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DOI: 10.1177/0163443718820666
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John Corner
University of Leeds, UK

Abstract
This is a brief, interconnected review of some of the extensive work published in the
last few years on the history of study into communication. It highlights in particular the
expansion of this work to include international contexts and the examination of how
teaching programmes as well as research activity have helped to institutionalize the
area as one with a discrete, if much-debated, academic identity. Different originating
contexts, historical links with professional practice and the impact of new media on the
recent history both of teaching and research are among the themes addressed.

Keywords
communication study, history, institutions, international, research, teaching

The last 5 years have seen considerable further growth in scholarship on the intellectual
and institutional history of study into ‘communication’. The 23 chapters of Simonson
and Park’s (2016) The International History of Communication Study took the enterprise
to a new level with a de-Westernizing frame which not only extended beyond the United
States to bring in Europe but also included developments in South America, Asia, Africa
and the Middle East in what was a major attempt at a global picture. This is a picture in
which the work of women scholars receives long overdue attention. Sometimes using the
category ‘Communication and media studies’ instead of simply the ‘communication’ of
their title, Simonson and Park place their focus around study of media. Averbeck-Lietz’s
(2017) Kommunikationswissenschaft im Internationalen Vergleich also surveys the inter-
national dimension of media inquiry, with several chapters in English. By contrast with
both, Gehrke and Keith’s (2015) A Century of Communication Studies examines in detail

Corresponding author:
John Corner, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK.
Email: j.r.corner@leeds.ac.uk
2 Media, Culture & Society 00(0)

the development of the ‘speech’ tradition of US colleges, giving little attention to other
strands. The sharp contrast in what is looked at here compared with the first two titles
foregrounds the problems that have occurred in defining what ‘communication study’
means, particularly in the United States, problems that have complicated the writing of
its history. A key reference point here is Park and Pooley’s (2008) The History of Media
and Communication Research: Contested Memories, which critically noted divergence
of meaning and set a marker for future study.
Historical inquiry, greatly aided by the activities of the history sections of the
International Communication Association and the International Association for Media
and Communication Research, has often identified the lines of diversity and the tension
which have accompanied the rise of ‘communication’ as an academic space. Of course,
for decades, there has been debate in the journals (including this one) about core identity,
competing perspectives and best ways forward. However, the willingness of recent work
to consider both the research strands and the teaching strands has been valuable, partly
because it has brought the dynamics and the variables of ‘institutionalization’ more
sharply into view, scoping the area as a whole rather than specific research traditions
within it, important as that inquiry, with its own extensive literature, remains. It has often
shown an interest in rejecting the more neatly celebratory stories of origin and growth
which some previous scholars have produced. The careful attention to detail, to the con-
tours of the specific across intellectual fault-lines and significant shifts over time, make
its charting of the past a valuable guide to clear thinking about the present.
In this brief note of overview, I want to look at the kind of picture that emerges, making
connections between the extensive body of US research and aspects of UK developments,
as well as connecting more widely in the way that it is now possible to do. However, first
of all, it would be useful to consider the point noted above, that studying ‘communication’,
or ‘communications’ (singular or plural is sometimes significant) can designate different
types of academic project. It can be seen as being about the wide range of human and
social communication, involving specialized inquiries but also attempts at a more general-
ized perspective. It can also be seen as primarily concerned with the modes of what used
to be called ‘mass communication’, although with space for more expansive analysis of
communicative structures and activities to help better understand the contexts for what are
now highly diverse media flows. Or, finally, it can be more tightly focused on the range of
structures, practices and processes of the media industries and have effectively no space
at all for work that is not so focused. ‘Communication’ in this usage firmly means modes
of public communication (if necessarily now extended to cover at least some dimensions
of new/social media), a meaning which Simonson and Peters (2008), among others, iden-
tify as going back to the US pioneer work of the 1940s. In the last two cases, a strengthen-
ing research imperative to find out more about the political and social character of public
communication systems has run alongside, if not always willingly or even knowingly, two
rather different kinds of teaching development – a stronger presence for attention to press
and broadcasting in the social science and humanities curriculum, including in specialist
courses, and academically based training programmes in journalism and media
production.
Many students and researchers in the field, both in the United States and elsewhere,
know the possibilities of confusion (e.g. at course, conference and publication levels)
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which can still follow from a variable designation. Eadie (2015), writing from within the
‘speech studies’ tradition but alert to other intellectual contexts, comments of the growth
of US ‘communication’ courses in the 1980s that ‘neither students nor faculty always
knew what “communication” was, but they knew that it was definitely in fashion’(p.
291). Even the widely used double marker ‘media and communication’ or its reverse can
seem close to being a strategic tautology rather than a real indicator of dual identity
across differentiated spaces, although ‘media’ primarily indicates forms and systems and
‘communication’ indicates relationships and processes and it is often useful to keep all of
these in view. Among a number of commentators, Phillips (2016) offers a convincing
account of the problems of working as a ‘communications’ scholar on non-media topics
in the setting of activities strongly weighted towards the varieties of media research.

Charting formation
In examining matters of formation in different national contexts, the importance of the
US sociology of mass communication in its pioneer phases, albeit mediated and devel-
oped and critiqued through various national sociological traditions, is evident (see,
among many accounts, Morrison, 2008; Scannell, 2007; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2000).
However, I want to look first at the formative phase of ‘communication’ as a designated
area in the United Kingdom, a phase also subject to historical review in the recent litera-
ture, since this shows connections but also contrasts both with the dynamics of formation
in the United States and other, European and Global, lines of institutionalization.
In the early 1970s, the designation ‘communication studies’ became widely used as a
label for kinds of degree course, and often, in consequence, the departmental units and
teams supporting them. The recently established Polytechnics, a new tier of UK Higher
Education, were seeking to develop distinctive degree programmes which could draw on
the different specialisms of existing academic staff, some of whom had worked in teacher
training, recently cut back. ‘Communication’ was seen as an attractive, accommodating
label for combined programmes, allowing contributions from social science and humani-
ties teachers who would not, in most cases, need to know anything about each other’s
areas (a useful account of contexts here is given in Lodge, 2016). Importantly, unlike in
the United States, there was no tradition of study around speech and rhetoric already lay-
ing claim to the ‘communication’ territory and no extensive use of ‘communication’ on
its own to indicate study of the media. Communication as a subject grouping did not
exist. When prefixed by ‘mass’, however, it indicated the focus of a growing specialism
in sociology and social psychology, with research taking place at a number of universi-
ties and producing a flow of influential publications by ‘first wave’ UK-based research-
ers such as Jay Blumler, James Halloran, Denis McQuail and Jeremy Tunstall. Again,
Lodge (2016) concisely discusses the principal developments here, including the work of
the Leicester University Centre for Mass Communication Research and the Leeds Centre
for Television Research, with Murdock (1975) a valuable early overview by someone
who was himself a key participant.
At a London conference in 1973, convened to discuss the possibilities for future
degree-level courses built around inquiry into the diverse aspects of Communication,
Raymond Williams (1974a) gave a keynote paper ‘Communications as Cultural Science’,
4 Media, Culture & Society 00(0)

which became a much-cited publication internationally. This made the case for further
and bolder interdisciplinary work around ‘communications’ giving strong emphasis to
study of the institutions of press and broadcasting, following the argument about the
civic and cultural need for reform pursued in his books (particularly Williams, 1962,
1974b). His focus on ‘communications’ as indicating media (he argues that the term
‘mass communication’ tends too much towards seeing people as ‘masses’, with distortive
consequences) is explicitly distinguished (as a ‘significant plural’) from the more expan-
sive territory he sees to be indicated by the singular form (Williams, 1974a: 17). At
points, the emphasis on media sometimes gives way to a brief connection with this
broader territory. For instance,

… the detailed processes of language and of gesture, in expression and interaction, and of course
any general features of underlying human structures and conventions. (Williams, 1974a: 18)

However, attention to the broader array of communicative practice (Williams is keen


always to talk of practices rather than artefacts) is not developed. Moreover, the account
is essentially that about the rich possibilities of a research area not the possibilities of
new kinds of teaching programme, a focus of the conference.
It is instructive to compare Williams’ emphasis with that in a document that comes
close to the founding phases of one version of Communication Studies in the United
States, more than 20 years earlier. In what was the first edition of the Journal of
Communication, Redding (1951) surveyed the range of studies then proceeding under
the designation ‘Communication’ and identified some problems of coherence. Acting as
the reporter for a working group which had convened at the annual meeting of the
National Society for the Study of Communication in 1950 (a body which eventually, and
after rather fraught discussion and dispute, became the multi-divisional ICA), Redding
(1951) noted that

The group prefers the growing usage of the term communication rather than communications.
The plural form seems to connote a wider field than that of concern to us, a field which includes
the mechanical media of communication rather than the essential skills. (p. 32)

Of course, the distinction implicitly made here, and more directly in Williams’ paper,
in which the plural indicates ‘media’, has not become established, as the names of inter-
national subject groupings and leading journals, most of which have an emphasis on
media over wider communicational issues, clearly show.
Focussing on what is described as the ‘narrower field’, Redding (1951) went on to
offer his conclusions:

The group agreed that basic communication courses should aim primarily at turning out
students who would function with a fairly high degree of communicative skill in modern society.
(p. 33)

In contrast to Williams’ emphasis on research into media, in this perspective on what


‘communication’ study should be about (already at variance with those concurrently
using the term to pursue, separately, public communication research and journalism
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training), a pedagogical focus is being placed on primary skills in speech and writing.
However, the emphasis which course designers in the United Kingdom needed to place
was finally different from that both of Williams and of Redding. Courses needed to
include literature, speech, visual arts, social psychology and linguistics in order to make
use of the widest range of contributing staff to the programmes. They could not therefore
afford to focus too heavily on ‘mass communication’. Moreover, although designers
recognized the importance of skills, they were centrally concerned with the acquisition
of general analytical skills through broadly conventional modes of academic engage-
ment rather than with specific communication skills, including media skills. In that
sense, their orientation was traditional rather than innovative whatever the distinctive-
ness of the curricular pathways devised.
Throughout the 1970s, degree programmes in ‘Communication Studies’ were begun
in institutions across the United Kingdom according to a variety of combinatory recipes,
frequently determined by existing staff competence. Often, they involved a curriculum
in which much of the work would not be directly concerned with ‘mass communication’,
even where this was seen as a core element in the programme as a whole or the main
element in courses offered below degree level (Scannell, 2007, notes developments here,
drawing on personal experience).
One consequence of the academic character of this formative phase was a gap
between the courses and curricula designated ‘communication’ and the research cul-
tures and activities surrounding them and feeding into them. At this stage, research at
the level of staff development and publication continued largely within the established
disciplines from which staff came – centrally sociology, psychology, linguistics, literary
theory and perhaps history with the Arts sub-area of ‘film studies’ also contributing.
There was little development in the United Kingdom, either theoretically or empirically,
of a distinctive research field of ‘communication’ embracing the range of human com-
municative activity. Lodge (2016) quotes Nicholas Garnham on the ‘horrendous’ mix of
ingredients that went into an attempt to produce ‘disciplinary specificity’ (p. 208) but,
although such specificity was sought by some, the general approach was far more about
productive combinations of existing disciplines than about forging a new one. This was
so, even though some attention to general ideas concerning human communication, fol-
lowing the work of scholars in the United States (e.g. Mortensen, 1972) was often
included in the syllabus.
Meanwhile, UK research into ‘mass communication’ continued strongly, often linked,
with varying degrees of harmony or conflict, to the range of humanities and critical theory
informing the increasingly influential strand of Cultural Studies (here, the run of articles
and papers on aspects of television, its political character and its decoding, written by
Stuart Hall and published through the 1970s was significant – particularly Hall, 1973).
The growth was such that, eventually, work on press and broadcasting carried out in soci-
ology departments was overtaken in scale and prominence by that proceeding from within
the institutional frames of ‘communication studies’. Transfer of staff from one setting to
the other becoming increasingly common as the new courses began to strengthen their
existing staff base and more institutions offered programmes under the ‘communication
studies’ heading which put greater emphasis on aspects of media. So ‘communication
studies’ was the broad curriculum initiative through which the research-based work on
mass communication/media developed a stronger national presence and visibility.
6 Media, Culture & Society 00(0)

The wider view


The global account offered in Simonson and Park (2016) shows a variety of routes by
which study of the media (often within the framing term ‘communication’) becomes
self-identified as a ‘separate’ area not just a topic within an existing discipline or a largely
invisible part of professional induction. This often involves convergent strands develop-
ing from journalism training (in most cases, by far the strongest core element) and ele-
ments of sociology and psychology. The Arts are sometimes represented too, though less
strongly than Social Studies strands and with an emphasis on a Cultural Studies–style
understanding of the expressive and aesthetic dimensions of social meaning rather than
direct critical evaluation of texts such as occurs in the study of film and television drama
(often positioned within a film studies rather than a communication studies frame, even
if in close proximity). Frequently crucial are the priorities of national development
within contexts varying greatly in terms of political order and aligned to different
schemes of modernization and globalization, with the relationship between research
funding, government policy, perceived student demand and developing media industries
significant in constructing the sites, scale and nature of academic activity. The range of
variables is not only traced across geography, with strong studies from Eastern Europe,
Asia, Latin America and Africa, is it also illuminatingly tracked across historical change,
as priorities shift, often radically, with new economic and political circumstances. In
some contexts, these circumstances encourage developments in teaching and research
supportive of official policies, whereas in others a stronger critical, indeed activist, ten-
dency develops both in theory and empirical investigation, with Latin America showing
a number of examples of this. It is clearly impossible to do more here than simply testify
to the general quality of the chapters in this collection but it is impressive and it nicely
confirms one (perhaps minor) aim of any comparative historiography – to feed the pro-
cess by which learning about ‘elsewhere’ also greatly improves knowledge of ‘home’,
wherever that may be.
Reviewing Nordic traditions in Chapter 8, Tore Slaatta notes a general tendency when
he observes of media researchers in the late 1950s:

However, they still worked within other disciplines like Political Science, Social Psychology,
Sociology and Economics. It would take another 20 years before Nordic researchers began to
think of themselves as media and communication scholars. (Simonson and Park, 2016: 172)

Raul Fuentes-Navarro, looking at formation and growth in Latin America in Chapter


15, gives a detailed diagrammatic account of the models of institutionalization at work,
including professionalization of journalists, humanist education and social science
inquiry, all containing different elements and working towards different goals. Issues of
categorisation become even more precise in Hu Zhengrong, Ji Deqiang and Zhang Lei’s
Chapter 17 on China, where they comment on the official confirmation of ‘Journalism
and Communication’ as a first-tier rather than second-tier discipline in 1997 and its list-
ing in the ‘catalogue of disciplines’ of the national system (Simonson and Park, 2016:
388). The question of the play-off between industrial and academic priorities (discussed
further below) is brought into many accounts, with varying judgements. In Chapter 20’s
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assessment of the present situation of the field in India, Pradip Ninan Thomas finds that
‘it arguably caters primarily to the needs of the creative industries’ (Simonson and Park,
2016: 449).
Importantly, too, the role of UNECSO, the IAMCR and the ICA are given due atten-
tion, as is the key international role performed by the pioneer scholar Wilbur Schramm,
including in China.

Identity work
Historians of the area often make connections of one kind or another with the long-run-
ning matter of internal dispute, which, as ‘ferment’, was given sharp focus in a special
issue of Journal of Communication (Gerbner and Siefert, 1983) and which has recently
been given extensive updated review in the same journal (Fuchs and Qiu, 2018).
‘Ferment’ has its positive sides, the productive debate through which fields develop, but
there has also been a strong vein of pessimism involved, classically including percep-
tions of ‘fragmentation’ across different topics and approaches. Of course, fragmentation
presumes something that was initially whole and this presumption has not always been
made, for reasons already clear. Here, a now 30-year-old paper by John Durham Peters
(1986) stressed the ‘victory of institution over intellect in the formation of the field’ (p.
538), a negative reading of origins updated by Jefferson Pooley (2016) in his account of
the debilitating consequences of a continuing division across strands which is ‘especially
incoherent and damaging in an era of media convergence’ (p. 1).
Clearly, the more that the idea of ‘communication study’ extends beyond questions of
media, the more likely it is that incoherence will be detected. There is no solution to a
problem which is built-in to the diverse usages of the formative phases (and beyond) in
the United States. However, as the literature clearly indicates, dispute does not go away
when the focus is firmly on media.
Here, across many national histories, including that of the United States, the issue of
linkage with forms of practical instruction is one common point of contention, such link-
age seen either as a legitimating and perhaps necessary connection with occupational
practice or a serious dilution of academic credibility by the intellectually less demanding
business of ‘training’ or perhaps some awkward variant of the two.
In the United Kingdom, which in the early 1970s had virtually no undergraduate
degrees in journalism or media production, the shift to significant levels of practical
work, including work placements, came with a tendency through the 1980s to move
away from broad communication studies programmes towards designations of courses
and then of departments built around the term ‘media’. This was so even though some
institutions were reluctant to see their critical studies in film and television, which might
be firmly based in arts criticism, to disappear behind the more general label. Course
developers felt the need to respond to the firmer career ambitions which applicants for a
‘media’ programme would have compared to those for the more expansive arts and social
science territories of the older ‘communication’ model (even though some elements of
this model, for example, sociolinguistics, sometimes survived the shift of emphasis). The
tensions which were then set up between largely critically inflected strands of academic
8 Media, Culture & Society 00(0)

inquiry on one hand and, on the other, pre-professional perspectives on practice designed
to allow students to work within existing structures and performance expectations, often
became highly visible institutionally (see Corner, 1995, for a brief account of the result-
ing ‘knowledge problems’). Again, Pooley (2008), perhaps the most vigorously critical
of historians of US developments, observes how ‘faculty who work under the ‘commu-
nication label are normally expected to produce scholarship and impart skills to industry-
bound students’, noting that this leads to ‘polarized departments or else schizophrenic
faculty’ (p. 59). Yet this comment, although surely right about the risk of ‘polarized
departments’, perhaps underestimates levels of success internationally in making pro-
ductive connections across academic and industrial/professional priorities, success aided
greatly by dialogue and joint involvement in curriculum design and research initiatives.
A related factor which also features strongly in the British case is the low level of
esteem initially accorded to undergraduate work on media and communications, despite
it being taken up by many ‘traditional’ universities in the 1980s following its origins in
the newer institutions. Many commentators in press and broadcasting made firm judge-
ments about the ‘worthless’ nature of such programmes. That the overwhelming majority
of journalists and broadcasters held degrees in traditional humanities and science sub-
jects and, in most cases, had never engaged with any academic work in media analysis
let alone that offering a critical view, was clearly a factor in the extensive flow of deri-
sion. Here was the case of an occupational group being loudly unhappy about the very
existence of college courses placing their focus on its own area.
Such wholesale disparagement does not seem to have occurred on quite this scale in
the United States, perhaps primarily because the sense of academic propriety was less
rigidly traditional, and also because the idea of degrees in which people were trained to
be journalists or take up roles in media production was well established. Nevertheless,
Pooley (2008) perceives a ‘deficit in legitimacy’ following partly from ‘vocational taint’
(p. 60). And in Anat First and Hannah Adoni’s account of the growth of activities in
Israel (Chapter 23 of Simonson and Park, 2016), it is observed how, during the early
phase of Elihu Katz’s work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

[T]he Department of communication was considered less prestigious because its faculty had to
include professionals whose status was not necessarily based on their academic achievements.
(p. 299)

Overall, however, levels of prejudice appear to have been lower than in the United
Kingdom, obviously so in national contexts where professional training was involved
from the beginning. Nevertheless, as remarked earlier, in many settings, the relation-
ship between the academy and the industry remains an issue requiring careful nego-
tiation both at the level of research and of teaching and it would be good to see more
focussed historical work on this particular dimension. Of course, in many national
contexts, the relation to ‘training’ and to ‘applied research’ now draws on new ideas
of academic ‘usefulness’ and related funding and sponsorship models. In respect of
these, departments and their staff may be variously cooperative (perhaps eagerly so)
or suspicious to the point of reinforcing a stance of ‘critique’ (see Noonan and
Lohmeier, 2017).
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Going digital
As several of these histories acknowledge and the current research literature amply
shows, the phased emergence of ‘new information technology’ – a varied set of struc-
tures, practices and forms shifting through the designation ‘new media’ into ‘social
media’ – has radically changed the nature of what is studied and the modes of study,
impacting on the ‘old’ as well as adding a rapidly expanding ‘new’. Although interest
in aspects of ‘media’ was clearly shown in departments other than those self-described
as being about ‘communication’, a concern with ‘social media’ extended rapidly
across the University and college curriculum as part of the expanded engagement
with the digital information order and ‘digital culture’. This has sometimes led to
institutional disputes, in different national settings, about quite where media/commu-
nication units figure in the expanded pattern, especially when it comes to funding
opportunities.
As it has grown in the scale of the applications and consequences examined, there
is a way in which research and teaching on social media returns ‘media studies’ to at
least some parts of that broader agenda indicated in some uses of ‘communication
studies’. This is an agenda to do with the practical skills and public implications of
everyday communication and the orientations and forms, including forms of writing
and of the still image, through which information circulates at ‘amateur’ rather than
‘professional’ levels. In these circumstances, there is more to be written on the history
(some of it clearly very recent) of the routes through which the funding and visibility
of research has been obtained and through which teaching, variously analytical and
practical, has appeared across the college and university curriculum. In what ways has
this aligned with different professional, governmental and corporate agendas? Here,
Carsten and Thevenin (2017), on the history of French Internet studies, provides a
good model for focused accounts alongside more general surveys like Dutton (2013)
and Tsatsou (2014).
International inquiry using the label ‘communication’ (on its own or in combina-
tion) is likely to continue to have an ‘open borders’ character, in a way that verges on
no borders and the attendant problems this can bring. This will be in a context where
other academic groupings have an increased interest in researching aspects of the
media flows which are its principal focal point. As it moves forward as an aggregation
of diverse analytic interests, debating its priorities and approaches and indeed its
identity, historical accounts such as those noted here will be instructive. They make
us more sharply aware of the various and sometimes precarious modes of institution-
alization by which study of public communication has developed, breaking out of
older professional and academic frameworks while continuing selectively to draw
upon them, its progress matching the massive growth in scale, variety and signifi-
cance of its objects of inquiry.

Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this
article.
10 Media, Culture & Society 00(0)

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