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Communication Study - The Roots of the Field, Speech and Journalism Emerge as Disciplines, Multidisciplinary Growth, Growth and Segmentation

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Determining the beginning of interest in communication and human affairs is difficult—perhaps impossible. Prior to the fifth century B. C. E. Egyptian and Babylonian writings were already expressing an interest in the role of communication in human affairs.

The Roots of the Field

The first scholars to study and write about communication in a systematic manner lived in Ancient Greece. The culture of the times placed heavy emphasis on public speaking, so it is not surprising that the first theories of communication focused on speech. Perhaps the first theory of communication was developed in Greece by Corax, and later further refined by his student, Tisias. Their focus was on the role of communication as it could be used for persuasion in the courtroom, where many important events of the day transpired.

Both Aristotle and his teacher, Plato, were key figures in the development of early communication theory, but Aristotle was probably the most influential. He wrote extensively about communication—which was then termed “rhetoric.” Aristotle thought about communication in terms of an orator, or speaker, constructing an argument to be presented in a speech to hearers—an audience. The goal and ultimate effect of communication was persuasion. He described the process as follows:

[Communication] exists to affect the giving of decisions.… [The] orator must not only try to make the argument of his speech demonstrative and worthy of belief, he must also make his own character look right and put his hearers, who are to decide, in the right frame of mind [Roberts, 1924, p. 1377b].

Beginning with the formal study conducted by Aristotle and his contemporaries, communication came to be viewed as a process through which a speaker conveys messages to influence or persuade one or more receivers. In this paradigm, or perspective, emphasis is placed on the role of a source and on his or her intended message. This view of communication was helpful in many ways. It highlighted the key components in the communication process and emphasized the importance of messages in human behavior. It also emphasized that the source of a particular message can be important in determining the outcomes of the communication process.

In his writings, Plato provided a description of what he believed would be necessary for the study of rhetoric to contribute to a broader explanation of human behavior. He explained that the field would need to include the study of words and their nature, the study of human beings and their ways of approaching life, the study of the nature of order, and the study of the instruments by which human beings are affected.

Two other scholars, Cicero and Quintilian, also contributed to the development of communication thinking during this period. Similar to Plato and Aristotle, Cicero saw communication as a practical and academic subject, and Quintilian’s contributions were as an educator.

During the classical period discussed so far, democracy and oral expression were valued and important aspects of the societies in which communication was studied. These values and the approach to communication that they implied were largely reversed in the medieval and Renaissance periods. At the close of the fourteenth century, most of the communication ideas that had been developed in rhetoric were instead being studied in religion.

The writings of Augustine led to a reemphasis on the earlier Greek approaches to communication study. His writings applied communication to the interpretation of the Bible and to the art of preaching.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the focus of communication study was on written argument, persuasion, and literature. Speaking style, voice, pronunciation, and gestures also became topics of interest, and the National Association of Elocutionists was founded in 1892.

Speech and Journalism Emerge as Disciplines

The early twentieth century heralded the emergence of speech as a discipline. The Eastern States Speech Association—which later became the Eastern Communication Association—was formed in 1909, and the Speech Association of America—which later became the Speech Communication Association and then the National Communication Association—was established in 1914. One year later, the first issue of the Quarterly Journal of Speech was published.

Journalistic practice dates at least to the times of the early Egyptians, but the formalized study of the field did not begin until the early 1900s. In 1905, the University of Wisconsin offered what may have been the first journalism courses at a time when there were few published books on the subject.

Communication was also of interest in other fields, particularly philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and sociology, during the early part of the twentieth century.

Multidisciplinary Growth

In the 1940s, communication began to grow rapidly as a field as scholars from various subject areas pursued their interests in the topic. Psychologists studied communication and individual behavior, sociologists studied communication and social relations, anthropologists studied communication and language and culture, and political scientists studied communication and political activity.

At the same time, studies in rhetoric and speech contributed to a growing emphasis on speech and speech communication. Studies in journalism and mass media were providing the foundation for emergence of the study of mass communication.

By the end of the 1950s, a number of writings had appeared that linked speech and mass communication together under the heading of communication. During the middle of this decade, the National Society for the Study of Communication—which later became the International Communication Association—was established with the stated goal of bringing greater unity to the study of communication by exploring the relationship among speech, language, and media.

The 1960s brought many new integrating communication books to the field, particularly notable among them are The Process of Communication (1960), On Human Communication (1961), The Science of Human Communication (1963), Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967), and Communication and Communication Systems (1968). At the same time, many authors were applying communication concepts in various other fields and settings, laying the foundation for additional segmentation and specialization that would flourish in the years to come.

Growth and Segmentation

The expansion and specialization that began to emerge in the 1960s reached new heights during the 1970s. The topics of interpersonal communication, group communication, organizational communication, political communication, inter-national/intercultural communication, and mass communication began to emerge as subfields within the larger discipline of communication. Meanwhile, interest in more traditional communication topics, such as rhetoric, public speaking, journalism, and mass media, continued to hold the interest of many scholars.

During the 1970s, 1,329 books were published with the word “communication” in the title. This is an amazing number when compared to the 20 such books published in the 1940s, the 61 books published in the 1950s, and the 329 books in the 1960s (Ruben, 1992).

The Information Age

The 1980s brought changes that resulted in the information age and continue to have a pervasive effect on the study of communication. The term “information age” refers to the fact that information and communication technology have come to have an influence on virtually every facet of the personal and occupational lives of individuals. Since the 1980s, information has come to be viewed as a commodity—an “economic” good— that can be bought and sold. The 1980s also marked the beginning of a trend toward consolidation and mergers among major communication and information providers and services.

Hybrid communication technologies began to be introduced in the 1980s. The video monitor, formerly associated with only the viewing of television programs, was beginning to be a common sight on desks in offices and other workplaces. Similarly, the keyboard, once simply a mechanical device that was an important part of a typewriter, was suddenly transformed into an electromechanical tool for inputting digital data. At the beginning of the information age, telephones were hard-wired to walls, “CD” only referred to certificates of deposit at the bank, “ATM” was an unfamiliar acronym, and videocassette recorders and modems were known only to technophiles. Telephone lines, previously used only for voice calls, were beginning to find use as channels to connect computers to other computers, to national networks, and to international networks. The rest, as they say, is history.

These many technological developments have had a huge effect on human communication practice and on communication study. Interest in communication, technology, and communication media has become common among a wide range of scholars, and the study of communication has become the study of message-related behavior. Communication study focuses on the ways in which individuals process information in order to adapt and influence, and in these endeavors, communication technology plays an ever-more central role. Where interpersonal communication was once thought of almost exclusively in terms of face-to-face communication, many who study this topic are now also interested in the role played by communication that is mediated by things such as the telephone, answering machines, and e-mail. Group communication studies may include studies of groups that exist electronically—"virtually"—as well as physically. The electronic group environments include Internet chat rooms and teleconference settings. The more traditional emphasis on the use of mass media, such as network television, radio, and newspapers, has now been expanded to give consideration to cable television, cell telephones, videocassette recorder usage, and the Internet.


As is apparent from the above discussion, communication is both an ancient and a newly emerging discipline. The core of contemporary communication thought has its origins in the writings of the Ancient Greeks in the area of rhetoric, but the twentieth century marked the emergence and growth of the field of communication as a social science and professional area of study. Through the intervening centuries, interest in the communication process has been strong in any number of related fields, including fields now known as psychology, sociology, cognitive science, political science, and management.

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