Communication Theory and Philosophy

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I. Introduction

II. The Double Hermeneutics of Communication Research

III. Intellectual Traditions through the Centuries

IV. Interdisciplinary Concepts through the Decades

V. The Process of Communication

VI. The Process of Research

I. Introduction

Communication theory is heir to classic issues in the history of ideas. If philosophy has traditionally asked how human knowledge of reality may be possible, communication theory addresses the media, modalities, and messages by which humans exchange, reflect on, and enact different perspectives on reality. Revisiting a number of key epistemological, ethical, and political issues, while responding to the increased importance of information and communication technologies throughout society and culture during the twentieth century, communication research emerged at the crossroads of social philosophy and scientific theory.

Communication became established as a distinctive category of human activity following the rise of new electronic communication media during the latter half of the nineteenth century. These developments encouraged scholars and other commentators to think of diverse practices of social interaction – in the flesh, through wires, and over the air – in terms of their family resemblances. In Peters’ (1999, 6) felicitous formulation, “mass communication came first,” promoting explicit and sustained attention to the varieties of communication in research as well as in society at large. Until the invention of the telegraph, “transportation and communication were inseparably linked” (Carey 1989, 15), because any communicative exchange depended on the physical presence of bards, manuscripts, books, newspapers, or other print media. With telecommunications came decisively different means of interacting across space and time. With digital technologies, as increasingly embedded in everyday artifacts and living arrangements, have come additional resources of information and communication whose social implications may prove more radical than either the printing press or the telegraph, challenging communication research, once again, to reconsider its founding concepts.

This essay first outlines the profile of communication as a scholarly field with a practical stake in contemporary culture and society. The following sections trace the origins of key concepts of communication theory in intellectual traditions since classical Greece, and in modern sources within humanistic and social scientific disciplines as well as interdisciplinary research. These sources have been fed selectively into various models of the process of communication, which, in turn, have informed different approaches to the process of research.

II. The Double Hermeneutics of Communication Research

As perspectives on reality, all academic fields can be said to engage in hermeneutics, interpreting the world from particular positions of insight. Communication research belongs with those academic fields that engage in double hermeneutics, interpreting, not least, people’s own interpretations or understandings of how and why they communicate, and feeding such second-order interpretations back to the people in question and to society at large. Compared to natural and physical sciences, social sciences and humanities study already interpreted realities. In the words of anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1983, 58), much research on the communication and culture of humans seeks to determine “what the devil they think they are up to.”

The notion of double hermeneutics is familiar from early theories of culture and society; for example, Max Weber’s approach to understanding (verstehen) subjective meanings as a way of explaining (erklaren) socially objective events. The specific terminology of double hermeneutics was advanced by Giddens (1979), who built on Winch’s (1963) challenge to predominant natural-scientific conceptions of post-1945 social science. On the one hand, social science encounters a preinterpreted world in the form of utterances, behaviors, and documents by social actors. On the other hand, the interventions and interpretations that are presented by social and cultural research cannot help but make a difference in the domain being studied – from respondents’ reconsideration, however slight, of their opinions in response to a political poll, to major reconceptions, for instance, of the nature of economic transactions or individual psychology, as prompted by the dissemination of the works of Marx and Freud.

Communication research may be considered emphatically double hermeneutic in three different respects. First, communication studies address the basic processes by which social reality is interpreted and reinterpreted on a daily basis, in everyday conversation and in dedicated institutions, from schools to news media. Second, as a field, communication research has been a response, following the nineteenth-century articulation of a category of “communication,” to the growth of an entire social sector of institutions devoted to information and communication, what Beniger (1986) referred to as the control revolution, which was complete by the late 1930s, at the dawn of modern communication research. From government bureaucracies to market research and “mass media,” this sector produces information that enables society-wide planning, coordination, and control. Third, the rapidly shifting configurations of communicative practices in twentieth century society, and the mixed success of single research traditions in accounting for them, has prompted the field to become increasingly interdisciplinary, observing communication through multiple lenses of human, social, and, to a degree, natural sciences. The double hermeneutics of communication research unfolds, simultaneously, within the academic field and in its nexus with the empirical field of study.

The notion of double hermeneutics can be concretized with reference to McQuail’s (2005) textbook formulation of five types of “theory.” Scientific theory is the most common understanding of the term, covering general explanatory concepts and models that apply across a range of empirical instances, as associated, not least, with (natural scientific and) social scientific quantitative research traditions. Cultural theory is one legacy of arts and humanities, drawing on textual and other qualitative approaches, which have contributed significantly to contemporary interdisciplinary research. Normative theory addresses the legitimate ends and means of organizing social resources of communication, not least mass media, from the printing press to the Internet. While communication research emerged at the interface of social philosophy and scientific theory, normative theories also developed as a separate area of research activity, particularly regarding the press, feeding into public planning and debate. Operational theory is the domain of media professionals and other communication practitioners, representing rules of thumb and tacit knowledge, as well as ingrained ethical and ideological positions regarding the purpose and status of their work. As such, operational theory constitutes both an object of empirical research, as in field studies of journalists or teachers, and a source of theoretical insight into communication processes. Everyday theory, finally, guides individuals’ interaction as citizens, consumers, and sources of information – with each other and with the media. Practically everybody has a notion of how communication operates, and in whose interests.

A common denominator for the five types of theory is that they enable people to act – as scholars, regulators, practitioners, and ordinary users of communication. What distinguishes scholarship is its potential for systematic and sustained self-reflexivity in grounding conclusions and actions. Communication research considers normative, operational, everyday, as well as previous scientific theories; it returns reconsidered theories. Like other academic fields, communication research thus amounts to a social institution-to-think-with (Douglas 1987), performing an ongoing double hermeneutics concerning contemporary institutions and practices of communication. In doing so, the field has been informed by a wide range of traditions in the history of ideas, and of disciplines in the modern research university.

III. Intellectual Traditions through the Centuries

By far the oldest set of ideas with a recognizable influence on communication theory comes out of the rhetorical tradition (Kennedy 1980). To Aristotle, rhetoric was the source of a particular kind of knowledge that is probable and reasonable, while logic might generate “necessary” or certain knowledge (Clarke 1990, 13). One legacy of rhetoric, then, is a recognition of the intimate relationship between knowing that something is the case, and knowing how to communicate about it. What we know, as individuals and communities, depends crucially on the mental capacities and material resources that are available for articulating such knowledge. Like the production of knowledge in science, the production of meaning in communication may be conceived with a relative emphasis on either the entities carrying intellectual insight or the processes resulting in such insight. This distinction – between meaning as pre-defined product or participatory process – can be retraced in much later communication theory, summarized by James Carey (1989) as transmission and ritual models of communication.

Rhetoric built on the resources and conventions of ancient oral traditions, even if “classical” rhetoric was codified and consolidated as part of a transition to literate culture (Havelock 1963). The point of departure for rhetoric, moreover, was speech, especially concerning matters of fact, and how to argue about them. In comparison, hermeneutics developed out of the practice of reading and understanding written texts, not least narratives. Whereas the texts at issue originally belonged to religion and law, particularly from the early nineteenth century onwards, the principles and procedures of hermeneutics came to be applied to the arts as well as to other kinds of texts – indeed, to human experience as such. Not just the Bible and the classics, but modern societies and sub-cultures lend themselves to hermeneutic analysis. One contribution of twentieth-century hermeneutics was what Paul Ricoeur identified in the works of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, and developed further as a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (Ricoeur 1981, 46). Its purpose is to discover hidden principles behind what people as well as social institutions say and do, thus exposing interests and motivations that may equally be hidden to those people and institutions themselves. Such reading between the lines of society for reformatory as well as therapeutic purposes has been a central concern of critical communication studies.

All along, from classical poetics through traditional art history to modern design, aesthetics has remained a source of inspiration for the systematic examination of how meaningful expression and experience come about in human communication. Beyond separate domains of suspended disbelief and disinterested contemplation, aesthetics also serves to explicate how specific forms of representation relate to real-world functions of communication media. Recent aesthetic theory can be seen to re-emphasize an understanding of the arts as materially grounded phenomena and socially situated practices (e.g., Summers 2003). In the case of digital and interactive media forms, further, aesthetics has been coming back in style, being recruited by both scholars and practitioners to account for the reworking of familiar media and genres in new forms of representation and interaction.

The modern humanities took shape around the early nineteenth century as an inclusive configuration of scholarly traditions, incorporating rhetoric, hermeneutics, aesthetics, and other approaches to the study of history, culture, and communication (for overview, see Jensen 2002b) – even if the notion of communication was another century in the making (Peters 1999). The context was the reconception of universities as institutions producing knowledge through research, as initially associated with the Humboldt tradition in Germany (Fallon 1980; Rudy, 1984). This contrasted, in the domains of history and culture, with previous understandings of knowledge as either self-awareness or classical learning, as sanctioned and administered by a class of learned people (Kjorup 2001, 20–22). Emphasizing analytical procedures and conceptual frameworks for research on human consciousness and culture, through detailed attention to historical and other empirical sources, the humanities helped to shape the foundations of modern communication research.

If the early 1800s marked the institutionalization of the humanities as one of the two mainstreams later feeding into communication research, the period around 1900 witnessed a further diversification of the academy into a second mainstream of social sciences (for overview, see Murdock 2002). Responding to a rapidly changing social reality, various social scientific disciplines came to perform a double hermeneutics of economy, politics, and culture. As imported into the field of communication research, diverse social scientific disciplines and their practitioners could be said to position themselves along an axis – simultaneously epistemological and political – from consensus to conflict. Communication is part and parcel of the ongoing social business of coordination and confrontation, from micro-social processes to macro-social structures. A gulf is still manifest in current conferences and publications between functional analysis, from Spencer and Durkheim onward, and critical theory, from Marx through the Frankfurt School to political economy of the media, feminist and gender studies, and postcolonial theory.

This dual legacy of the social sciences for communication research has been complicated and enriched on several counts. Most important, perhaps, interpretivist and constructivist approaches have served as a constant reminder that the conduct of social life depends crucially on the available symbolic resources. Communication prefigures social agency, and configures social structure. Symbolic interaction, which emerged from the wider philosophical tradition of pragmatism, has been widely influential in studies of how communication contributes to a sense of community and of self. Across the social sciences and humanities, moreover, phenomenology reasserted the understanding of consciousness as a lived and interpreted whole. While phenomenology might be interpreted, in historical context, as a defensive reaction against reductionism in the shape of either positivism or psychologism, it became an active ingredient of twentieth-century social theory and of qualitative methodology. A case in point, suggesting distinctive disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives on communication as an object of analysis, is psychology in communication processes, which has been approached variously as a matter of interpretation or measurement, exegesis or experiment.

IV. Interdisciplinary Concepts through the Decades

The threshold to the twentieth century marked the onset of a two-tiered set of developments in the academic fields that were to feed into post-1945 scholarship on communication. On the one hand, specialized academic disciplines became the order of the day, operationalizing intellectual ideas into explanatory concepts for empirical research, while catering to the needs of professions and bureaucracies in modern society. Whereas both national and academic cultures differ (on the case of Germany, see Loblich 2007), the received, remembered history of US communication study (Dennis & Wartella 1996) is indicative of a widespread view that communication research stands on the shoulders of specific social scientific disciplines (for a critique, see Hardt 1999). Although Schramm (1997) described its development with reference to “forefathers” (Lewin; Lasswell, Harold D.; Lazarsfeld, Paul F.; Hovland, Carl I.), the conceptual and analytical substance derived from impersonal disciplines (political science, sociology, social and experimental psychology).

Importantly, a similarly partial history of communication studies might be told from the perspective of the humanities. In addition to the historical and intellectual traditions already noted, the candidates for disciplinary sources include art history, literary theory, linguistics, and film studies. Interestingly, the second edition of Lowery and DeFleur’s widely circulated textbook on the (social scientific) “milestones” of mass communication research included reference to an ascending “meaning paradigm” (Lowery & DeFleur 1988, 455), which might admit some humanistic milestones. Only seven years later, however, in the third edition, this anticipation of a possible convergence had been replaced by a return to multiple parallel “focused theories,” each of which might explain “some set of events or phenomena that has clear boundaries” (Lowery & DeFleur 1995, 397). The crediting of relevant disciplines, and the definition of interdisciplinarity, remain contested.

On the other hand, communication research has always been at least tendentially interdisciplinary. This is evident, not just in Whiggish histories regarding the multidisciplinary origins of the field, but also in some of the most influential contributions to its analytical concepts and techniques. At least two such sources can be identified. First, semiotics and structuralism, in multiple variants and in combination with other traditions of inquiry, for instance, rhetoric and hermeneutics, have provided detailed and rigorous frameworks for studying what Ferdinand de Saussure, a century ago, called “the life of signs in society.” Growing out of nineteenth-century studies of logic and language, these traditions inspired much linguistics and literary theory from the inter-war period, and were consolidated into a mainstream of humanistic media studies from the 1960s, while subsequently influencing also social scientific research on communication and culture.

The second family of interdisciplinary traditions is more closely associated with the social sciences and with technical and systemic conceptions of social life. Cybernetics, with a lineage in engineering and natural sciences, came into its own during the 1940s and 1950s as a generalized science of control and communication regarding machines and humans alike. The related, but different, tradition of systems theory, having lost its original dream of a theory of all systems, remains influential in the weaker sense of systems thinking. And theories of information as a logical, statistical, and algorithmic category have been key to both the design and study of communication media throughout the post-1945 period.

Despite family resemblances between the analytical categories of, for example, semiotics and cybernetics, any committed convergence of these and other interdisciplinary sources into some consensual theory of communication is not in progress, may never occur, and might not be desirable. Instead, convergence between human, social, and, to a degree, engineering and natural sciences can be understood as the expression of a professional ethos and a research agenda, both of which may reflect a degree of disciplinary maturity that allows for intellectual tolerance and curiosity. At least since the symbolic “ferment in the field” issue of the Journal of Communication (1983), such a position has been advanced widely – even if tolerance can deteriorate into indifference between niches. Furthermore, the process can take the form of several local convergences, rather than a global convergence across the field. To bring up two otherwise disparate strands of scholarship, cultural studies and cognitive science, each in their way has integrated elements from several disciplines across the humanities and social sciences. They constitute both interdisciplines in their own right and components of existing disciplines and fields, including communication research. Whereas cultural studies has brought classic hermeneutic and other discourse-analytical strategies to bear on modern society, reading for its cracks and fissures, cognitive science has revisited the notion of artificial intelligence with hindsight, as informed by neuroscience as well as anthropology.

The purpose of communication theory, thus, might not be to build one interdisciplinary building from disciplinary bricks, but to sketch a plan for how multiple buildings might be constructed and reconstructed. Craig’s (1999) summary statement on communication theory as a meta-discursive practice suggested as much: communication theory is constituted in and through acts of communication that address practical problems and issues of communication in the real world, and which advance different and competing solutions and reflections. Craig’s meta-perspective on the field yielded seven traditions of communication theory: rhetorical, semiotic, phenomenological, cybernetic, sociopsychological, socio-cultural, and critical. While their definition and delimitation remain debatable, this is precisely the point of a constitutive meta-model: communication theory is a communicative practice, and develops in relation to other practices and contexts of communication.

It is these practices that can be understood, more generally, as instances of the double hermeneutic of scholarship. Communication research is inter-, trans-, and multi-disciplinary and -traditional; it is all of these things in response to a reality that is endlessly communicating – or attempting to do so. The infrastructure of research institutions, journals, and conferences provides more glacial evidence of the dialectic. In addition to disciplinary and systematic distinctions such as communication and law, media economy, media production and content, and media effects, the field has been organized, further, according to domains of practical relevance, for example, educational communication and strategic communication, and with a view to historically contested notions such as popular communication. New institutional configurations of a theoretical heritage arise; revised disciplinary identities with a direct bearing on communication emerge, as in the case of information science, which in some settings used to be known as library science, but whose research questions, with digitization, increasingly overlap those of human–computer interaction. And, given the centrality of media and communication in contemporary society, communication researchers are regularly questioned in public to account for the role of communication in cultural change; for example, with reference to a possible epoch of postmodernism and communication. The responses perform the double hermeneutic in live communication.

V. The Process of Communication

Across disciplinary and intellectual differences, most forms of communication research share at least an ideal-typical understanding of the process of communication. Models of communication have been employed since the early days of the field as necessarily simplified, but heuristically helpful representations of the domain of study. A terminology of sender and receiver, message, and channel can be considered relatively uncontroversial, especially if reversible roles and feedback are considered. However, already regarding the context of this interaction, humanistic and social scientific approaches have tended to part company. Whereas the ideal-typical social scientist, as typified by Lasswell (1948), will think of contexts in terms of the natural and cultural environments embedding and being represented in communication; her or his humanistic counterpart, represented by Jakobson (1960), rather considers contexts literally as texts, as being always already discursive structures. And, while these two classic communication models have more than a surface resemblance, they imply alternative epistemologies. In Lasswell’s paradigm, communicators are really existing individuals or institutions with intentions that say something in some physical channel to someone, eliciting behaviors; in Jakobson’s model, communicators amount to immanent functions or traces in a text. This latter focus on the discursive vehicles of communication is reemphasized by the category of a code, such as the English language or cinematography, complementing the physical channel (what Jakobson termed contact) – codes are not constitutive of Lasswell’s paradigm. A third foundational model, originating from engineering, but widely applied to human communication, referred to whatever is being transmitted through some communication channel as a signal, which is subject to decay through noise (Shannon & Weaver 1949). In sum, the meaningful “content” of the communication process has been defined both positively, resulting from selections and combinations within a code of expression, and negatively, with reference to that portion of a signal which is not eliminated by noise arising from the material form of the channel of transmission – as well as indirectly in terms of the intentions and behaviors of senders and receivers.

The traditional divide between humanistic and social scientific approaches to the communication process can be traced to two distinctive conceptions of communication as either a mode of representation or a means of action. On the one hand, the humanities have emphasized the symbolic forms through which humans re-present different aspects of reality to each other as part of an intersubjective process of cognition and reflection. Theories have variously emphasized representation as a cognitive and aesthetic expression, as an externalized form of exchange, and as an internalizable source of experience. On the other hand, the social sciences have given priority to communication as a means of coordinating social interaction, as well as a type of interaction in its own right, feeding into all manner of social, cultural, and psychological practices.

Given their focus on forms of representation in communication, the humanities have generated a particularly rich legacy of concepts regarding the vehicles of communication. First, texts have been understood inclusively, since the 1960s, as carriers of culture, including print as well as audiovisual media, artworks, and everyday artifacts. The emphatically inclusive concepts of textuality and intertextuality, deriving from early twentieth-century literary theory, further suggest that no text is an island – texts enter into webs with historical ancestries and contemporary configurations. Long before hypertexts and the world wide web, humanistic scholarship had recognized the interconnectedness of texts as nodes of communication and culture.

Second, discourse refers to the use of language and other signs in social contexts, sometimes as concrete instantiations of a particular text (e.g., a performance of Hamlet). Discourse, then, shifts attention from textual entities toward the situated processes in which communication unfolds. In a wider sense, discourses refer to the cumulated usages of signs that articulate and bear witness to particular worldviews, ideologies, or cultural formations. Discourses accumulate as culture through communication. Also, beyond cultivation theory as understood in media studies, communication cultivates humans, for better or worse, through the historically available media.

In typologies of the vehicles of communication, the humanities have often devoted special attention to genre as an intermediate level of analysis in between specific texts or discourses and their institutional or media frameworks. While literary and aesthetic theory traditionally has examined epic, lyrical, and dramatic genres and their historical and cultural variants, media and communication studies have extended this perspective to apply to a wider range of (subvarieties of) genres, also beyond fiction – genres include news and television serials, email and online computer games, lovers’ quarrels and patient– therapist dialogues. Genres are textual equivalents of a wide variety of social practices, in public and in private, online and offline, as explored, for instance, in organizational communication (e.g., Yates & Orlikowski 1992) and with added relevance in the context of computer-mediated communication.

Despite different conceptions of the “content” of communication, the social sciences and humanities may be said to converge on a performative concept of meaning or a contextual concept of information. The humanities, increasingly, account for representational meaning in terms of its contribution to the ongoing structuration of culture and society (Giddens 1984); the social sciences, equally, attend to information as “a difference that makes a difference” in subsequent interpretations as well as actions within social and cultural contexts. Communication, accordingly, might be defined as those meaningful practices of human interaction that depend on interactivity, not just with new digital media, but with the full range of “programmable” media and modalities – it is through an exceedingly complex set of selections and combinations within the available material and symbolic resources of communication that human representations of, and iterative interactions in and with, reality become possible. Communication enables doubt and delay – stopping, reflecting, and representing before acting.

The convergence of concepts regarding “media” and “communication,” as indicated, has been facilitated by new, interrelated media forms and contexts of communication, which call for interdisciplinary research. The contemporary media environment is being shaped by intermediality in a technological, aesthetic, as well as institutional sense. In the process, new media rely on and reshape the repertoires of old media. One of the issues for further interdisciplinary research is how diverse everyday practices of communication relate to “the media” as specific institutions dedicated to communication about other institutions in society – political, economic, and cultural. What are the purposes and boundaries of different processes of communication? And what should be the purposes and institutional frameworks of different kinds of communication research?

VI. The Process of Research

The process of research can be understood as a special case of the process of communication, even if it is certainly debatable, as noted by Craig (1999, 155, note 10), whether it could be argued that communication research is “the fundamental discipline that explains all other disciplines, [all of which] are constituted symbolically through communication.” Communication research is a specific kind of communicative practice with particular social purposes or interests. The concept of knowledge interests – explanatory, interpretive, or emancipatory – suggests that purposes or interests are not external to, but constitutive aspects of, science and scholarship. The distinction between “administrative” and “critical” research (Lazarsfeld 1941) is founded in theoretical premises and research procedures, not political preferences.

Despite the diversity of research approaches that enter into communication research, it is possible to identify certain prototypical positions, as grounded in different forms of inference. In academic settings, two selfconceptions by researchers of what they think they are up to (Geertz 1983, 58) have frequently been pitted against each other – hypothetico-deductive reasoning supported by quantitative methodology, and abductive reasoning relying on qualitative methodology. (In fact, probably the most widespread kind of communication study, broadly speaking, relies on induction – research of the descriptive, commercial, and/or confidential kind that underpins business strategy and public planning.) These positions within academic communication research are aligned with wider traditions in epistemology and theory of science, which historically have amounted to separate cultures of research (Snow 1964), despite proposals for reintegration (Brockman 1995). On the one hand, critical rationalism informs a large proportion of empirical communication research, particularly quantitative studies. This is in spite of the fact that research practice may not always live up to the criteria stipulated by Popper, just as communication research as a whole, like other fields and disciplines, continues to struggle with definitions and implications of objectivity in science. On the other hand, constructivism has been influential, especially in qualitative, interpretive, and critical communication studies. In its more radical versions, constructivism may be said to abandon a modern notion of scholarship as intersubjectively validated representations of reality that social collectives may be willing to act on, putting narrative above argument.

In review, the two prototypical approaches to communication research can be summarized with reference to different aspects or levels of empirical studies. Debates across the qualitative–quantitative divide have often focused on these individual levels, commonly with special reference to the levels of data collection and analysis. Importantly, however, it is research design or methodology, not theory, that distinguishes qualitative and quantitative research – although methodologies typically enter into families of theoretical frameworks and analytical techniques. The similarities and differences between the two mainstreams are perhaps best understood if one notes how they join – or separate – the several levels of analysis. Quantitative communication studies tend to assume that a separation of the moments of conceptualization, design, data collection, data analysis, and interpretation is both possible and desirable. Qualitative studies, in turn, hold that at least certain communicative phenomena require a research process that moves liberally among all the analytical levels in order to articulate and differentiate analytical categories, so that the minimal act of analysis is a constitutive part of a sequence. It is this difference that, above all, accounts for the different strengths of the two mainstreams, which thus recapitulate major conceptual dichotomies in the history of modern science idiographic vs nomethetic, verstehen vs erklaren, emic vs etic.

Current media and communication research has been undergoing a development of convergence between intellectual and disciplinary traditions since the 1980s, exploring the complementarity of qualitative and quantitative, humanistic and social scientific versions of the research process. Defined negatively, the field is pre-paradigmatic, lacking a consensual set of methodological, epistemological, and ontological premises (Kuhn 1970). But, defined positively, the field has been the site of a dialogue between, in a weak sense, paradigms in the plural. While the process is open-ended, the evidence of publications and conferences suggests that convergence may continue, and might be consolidated with reference to epistemological and meta-theoretical frameworks that recognize the explanatory value of both qualitative and quantitative research; for example, scientific realism (Jensen 2002a; Pavitt 1999).

With each turn of the research dialogue, communication theory and “philosophy,” in the sense of an epistemology implying ontological as well as political commitments, are of the essence. In Figure 1, the epistemological level relates back to the empirical object of analysis, assuming preliminary definitions and justifications of what constitutes relevant “objects” of analysis, and what amounts to admissible forms of “analysis” enabling inferences beyond that object. Some venues of international communication research have tended to treat “theory” and “philosophy” as separate concerns and themes apart from the core business of research. To exemplify, the Philosophy of Communication Division of the International Communication Association, was formed in 1985 around “twin elements: theorizing communication and politicizing philosophy” (Erni 2005, 374). In practice, the division has been “a home to philosophical, critical, and cultural studies work” (Erni 2005, 371), implicitly as well as explicitly questioning theoretical and methodological premises in other divisions of that association. One of its dilemmas has been how to carve out a niche for theoretical reflection without remaining a niche to particular theories, resisting a perceived scientific hegemony while engaging its “others” in dialogue. Certainly, it takes two parties to communicate, and reflexivity on the part of both parties to achieve a dialogue. An important challenge for future communication studies, across divisions, niches, and traditions, is how to accommodate and address communication theory and philosophy of communication, not as separate or self-sufficient practices, but as necessary conditions of communication research as such.

The struggles over research agendas, theoretical concepts, and analytical procedures, in the end, are part of the double hermeneutics of communication research. Communication studies examine a contested reality of communicative practices that everyday communicators as well as scholars care deeply about. An additional reason for theorizing communication at the beginning of the twenty-first century is its changing technological and institutional frameworks. The media – books, the press, broadcasting, the Internet – have long served as resources for reflexivity and deliberation on a macro-social scale, as institutions-to-think-with (Douglas 1987); digitization is affecting the very constituents and processes of these institutions – the who, what, and how of communication. Communication research performs the role of a second-order institution-to-think-with, without guarantees that its findings and insights may be adopted in either subsequent scholarship or everyday communicative practices. The communication of communication studies is an uncertain and unfinished business.


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