azim Premji University, India
The Indian Medialogue presents transcript of the proceedings moderated by Dr. Pradip Ninan Thomas. Below is the second part. (The first part can be accessed here).
Dr. Laura Stein
Associate Professor, Department of Radio, TV and Film, University of Texas at Austin, USA
Hi everyone, I work at the University of Texas and thanks for inviting me to be on the panel. I was asked to speak about the American experience of interdisciplinarity in Communication Studies and I am not sure how different the American experience is going to be from the experience elsewhere in the world. I think Communication Studies everywhere seems to be a very deeply interdisciplinary endeavour. But I would like to talk a little bit about how the field looks from a US perspective, and the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinarity and interdisciplinary approaches. To do this, I shall draw on my personal experience as a Communication Studies professor for the last ten years. I also have some recent observations made by Craig Calhoun when he was the head of the Social Science Research Council, which is an important research funding body in the US, and recently reports from the US National Science Foundation, which is another important funding body.
Maybe, unlike the UK, I think communication is enjoying a kind of tendency in the US where it has suddenly been understood as an important area of study and one that has something to contribute to multiple other areas. I think this has happened in part because of the rise of new media industries and because of the proliferation of information and communication technologies in every area of life. So we are in a situation where, maybe unlike the UK, there wasn’t a lot of funding for Communication Studies in the past but now there is starting to be. Only now has the Social Science Research Council begun to take Communication Studies under its wing as an explicit area of study, and so has the National Science Foundation, and so on.
So, as Pradip said, and I would agree, Communication Studies has always been an interdisciplinary field. In his book on the history of the field, Edward Rogers says that Communication Studies began in the US in the 1940s with interdisciplinary research around communication problems that were connected to, or seen as connected to, problems arising in World War II. Early communication research is something that is conducted by social scientists and scientists, and not by anybody who has expertise in communication per se. Early research addresses a variety of issues including things like the effectiveness of military training, films, content analysis, propaganda, how to automate calculations necessary to aim anti-aircraft guns, and how to send secured communication – cryptography, essentially. And then Calhoun more recently described the field of communication as ”wildly heterogeneous”. In the US, there are different aspects of Communication Studies that actually can fall into any one of the three major headings that are used to describe academic disciplines: the humanities, social sciences and sciences. There are aspects of communication studies that fall under the sciences: there are people who are studying Communication Sciences. Other aspects fall under the humanities, or under the social sciences, and it is not at all unusual to find, within the same department, people grounded in humanities approaches and people grounded in much more social scientific approaches. Communication Studies covers very diverse topics and draws upon very diverse contexts and disciplines.
Yesterday, I pulled out a list of the divisions and interest groups in the International Communication Association (ICA) , which is arguably the premier professional association in the field. It gives you a sense of the diversity of what is going on within Communication Studies. Some of the different divisions and interests groups include those on Children, Adolescents and Media; Communication and Technology; Communication History; Communication Law and Policy; Environmental Communication; Feminist Scholarship; Game Studies; Global Communication and Social Change; Health Communication; Information Systems; Inter-Group and Inter-Personal Communication; Journalism Studies; Political Communication; Public Relations; and I could go on. It gives you a sense of the diversity of things that are being done under ”communication”. And each of these areas often requires familiarity with very different contexts and frameworks. That might be a historical context, or a research context, and depending on what you are studying you may need to be an expert in human cognitive processing, or you may need to know a lot about Indian industrial and political history, or the global human rights regime, or some other relevant context to a communication problem – and these can be widely different, depending on what area of communication you are studying. And the disciplines that you might draw into are also very wide-ranging. And these kinds of multiple disciplines are brought in to answer different kinds of questions, whether you are bringing in a disciplinary framework from Speech or Policy Analysis, or Cultural Studies, or Political Economy, or whatever it might be.
So early on, Communication Studies drew in scholars from a variety of disciplines, as Edward Rogers suggested, including areas as diverse as Literature, History, Psychology and Sociology. If you look at the history of how communication programmes arose in the US, it depended on who got interested in communication first. It could be the psychology department or the literature department or the sociology department, and in some places Communication Studies is still kind of housed in those spaces. I think it continues to pull in people from other disciplines today, and lately I have seen a lot of people in the US attracted to communication issues from the area of Anthropology, or from Law, or Library Studies which has now been renamed as Information Studies. So we continue to be an area of study which more and more disciplines are becoming aware of as relevant to what they do. These scholars often bring analytical techniques and frameworks with them from their respective fields to answer questions that somewhere have to do with communication.
I can personally relate to this, because my own interest in Communication Studies was very much through the path of Literary Studies. After studying English Literature in the US and UK which mostly consisted of textual analysis of novels, I began to ask some broader questions about literature. What did novels have in common as a form? Why did they arrive at a particular moment in history, and why does a media form arrive at a particular moment? What broader social context influenced the form of novels? What social functions do they fulfil, and what context and conditions are shaping today’s media forms? How do these forms, in turn, shape how people think about the world and their societies? That is one small example of how questions about communication and media can quickly begin to convert disciplines, although I wouldn’t say that communication scholars have really paid adequate attention to print media or that scholars understand the broader potential dimensions of their field. I have personally continued to take very interdisciplinary approaches to the work I do, and to ask questions that require familiarity with multiple disciplines to be able to answer.
So in my book ”Speech Rights in America”, I look at how speech rights have been understood in US law and policy, and to do this I draw on Political Philosophy and try to understand what communication should ideally be in a democracy, and what are some of the normative theories we can draw on to think about democratic communication. I draw on the field of Critical Legal Studies to dissect court cases dealing with media and studies. I also go into Communication Policy Studies to think about policy prescriptions and recommendations that could better protect free speech in a democratic society. I therefore draw in multiple disciplines that are not normally connected to communication to answer the question about how speech rights can be understood in relation to contemporary media. In some ways the compulsion to seek insights from other fields to answer communication questions is a frustrating process, and certainly requires a lot of work.
For instance, I’m currently looking at how social movement actors in India are using Information Communication Technology in their work. Just in preparation for the project I read pretty widely on the sociology of social movements, which doesn’t talk all that much about communication but it does think through the purposes and organization of social movements. I read a lot in Technology Studies which is a bigger field, but which now has very much been incorporated into Communication Studies in the US, and in some ways could become a major line of thinking within Communication Studies. I looked at the new field called the Philosophy of Information, where they are trying to synthesize prevailing concepts about information and understand it in more coherent ways than has been done in the past. And also Indian history. And then, looking just across the field of communication, I thought I needed to go into some of the literature on the political economy of information, and I needed to go to Journalism Studies to understand and see what they have to say about information, and I needed to go to alternative media and to think about that in the light of social movement uses of communication.
So another way to look at this approach is that it is enormously time-consuming. It requires the willingness to do the work of theoretical bridge-building between disciplines, and to bring your readers up to speed as well, because oftentimes you are drawing on things you think are relevant to the problem but which haven’t necessarily been well-traversed within Communication Studies. However, I think the rewards in terms of the depth of understanding and its helping us to see the bigger picture are truly great and it is still worth doing this kind of work.
So another way to look at this approach is that it is enormously time-consuming. It requires the willingness to do the work of theoretical bridge-building between disciplines, and to bring your readers up to speed as well, because oftentimes you are drawing on things you think are relevant to the problem but which haven’t necessarily been well-traversed within Communication Studies. However, I think the rewards in terms of the depth of understanding and its helping us to see the bigger picture are truly great and it is still worth doing this kind of work. So interdisciplinarity is also liberating, and it is easy to make connections between things that are happening in the world, and to view problems from a variety of angles and to ask questions that are not limited by any artificial disciplinary boundaries. I think this is really important in Communication Studies because communication isn’t staying still, and as new technologies and industries are evolving and uses are changing, you need to be open to rethinking the field on an almost ongoing basis. Interdisciplinarity allows us to ask these kinds of new and bigger-picture questions that might not even have been there ten years ago.
One subfield which has done a pretty good job of addressing problems in an interdisciplinary way and from a variety of angles is the subfield of Environmental Communication. If the problem is broadly understood as humans’ destructive relationship with the environment and what is required for human and environmental survival, they have really been able to use multiple tactics, approaches and methods. The subfield of Environmental Communication has looked at the environmental rhetoric and discourse, at media and environmental journalism, at public participation in environmental decision-making, at advocacy campaigns and their effectiveness, at environmental collaboration and conflict resolution, at miscommunication, and at the representation of nature in popular culture and in ”green marketing”. So they really look at the bigger-picture problem after examining all the scenarios and picking multiple avenues, and understand all of the dimensions of the problem. Is there anyone here from Health Communication? Health Communication is a subfield which I think could do a much better job at being interdisciplinary and thinking about a whole range of questions that haven’t really been raised yet within that subfield.
So interdisciplinarity is not simply the lack of discipline but a way to pick the best that different disciplines have to offer in order to answer broader questions.
In a recent report on fostering research in the social, behavioural and economic sciences, the National Science Foundation in the US said the future of research in these areas is interdisciplinary, collaborative and probably in data-intensive work. It also identified the need for systematic training in methods of interdisciplinary research. So interdisciplinarity is not simply the lack of discipline but a way to pick the best that different disciplines have to offer in order to answer broader questions. It also spoke about the need to create an infrastructure for such training and capacity-building. It further suggested – and this is good news for scholars – that preference be given to work in Communication, Language, Linguistics, Technology, New Media and Social Networking. This report was based on conversations they had with a lot of communication scholars and social scientists out there in the academy. And some of the critical questions they thought needed to be answered through interdisciplinary work in the next five to ten years included things like how science is communicated to the public, how Information and Communication Technology is affecting every realm of life – whether economics, politics, health, culture, whatever it might be – and how social media is fostering new avenues of communication and knowledge-creation. This is generally good news for Communication Studies in the US, which has often tried to this kind of interdisciplinary work but without any funding support and with very little research support. In the past, in the Social Science Research Council, Communication Studies was not even listed as a discipline. You could apply, but it was not on their mental map as a field of study out there.
So it seems that interdisciplinarity, which has always been a big part of Communication Studies in the past, has now been more formally recognized as a part of the future as well. Communication is finally being taken under the wing of funders of relevant disciplines, even if this is primarily for people who do the social science and the scientific variations of Communication Studies. But it isn’t good news for people who take a humanities approach. Although I will say that even people who take humanities approaches and qualitative analytical methods are starting to be valued by the media industry by helping to explain how people are responding to new technologies, and so on. But they are still not being considered by the funders even though their working is getting much broader play than it might have in the past.
What are the ways interdisciplinarity is being encouraged in the universities? We are starting to see initiatives that are aimed at encouraging and supporting interdisciplinary research more generally, not just in Communication Studies, although Communication Studies is often part of it. This might take the form of, say, summer courses designed to train faculty from humanities disciplines in statistical methods, or in the form of seminars that bring faculty together across the disciplines to address thematic issues like community, risk or trauma, or faculty seminars, presentations and conferences done just within one’s own university that bring together people from Communication, Engineering or Computer Science, who present their work and think about possible collaborations between those different areas. As attention in the US turns increasingly to new media, we are starting to see the creation of new communication departments that are bringing together a different mix of people, such as computer science engineers, artists, designers and communication scholars to address issues about where the media seem to be going. As technology develops and changes, along with institutional arrangements and different contexts of use, scholars are pursuing new connections and collaborations to answer some of the new questions that are arising, as well as old ones that are being recycled. There is a lot we can continue to learn and assimilate from what other fields might bring to the study of communication. Thank you.
(To be continued)