Monday, January 30, 2012

What We Do

Author's Note: This was written for a graduate seminar at LSU - posting it here is a cheap way of keeping this blog alive, but the questions posed are, nonetheless, relevant. For those with a scholarly disposition, the in-text citations have been left in place.

In reading the varying conceptualizations of what communication is, what it isn’t, whether it is representational or presentational, whether it is interactional or transactional and whether is should be firmly rooted in postmodernism or its evolutionary heir, the thread that appears to run through these works is Watzlawick et al.’s axiom “One cannot not communicate” (1967, p. 49). At the root of the axiomatic debate is the definition of communication itself. Upon hearing this axiom for the first time in an undergraduate business communication class, the explanation used to support it seemed to make sense. In an office setting, layer after layer of communication as we traditionally think of it was removed until simply the act of not showing up to work became a communicative act that said any number of things from “I’m sick,” to “I’m sick of working here.” Viewed now in retrospect, every layer of communication deprivation represented an intentional act, however, it is also clear that the intention might not have necessarily been to send a “message.”

Located on another place in the “What constitutes communication?” spectrum, we have the notion that communication must necessarily occur whenever there are two or more people present (Motley, 1991). That is, even if one is not communicating, the act of not communicating is communication. Complicating the definition even further, the idea that some form of intention (conscious or unconscious) is a sender-based view of communication whereas calling all behaviors communication imposes a “receiver bias” (Bavelas, 1990, p. 595). That is, one the one hand, if a behavior, verbal or otherwise, is intended to transmit a message, for some that constitutes communication regardless of how or if it is received while others claim that any behavior that transmits information, regardless of intent, is communication. Finally, postmodern thinkers have attempted to bridge the gap positing that communication is not a discrete “thing” that can be extracted and studied in isolation, but rather an event that consists of myriad and intrinsically elusive variables such that absolute certainty can never be achieved (Cronen, 1998).

All of the above academic epiphamizing still leaves us with the question, what is communication? While adopting a stance like the infamous US Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it,” is equally ambiguous when applied to communication, does any of the prior (and certainly future) debate help communication scholars? Communication Theories has a laundry list of 18 different academic definitions of “communication” (Miller, 2005), never mind the ancillary and necessary definitions of the terms that spring from those definitions. Some might argue that for disciplinary status and theory development, we, as communication scholars, need to define in no uncertain terms what it is that we study. But consider this: Can communication be as simple as the sharing of information? What constitutes “sharing” and what is meant by “information,” of course, is open to further debate, but as Deetz has pointed out, we do not study the substance of, say, psychology, or sociology (also ambiguously defined disciplines), or even hard sciences such as physics or chemistry, but we do study how the information produced by these diciplines is shared, used and even, to a certain extent, created – “We have to…produce studies that study psychological, sociological, and economic phenomena as formed and explained communicationally” (1994, p. 568).

Therefore, the definitional constraints on what, exactly, constitutes the communicative element is highly fluid and largely context dependent. Indeed, approaching the same question from two or more communicational perspectives, whether is be a linear model, a postmodern angle or a rhetorical view within the communication studies discipline can each reveal different but still valuable insights. Cronen is correct that certainty is an impossibility, however, this is nothing new – Aristotle’s Rhetoric is founded on the very idea of the contingent. If methodologies and theories – indeed, if disciplinary status - are dependent on a narrowly focused definition of communication, then we are forever destined to be nothing more than a field. But notice the debate regarding the definitions of terms such as “discipline,” “field,” “areas of study” and the like (Deetz, 1994). Similarly, many if not all other so-called disciplines can be subjected to the same definitional scrutiny. But we as communication scholars, not surprisingly, seem to dwell on this, perhaps due in part to our tenuous foothold in the academy, but also due to the fact that this is part and parcel of what we do.

The ongoing debate is a two-edged sword. It is exceedingly beneficial to examine and re-examine what communication is and toward that end, develop new theories and methodologies that propel our understanding of a phenomenon that can never be fully understood. Our discipline’s propensity to communicate about communication is a practical application of the art we study. However, when it comes to entrenched beliefs and interdepartmental divisions, it weakens our standing in the academy. In justifying one area of study to the exclusion of another, we fuel those who see us as a field without substance, a community of scholars with no community. The simple fact is that no area of study, indeed, not even the human race as we know it, exists outside of or without communication. We don’t study chemistry or psychology or economics or basket weaving, we study how people in those “areas of study” or “fields” or “disciplines” communicate. We study the sharing of information, regardless of how one defines it.