The term “communication” has Latin roots; the term we commonly use today comes from communicare, which means to make common or impart (Peters, 1999; Williams, 1985). While the concept of communicare persists in the way we commonly think of communication, the term has also lent itself to many other uses and practices over the past several centuries. Since appearing in the English language, the term “communication” has been used to represent means of physical connections such as roads and railways, the media industry, (Williams, 1985), and sexual intercourse as well as participation in scheduled meetings among Freemasons or Christian practices such as Holy Communion (Communication, 2010). The current definitions of 'communication' as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary are classified into three categories: 1) Senses relating to an affinity or association; 2) Senses relating to the imparting or transmission of something; and 3) Senses relating to access. The first category houses definition 2a, “interpersonal contact, social interaction, association, intercourse,” though admittedly this definition is often difficult to distinguish from 5b, defined as “The transmission or exchange of information, knowledge, or ideas, by means of speech, writing, mechanical or electronic media, etc,” which is classified in the second category (2010).

Dance (1970) worked to clarify the concept of communication by outlining three points of “critical conceptual differentiation” (p. 208). First, Dance considered level of observation or abstractness. Some definitions of communication are broad (and thereby inclusive) while other definitions are more restrictive (and thereby narrow). Second, definitions of communication can differ on the dimension of intentionality; some definitions include only purposeful messages while others do not impose this restriction. Finally, conceptualizations of communication differ in terms of normative judgment; some definitions include a statement of communicative success or effectiveness while others do not. Anderson (1991) explained that these differing conceptualizations of communication move scholars down different theoretical trajectories and that definitional choices lead scholars to ask different research questions. Dance (1970) seems to agree with Anderson when he ultimately concludes “we are trying to make the concept of ‘communication’ do too much work for us” (p. 210). He asserts that communication is actually a family of concepts rather than a single theory or idea that collectively defines ‘communication.’

Communication is, of course, an academic discipline, yet it is a significant term within the “practical lifeworld” (Craig, 1999, p. 120). A Google search for “communication” generates almost 1.3 billion results, which include pages for university communication departments alongside histories of communication industries and tips to improve one’s communication skills. This may indicate what Craig (2005) suggests is a cultural emphasis on the importance of communication to solve problems, as well as the idea that bad communication can cause problems (p. 660). The emphasis on communication may also stem from our desire for community; Peters (1999) describes communication as longing, both for understanding of others as well as expression of ourselves. Communication, thus, signifies both access and solitude, bridge and chasm (Peters, 1999).

Communication as a discipline: History and interpretations

The National Communication Association (2010) describes the field of communication as a study of “how people use messages to generate meaning within and across all kinds of contexts, cultures, channels and media . . . Communication is a large and diverse field that includes inquiry by humanists, social scientists and critical and cultural studies scholars.” The diversity of the field has also contributed to what some consider a “fractured” history of communication (Delia, 1987, p. 22), difficulty in determining a curriculum (see Morreale & Backlund, 2002) and a lack of consistency among scholars and research interests. Craig (1999) argued that communication as a theory does not exist because of these divisions and, specifically, a lack of common theory. While Craig allows that communication’s interdisciplinary roots are a good thing, part of the lack of coherence is due to the treatment of communication as an “interdisciplinary clearing house” (p. 121). In response to this problem, Craig identified seven traditions of communication theory: rhetorical, semiotic, phenomenological, cybernetic, sociopsychological, sociocultural, and critical. Central to Craig’s argument is the idea that because the term “communication” remains familiar and relevant in our society, the development of communication theory would have wide applications and legitimize the discipline (For more on responses to Craig’s article, see Myers, 2001, and Craig, 2001).

The discipline of communication has roots in the arts and humanities, and the social sciences. Communication as a science has been represented in multiple models which typically include a source, a message, an encoder, a channel, a decoder and communication receiver (see Berlo, 1960). Other communication scholars with varying research interests have published articles in which they describe or advocate for a particular view of communication as a concept. Deetz’s proposed communication perspective (1994) went beyond the traditional, informational understanding of communication to describe how “the inner world, outer world, social relations, and means of expression are reciprocally constituted with the interactional process as its own best” (Deetz, 1994, p. 577 in Craig, 1999). In her work on interpersonal and family communication, Baxter (2007) suggests that we often view communication in terms of a mirror, a conduit and a control device. She argues for a return to Bakhtin’s approach, in which communication can “create or construct the social world, including self, other, and the relationship between them” (p. 121). In his article on communication as design, Aakhus (2007) sees communication as a kind of problem-solving exercise in which we explore how to make difficult or impossible communication possible.

This societal recognition of the importance of communication is thought by some to help the discipline as it develops (Craig, 1999), whereas others recognize the unique problem that scholars face in applying communication theory. Donsbach (2007) argues that communication faces challenges from outside of the field precisely because of the ubiquity of communication: “The closeness of its object to everybody’s reality and experience makes everybody a self-proclaimed ‘expert.’ People say, ‘Because I watch a lot of television (be it as a politician, a spokesperson, spindoctor, or just a parent), I have at least as much to say as a researcher in this field.’ This problem does not apply to a physicist or a neurologist. But it happens to us, and it sometimes makes it hard to defend research against common wisdom or claims from interested parties” (p. 445).

Communication and "the West"

There has also been criticism of the field of communication for its Western or, more specifically, American bias. Gunaratne (2010) identifies the United States and the United Kingdom as the primary gatekeepers of communication and champions the inclusion of non-Western ideas. Specifically, he classifies Craig’s seven traditions as either communication science or communication arts, and then identifies the best candidates for championing non-Western research in these traditions. Likewise, Kim (2009) criticizes the discipline’s “Americentric” bias, particularly as communication gains traction in Asia (p. 412). Kim’s interpretation of North American communication is that the discipline is lacking because it does not include culture in theory, research, and practice, and argues that, while social sciences have been criticized in the past for Eurocentric biases, “Communication science is implicitly a science of the American people, but U.S. Research seems unaware of the cultural biases” (p. 413). Like Gunaratne, Kim (2009) does not call for the elimination of American or European theories, nor does she advocate simply adjusting the theories for a non-Western context, but rather, that the field of communication should not be limited to Western interpretations of communication (p. 415-16). Littlejohn & Foss (2008) argue that communication scholars have begun to attend to distinctions between Western and other forms of communication theory. For example, Western theory is dominated by a vision of individualism and Eastern theories tend to view communication outcomes as unplanned.

Minor Revisions by Kimberly Pusateri (August 2012).

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