Reimagining Communication

Michael Filimowicz, PhD
Jan 9 · 14 min read
New Routledge series in Communication

In an age of information overflow, the word “communication” seems to have reached a buzz-status. From persuasive communication, to the importance of good communication, to communication skills for bridging gaps, the term and domain of “communication” has become increasingly obscure and even confusing. We see this confusion reflected in students on introductory communication courses. Their initial understanding of communication often tends to focus on linguistic exchanges between individuals, not accounting for the wide range of personal, social, and contextual dynamics that influence not only the transfer of information, but also the complex processes of meaning-making at individual and collective levels. Where initial conceptualizations of communication have focused on information-transfers between senders and receivers, contemporary scholarship seems to apply a much broader, and to an extent, a pragmatically-informed approach looking not only at how communication practices work, but also how these shape the ways in which we make sense of the reality that surrounds us.

Partially due to the wide range of perspectives and approaches, the field of communication studies still lacks distinctive disciplinary boundaries. When we think of traditional academic fields — such as biology, sociology, philosophy, and mathematics, for example — we know with some degree of certainty what the object of study is. When it comes to the field of communication however, we realize that establishing a definitive scholastic focus is not easy, if not impossible. This is to an extent related to the challenges associated with answering a fundamental, and seemingly simple question: “What is communication?” As an all-encompassing answer to this question we should be able to account for all of the situations, exchanges, contexts, interpretations, channels and any possible mix of these, we can see that this can easily become a hopeless task. In an attempt to resolve this complexity, scholars have emphasized different sides of communication processes which have influenced the development of a multiplicity of material, functional, and experiential definitions. Most definitions revolve around one of the following categorical characteristics of communication: (1) transfer of information, (2) symbolic culture, and (3) a ritual which facilitates the inherent social essence of humanity (see Carey, 2009). These varying types of exegesis pose fundamental challenges in defining and delimiting the concept and disciplinary boundaries of communication. Within such expanding views, the purpose of the Reimagining Communication series is to capture the existing and prospective trends and perspectives on and within communications studies as a whole. To systematize our approach, we have provided a specific theme for each of our volumes: Meaning, Experience, Action, and Mediation. Each of these volumes extends on the existing notions and scholarship within the field of communication, in order to capture — as much as possible — the main contexts, communication technologies, institutions, and social practices.

These volumes construct a new information architecture which reimagines a new organization for traditional and emerging themes in communication studies. To describe our editorial project, we appropriate the concept of “information architecture” (hereafter IA) from the domain of human-information interaction. The notion of IA — as opposed to the commonly used “map” or “framework” — highlights the constructed character of the series as a work of design, and as one design solution out of many possible others. We have decided to redesign and reimagine the “field of fields and disciplines” of communication through a forward-looking multidisciplinary lens which has its grounding in both established academic scholarship and developing domains focusing on the latest technological developments.

[A]s much as architects are expected to create structure and order in the world through planning and building, information architects were expected to draw lines and derive some kind of order in dataspace, their primary task being to make this information simpler, more direct, and ultimately more comprehensible. (Resmini & Rosati, 2012, p. 4)

Similarly, the purpose of this series is to try to capture the “dataspace” of communication studies today directly and as a comprehensible whole grounded in where it has been and inferring where it seems to be going. The chapter topics also facilitate “crosstalk” across the volumes — a desired aspect of our schema. Thus, while eschewing maps and frameworks, we are not offering “an intellectual patchwork” for a field that “[f]rom the beginning … was critiqued for having no core” (Zelizer, 2016, p. 223).

The institutional origins of communications in the academy — (1) whether one locates it in post WW2 interests in journalism, mass media, and propaganda studies (Jensen & Neuman, 2013, p. 231), or in the development of speech programs c. 1915 (Wilson, 2015), and (2) regardless of professional, liberal arts, or mixed orientation (Troester & Wertheimer, 2015, p. 2) — seem very distant from the kinds of questions explored by many contemporary communications scholars. When we think of the early days of communication studies, the associations that often come to mind are the printing press and broadcast towers for radio and television. But when we think of the future of communication, we tend to drift to the new territories of brain computer interfaces and the hybrid arrays of virtual-augmented-mixed-crossed realities, where our living environments become increasingly networked and informatic in character. We may even say that the future of communication reaches to the nano-level of neurons.

The space between neurons and socio-cultural spaces — populated by the technologies of mediation and social practices of meaning-making humans — is what gives shape to our IA across the series’ four volumes — Meaning, Experience, Action, and Mediation. These themes carry an empirical core as they relate directly to the animal level of sensorimotor interactions (Experience, Action) taking place within the affordances of the environment (Mediation), where all of these are understood as a source of information (Meaning). As humanity becomes increasingly more cyborg, we hope that such theoretical trace-back to primordial animal conditions will future-proof these volumes in a way that other volumes have not been able to.

While our IA approach is empirically motivated, it is neither an ontology, nor periodization of communication studies. Much communication scholarship has traditionally relied on a “grand-narrative” modus operandi based on essential dichotomies. Some of these dichotomies are implicit, such as the oppositions underlying the modalities of the one-to-one (interpersonal communication), one-to-many (broadcast technologies), or even many-to-many (social media) communication practices. Other dichotomies are explicit, formally expressed and have become canonical in communication studies:

By now, several generations of scholars have relied on such dichotomies, grounding their grand historical interpretations on the ways in which media interact with social life. The work of Harold Innis (1951) is commonly associated with the contrasting influences of time-biased and space-biased media; McLuhan (1964) classified media as hot and cold; Ong (1982) traced social evolution through the prism of orality or literacy; Carey (1969) in one of his earliest works classified media as centripetal and centrifugal; and Turow (1997) talked about society-making and segment-making media.

The dichotomies on which they rely frequently lead to periodization, or the attempt to locate pivotal moments in which some new essential aspects of social development suddenly emerge while others vanish. The ultimate purpose of periodization is to establish compelling, often teleological or cyclically structured narratives relying on a sequence of communication eras defined through different technological paradigms (Balbi & Kittler, 2016, p. 1972).

With respect to conceptual temptations toward periodization, cycles, and telos, our IA looks forward as much as backward, considering the animal plane of sensorimotor interactions with affordances as ontologically flat with the plane of the cybernetic meaning-maker. Our claim is that this distinctive IA approach is somewhat different from those grand dichotomous periodizations of the field that have come before. As our IA cuts across disciplinary boundaries, it is difficult not to acknowledge “that the politics of interdisciplinarity is always a politics of the moment” (Shome, 2006, p. 2). So, the image of the brain computer interface, strategically placed as the final chapter in the Mediation volume, is of our present time. But in parallel, we have also chosen the most primordial and earliest human moment — sensorimotor interactions with affordances in an environment — if only to give our best wishes to the historical chances at the bio-cybernetic frontier of communication media technologies today.

The reconsideration of binaries becomes complex when it comes to institutionalized dichotomies in the historical record — such as the debates related to the categorization of communications in the academy as a field or a discipline (Phillips, 2016, p. 691), where such categorizations are often suspended between institutional forces of “cohesion and fragmentation” (Nordenstreng, 2007, p. 212). In an attempt to escape the limits of institutionalized dualities, our IA tries to acknowledge and accommodate a multiplicity of perspectives within an egalitarian treatment of both the phenomena studied and the methodologies by which these are studied. In this series, we have placed a strong emphasis on technologies as the recent convergence of media, content, industries, and audiences have presented “significant difficulty separating our ideas about communication from the technological advance of media” (Herbst, 2008, p. 604). These difficulties are still far from being overcome and are at the core of the problematics studied by communication researchers. Debates around disciplinarity often relate to issues regarding the status of communications in the academy, such as “the desires for monopolization, legitimization, and recognition” (Stalker, 2014, p. 172), “expansion, monopolization and protection” (p.173), and “professional identity” (First & Adoni, 2007, p. 252). Such debates are somewhat removed from our IA since we presume the relevance of communication to all disciplines and indeed all fields, as well as its essence as a permanently open form of inquiry capable of utilizing the full array of methods including those that are increasingly computational in nature. Communication studies have always been defined by its undefinability because what does not count as communication? It has always been “poly” in its methodologies and scope of interests since the founding of its first units in the academy.

[T]he field consolidated as the result of the aggregation of academic interests in communication broadly defined — interpersonal, organizational, mediated, media industries, cultural studies, information studies, language, rhetoric, intercultural, journalism, and media and information policies, among others. (Waisbord, 2016, p. 869)

In addition to this broad disciplinary integration (and fragmentation), communication is somewhat unique amongst the academic disciplines in the way it has historically bridged professionally applied and theoretically inclined orientations.

The so-called “field” of communication is, of course, not a field by any academic definition. It has no boundaries. It is equally hospitable to the advertising agency seeking evidence to support the slogan “it pays to advertise,” and to the semanticist seeking closer definitions of “meaning.” (Karin, 2003, p. 4)

Some academic fields such as history and philosophy, are more central in the pursuit of liberal arts, while others such as business administration and engineering, are more related to career development. The discipline of communication in fairly unique as it crosses these boundaries (Morreale, Osborn, & Pearson, 2000, p. 1).

It is in this spirit of crossing the boundaries between theory and practice, or professional practice and liberal arts, that we have conceived our editorial project as an IA, as IA is a form of communication design. Our research backgrounds are grounded in computer mediated communication (multimodal display and interactive sports technologies, for Filimowicz and Tzankova respectively). In our lines of research, there are no real institutional, practical or conceptual barriers that prevent easy crossover between poetic hermeneutic mullings and concrete systems design — to name just two ends of the many fluid spectrums of transdisciplinary inquiry in our work. For more than a decade now, the field of Human-Computer Interaction has initiated an increased interest in so-called “third wave HCI,” where meaning-making has become exponentially central to the design of computational artefacts. The material character of interactive artefacts is far from being foreign to communication as its origin — the Latin word communicatio — refers to social functions organized around tangibles.

“Communication” is a word with a rich history[, f]rom the Latin communicare, meaning to impart, share, or make common … The key root is mun- (not uni-), related to such words as “munificent,” “community,” “meaning” … The Latin munus has to do with gifts or duties offered publicly — including gladiatorial shows, tributes, and rites to honor the dead. In Latin, communicatio did not signify the general arts of human connection vis symbols, nor did it suggest the hope for some kind of mutual recognition. Its sense was not in the least mentalistic: commuicatio generally involved tangibles. (Peters, 1999, p. 7)

The notion of communication in ancient Rome, as well as the previous notion of rhetoric from ancient Greece, did not refer to transfer, transmission, interaction or dialogue, but rather pointed to acknowledging and performing specific social functions and group memberships, or to knowing and utilizing concrete technical devices for conveying specific social functions and group memberships (Nastasia, D. and Rakow, L., 2005, p. 4).

Such a broad conception of communication — which gets even more extended when we put into consideration its social and ritualistic aspects — does run some risks of definition and scope, but these are familiar risks that have always been associated with the discipline’s “ontological deficit and epistemological pitfalls” (Kane, 2016, p. 88). Communications in its academic origins “was stunningly interdisciplinary from the start” (Herbst, 2008, p. 604).

[T]he short tradition as an academic discipline, the external influences coming from meda industry and the state, the legitimacy deficit, the diffuse research topic “communication,” the scattering across the university and the heterogeneous scientific origins of its scholars … these characteristics lead to a “lack of consensus” within the field concerning its subject matters and to difficulties to shape a self-conception. (Löblich & Scheu, 2011, pp. 2–3)

The concept and practice of Information Architecture originates from domains of human-computer interaction, defined early on as “the conceptual structure and functional behavior, as distinct from the organization of data flows and controls, logical design, and physical implementation” (Amdahl, Blaauw, & Brooks, 1964, p. 21). We discussed our rationale for the conceptual structure of these volumes — the desire to avoid dichotomies, ontologies, periodizations, and grand narratives through our strategic use of guiding analogies that allow a simultaneous look forward to new cyborg variations of humanity but also backward to complex organisms and their sensorimotor engagements within informational environments.

We now want to emphasize the functional aspect of our IA by linking it to our professional context and the connection to pedagogy. As teaching faculty, we have encountered difficulties finding adequate texts that cover the gamut of interdisciplinary and international considerations about and within communication studies in a way that interests those who are the basis of our employment.

Those of us who teach communication theory face unique challenges. Undergraduates … come for something comprehensible and we offer them fragments of a subject no one can comprehend, up to 249 theories and still counting. (Craig, 1999, p. 153)

Craig’s mapping of the traditions of communication contains eight main domains, all of which find representation in this collection: social psychological, cybernetic, rhetorical, semiotic, critical, sociocultural, phenomenological, and pragmatic (Phillips, 2016, p. 701). The functional aspect of our IA is to “cultivate a sense of the ‘whole’ of communication studies, not a ‘unified,’ stable entity but a polyphonic, unstable whole that can be developed as a theory-rich body of work through dialogue across difference” (p.700). This cultivation of a sense for the whole is not only for the benefit of our students, but also for us as researchers and communication designers — as by definition we ourselves are lifelong learners.

We are particularly pleased to be able to offer such an international assemblage of authors in these volumes hailing from 19 countries, literally from A to Z: Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, UK, UAE, USA, and Zimbabwe. There is a somewhat contrarian transnational impulse at work in bringing these global voices together, as many communication books used in classroom environments tend to overemphasize the national (e.g. the various communication books with country names in their title). Our aim is to foster the connectivity of ideas, which can be as national, transnational, international, or cosmopolitan as one wishes to make of this gathering of voices from across the globe.

If internationalism means exchanging knowledge and understanding across borders, then we would probably all sign up to it, confident that national approaches or concerns could find their place within this larger forum. (Livingstone, 2007, p. 274)

Where in the past, communication’s scholarly traditions have been characterized as “isolated frog ponds — with no friendly croaking between the ponds, very little productive intercourse at all, few cases of successful cross-fertilization” (Rosengren, 1993, p. 6), this IA-inspired collection aims to bring the frog ponds closer together (to strain the metaphor perhaps!). While these books cannot promise cross-continental cross-fertilization, they get the international croaking underway. Maybe for the moment the chapters will be read by its audiences sans brain implants, but as we continue to undergo the “mediation of everything” (Livingstone, 2009), surely not for long.

Michael Filimowicz, PhD (Simon Fraser University) & Veronika Tzankova (Columbia College Vancouver)

References:

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Jensen, K. B., & Neuman, W. R. (2013). Evolving paradigms of communication research. International Journal of Communication, 7(2013), 230–238.
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Troester, R., & Wertheimer, M. (2015). The blending of traditional and professional approaches to communication: Department chairs share administrative challenges, opportunities, and best practices. Journal of the Association for Communication Administration, 34(1), 2–11.

Waisbord, S. (2016). Communication studies without frontiers? Translation and cosmopolitanism across academic cultures. International Journal of Communication, 10(2016), 868–886.

Wilson, K. H. (2015). The national and cosmopolitan dimensions of disciplinarity: Reconsidering the origins of communication studies. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 101(1), 244–257.

Zelizer, B. (2016). Communication in the fan of disciplines. Communication Theory, 26(2016), 213–235.

Reimagining Communication

Michael Filimowicz, PhD

Written by

http://amazon.com/author/michaelfilimowicz

Reimagining Communication

A New Information Architecture for Communication Studies

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