Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Beyond the seven traditions of communication theory: Otávio Daros Interviews Robert T. Craig

Following is the English source text of an interview recently published in Portuguese in the journal, Questões Transversais (Craig & Daros, 2022). The interview was done by email in January, 2021, by the Brazilian scholar Otávio Daros.  Daros questioned me concerning my intellectual background and development, my concept of communication as a practical discipline and how it relates to current thinking about the field of communication as a "post-discipline." We also discussed my "constitutive metamodel" of communication theory (the seven traditions), how the field has changed since the original publication of that concept in 1999, and current issues about "de-westernizing" or "decolonizing" communication theory.  The interview concludes with my thoughts about the future of communication studies, which I think will depend on the future of communication itself as a cultural practice that is somewhat under threat at the present moment. 

Otávio Daros: Could you comment on your intellectual trajectory since your BA in Speech at the University of Wisconsin – Madison and your PhD in communication at the Michigan State University? I would like to know about your sources of inspiration at that time, and how your main study interests have moved up to the present day.

Robert Craig: I had always thought I would grow up to become a lawyer, but during my undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I became a scholar instead, because I fell in love with communication theory. At that time, in the late 1960s, communication was a “hot” topic across the disciplines. In my liberal arts curriculum, I took courses in science, literature, philosophy, political science, sociology, etc., each a different subject, but communication had a big role in most of them. Philosophy was about language and meaning; political science was about cybernetic systems and political symbols; social psychology was about persuasion and social interaction, and so on. My first communication theory course, which touched on all of those disciplines and more, was where it all seemed to come together. Communication was at the center of everything! In the Speech department, I took courses in rhetorical theory, which, of course, were also about communication, but communication theory was a separate course. The Speech department was split between humanistic scholars who studied rhetoric and social scientists who called their subject “communication,” and I wavered between the two. Rhetorical studies had philosophical depth and engaged with important normative problems of public discourse, while communication studies seemed more up-to-date and scientific and covered the full range of communication from interpersonal to mass. That was when I first began to think about problems like the nature of theory, the relationship between normative and empirical knowledge, and the purpose of a communication discipline. 

I decided, however, to pursue graduate studies in the Department of Communication at Michigan State University, where I was totally immersed in the behavioral sciences and took courses in statistics, mathematical modeling, network analysis, theory construction, social psychology, and interpersonal communication, among others. I emerged with my PhD as a quantitative communication scientist in 1976 and took my first job at the Pennsylvania State University in a Speech Communication department which, like the Speech department at Wisconsin had been, was sharply split between a dominant group of humanistic rhetoricians and a smaller cohort of communication scientists. As I encountered that academic “culture clash” once again, I was driven back to the same philosophical, theoretical, and methodological questions about the communication discipline that had begun to engage me as an undergraduate. This is not the place for a detailed account of my intellectual development through the following decades. I have told parts of that story in previous publications (Craig, 2006, 2021). For now, let me just say that my ongoing struggle with those questions has inspired much of my subsequent work on practical theory, communication as a practical discipline, the constitutive metamodel of communication theory, and metadiscourse. 

OD: One of your first and most significant contributions refers to the article "Communication as a Practical Discipline" (1989). You recently returned to this reflection in "For a Practical Discipline" (2018a). How have you described communication as a practical discipline, considering its object of study and methodology? And how does it distinguish itself from other intellectual disciplines?

RC: The concept of a practical discipline has been at the center of my work for more than 30 years. The idea has developed through time as I have revised and elaborated various aspects of it, but my core argument has always been that we can use the concept of practical discipline to make sense of our very diverse, currently very fragmented field of study and to focus our collective activities on an essential function: to cultivate the practice of communication in society. I have argued that all elements of the communication field, including scientific, humanistic and critical research, professional and technical education, applied studies, etc., can contribute in different ways to our essential purpose, identity, and legitimacy as a discipline. The concept of a practical discipline goes back historically to Aristotle’s practical philosophy and his way of distinguishing practical subjects, such as ethics and politics, from productive subjects, such as shipbuilding and poetry, and from scientific subjects, such as physics and psychology. Communication can be studied in all three forms—as a set of practices that require thoughtful deliberation and good judgment, as a set of technologies and skills for producing things such as messages, and as a set of natural phenomena that can be investigated empirically, but I argue that these different forms of inquiry can be pursued most fruitfully when the practical dimension of communication is foregrounded as our primary object of study, which can integrate and give direction to our technical and scientific studies.  

OD: Does conceiving communication as a practical discipline mean that it is not a scientific discipline? In this case, don't you think it is appropriate to speak in terms of a communication science or an applied science?

RC: A modern practical discipline must also be a scientific discipline because empirical knowledge and explanatory theories can be of enormous practical importance. Those who wish to study communication and media phenomena as a “pure” communication science should be free to do so, but it is also important for them or other scholars in a practical discipline to reflect critically on the normative implications of that work. For example, “pure” scientific research showing how online social networks are influencing democratic politics can inform thinking about regulatory policies as well as political campaign practices, etc. Moreover, communication scientists can select research problems with the larger purpose of a practical discipline in mind. Prominent communication scholars such as Wolfgang Donsbach (2006), Russell Neuman (2016) and Klaus Bruhn Jensen (2021), have argued that communication scientists should focus their research on empirical questions that are relevant to normative problems in the practice of communication, including problems of democracy, pluralism, and social justice. This is a way to pursue scientific studies of communication while also contributing to a practical discipline.

OD: And how would your original proposal approach or distance itself from recent discussions about communication constituting a type of post-disciplinary field, configured by the lack of theoretical nucleus and thematic diversity?

RC: Debates about whether communication is an interdisciplinary field or an “emerging” discipline have gone on for decades without clear resolution. As the institutional consolidation of communication and media studies has progressed, I think the disciplinary view has gained ground, yet our field obviously continues to be very diverse and fragmented, with no generally acknowledged intellectual core. The “post-disciplinary” position advanced recently by Silvio Waisbord (2019) proposes to leverage the growing institutional strength of the communication discipline together with the field’s intellectual diversity to produce a new kind of academic formation that is more dynamic and innovative than traditional disciplines. In this view, our messy academic pluralism and habitual free roaming across disciplines are among the virtues of a post-discipline, not a source of weakness. Waisbord calls for the communication field to engage with contemporary social problems and to develop integrative frameworks across different areas in order to resist the tendency toward hyper-specialization. He implies, however, that a tightly unified disciplinary structure is not only unnecessary for our field to thrive but would be counterproductive, even if it were possible to achieve. 

My work on communication as a practical discipline proposes to unify the field under the broad disciplinary purpose of cultivating the practice of communication in society by developing practical knowledge, deliberating on communication problems, and intervening in the metadiscourse about communication that circulates in society (Craig, 2018a), but this not a very restrictive prescription. It does not require a tight disciplinary structure but rather emphasizes that the field’s diverse research and educational activities, theoretical traditions, and methodological approaches, all have something useful to contribute to its essential disciplinary purpose, if understood in that light. Even so, I am under no illusion that this vision of a practical discipline will ever become hegemonic. In Waisbord’s post-disciplinary view, the idea of a practical discipline can serve as an integrative framework to focus some of our activities on contemporary social problems, even if it is never universally adopted to define the communication discipline. In that regard, I think “post-discipline” describes our actual situation reasonably well, but I think the same can be said of many other academic fields at this time, including such traditional disciplines as sociology and anthropology.  

OD: For some scholars, the strength of communication studies is precisely in their dialogue - and dependence - with fields such as sociology and anthropology. On the other hand, others claim the autonomy of the communicational field. What is your position in this debate about an autonomous or dependent field? Has your vision changed since the 1970s?

RC: What is autonomy? Every discipline may be unique in some ways, but no discipline is independent of others. They all overlap with others, borrow from others, and endlessly fragment into subfields and divergent approaches, partly under the influence of others. Parts of psychology are now indistinguishable from neuroscience. Parts of economics have become branches of psychology. Economic theory dominates areas of sociology. Anthropology uses gene sequencing, carbon dating, economic modeling, and conversation analysis. By the same token, no discipline exclusively “owns” its nominal object of study. Not everyone who studies society is officially doing sociology, not everyone who studies behavior is a psychologist, and not everyone who studies communication is or ever will be officially a communication scholar. In this fluid reality, we need not worry that becoming an “autonomous” discipline will cut us off from dialogue and interdependence with other fields. I don’t clearly remember how I thought about this issue in the 1970s, but later on I developed the idea of a “conversation of disciplines” in which each discipline draws on a certain combination of rhetorical resources to assert its distinct “voice” (Craig, 2008). In this view, no discipline has a clear identity apart from the ongoing dialogue among disciplines.  

OD: In "Why Are There So Many Communication Theories?" (1993), you argue that the production of new theories does not necessarily contribute to making the field more enlightened, and that scholars still lack even a cohesive vocabulary to discuss the contributions that today announce themselves as a theory of communication. So I must ask this very basic question, but so important: what is your definition of communication theories?

RC: I don’t think I wrote in that article that producing new theories fails to enlighten the field. My point was that the epistemological diversity of communication theories that were being produced should make us question our traditional assumptions about theory. I was trying to open a space in the field for the discussion of new concepts of theory, such as practical theory, which I had proposed in the 1980s (Craig, 1989). I was responding, in part, to communication scientists like Charles R. Berger (1991), who complained that communication scientists were not producing original theories but were continuing to rely on theories borrowed from social psychology and other fields. To this I replied that communication scholars were doing plenty of original theoretical work outside of the narrow boundary of Berger’s definition of “theory,” but in order to appreciate what they were doing we must expand our concept of theory. (My exchange with Berger has been republished in Portuguese translation: see Martino, Craig & Berger, 2007.)  The expanded concept of theory is something I have been working on for several decades. As of now, I define communication theory as expert metadiscourse (discourse about communication) that is relatively abstract and general, and that interacts with (influences and is influenced by) the ordinary metadiscourse that constitutes and regulates the practice of communication in everyday life. This definition emphasizes the vital flow of discourse between theory and practice to cultivate the practice of communication, and is broad enough to include the empirical scientific theories that Berger favored, along with interpretive, critical and explicitly practical forms of theory that that would not count as theory in his view.   

OD:  At that time, the International Communication Association created the Communication Theory journal, of which you are founding editor. Could you share a little behind the scenes of the foundation of the journal in 1991, and what did this mean for the development of research in communication?

RC: Although the first issues of Communication Theory appeared in 1991, the story of the journal’s founding goes back to debates that were already occurring in ICA in the 1980s about the communication discipline’s lack of a distinct theoretical core. The lack of core communication theories was attributed, in part, as I mentioned a moment ago, to our tendency to borrow theories from other disciplines without developing theories of our own. The lack of a core was also attributed to a “gap” between the subdisciplines of mass communication and interpersonal communication, such that each of those sub-fields was developing in isolation from the other, without general theories of communication to connect them. There was also an awareness of competing theoretical paradigms in the discipline, as critical and interpretive approaches to inquiry arose to challenge the dominant quantitative social science paradigm. These problems were debated in several special issues of communication journals and at the 1985 ICA conference in Honolulu, Hawai’i, the theme of which was “Paradigm Dialogues.” 

It was in the context of those debates that the ICA Board of Directors, at its 1987-1988 meetings, decided to create a new journal called Communication Theory. At that time, ICA members received subscriptions to two journals.  One was the Journal of Communication, which was published by the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania and focused almost exclusively on media and mass communication studies, and the other was Human Communication Research, which was published by Sage for ICA and focused primarily on quantitative research in interpersonal communication. The purpose of ICA’s new journal, Communication Theory, was to publish original theoretical work on communication in all paradigms and all areas of the field, including general theory that would begin to fill the discipline’s empty theoretical core.

The proposal for Communication Theory was finally approved in May 1988, and a call for editor nominations was announced. I submitted an application later that summer and was fortunate to be selected by the Publications Committee and approved by the ICA Board of Directors in November 1988 to be the founding editor, responsible for the first three volumes. In the following two years before the first issue appeared in print, I was occupied with setting up and running the journal’s editorial process, overseeing the creation of its graphic design, and establishing arrangements for its publication.  I have described these phases of the journal’s development in more detail in a previous interview (Boromisza-Habashi, 2013).

But just to answer your question as to what the foundation of this journal meant for the development of research in communication, I think Communication Theory has successfully advanced the growth of original theoretical work across the field of communication, although it never quite became the flagship disciplinary journal that its founders envisioned. The discipline of communication still lacks a theoretical core, but there is more awareness of communication theory as a field, and of the range of work that it includes, and we are creating more and better theories than before. 

OD: In "Communication Theory as a Field" (1999) published in this journal, you agreed with James Anderson's statement that the field of communication is not a coherent field of study yet. At the same time, you said you believed that a field would emerge as scholars became theorists committed to socially important goals and issues that permeate the various traditions of thought, and which historically divide them. Today, do you think we have become more or less coherent, taking into account increasingly fragmentation and hyperspecialization in the field, for example?

RC: I don’t know if the field of communication theory has become much more coherent since 1999. Anderson’s (1996) content analysis of communication theory textbooks found that they all presented different groups of theories, with little or no overlap between books. If we were to repeat Anderson’s study today, would we find more agreement among current textbooks regarding the standard contents of the field? If so, that might indicate some degree of coherence. As I mentioned a moment ago, I think scholars across the field have become generally more aware of different theoretical traditions and approaches than they were in the 1990s, but I think dialogue across those differences is still lacking. Another way to measure coherence would be to ask, “What are the important issues that communication theorists across the field are currently debating?” Debate goes on within subfields and approaches, but are there any issues that engage the whole field? Off hand, I cannot think of any such issues. There are differences that cut across many areas, for example scientific empiricism versus critical theory, but there is little dialogue about those differences. The recent calls for dewesternization or decolonization of communication raise theoretical issues that potentially concern the whole field, but how many of us are discussing them? On the whole, it still seems now, as it did in 1999, that communication theorists neither agree nor disagree about much of anything but generally ignore each other. 

OD: In this classic essay, you summarized different theoretical strands in communication scholarship into seven traditions: rhetorical, semiotic, phenomenological, cybernetic, sociopsychological, sociocultural, and critical. Two decades later, do you think that this table remains valid to accommodate the expansion and diversification of communication studies?

RC: The seven traditions were never intended to compose a final and comprehensive model of the field. They were constructed to illustrate the possibility of dialogue in the field, based on the principles of the constitutive metamodel of communication theory. From the beginning, it was explicitly assumed that the metamodel was open to debate about its structure and that it would change over time. Furthermore, the seven traditions were never intended to represent subdisciplinary areas of communication study. The traditions represent fundamental conceptions of communication, which do not necessarily correspond to currently existing subdisciplinary areas of study. That is why it would make no sense to add an “intercultural communication tradition” or a “digital media” tradition to the metamodel. Those are current areas of study but not fundamentally distinct conceptions of communication. 

With those qualifications, I do think that the 1999 table remains valid because the fundamental conceptions of communication that it presents still constitute viable alternative viewpoints from which to frame communication problems and theorize the practice of communication. However, there are many other possibilities to explore. Since 1999, at least two additional traditions and other modification to the metamodel have been proposed. Some of these revisions are discussed in a volume recently edited by Marc H. Rich and Jessica S. Robles (2021). My own contribution to that book concludes with the suggestion that it is not necessary for the field to agree on a single “official” set of traditions, but that theorists should apply the principles of the constitutive metamodel in more flexible ways, for example, by selecting and defining different sets of traditions for specific analytical purposes. That is what I did in a recent article about pluralism as a communication problem (Craig, 2018b), where I defined four traditions of pluralistic communication, none of which corresponds exactly to any tradition in the 1999 table. The 1999 table remains valid, but it should not prevent us from exploring other views of communication. 

OD: As you detailed in Theorizing Communication: Readings Across Traditions (2007), each tradition elaborates and operates with its own understanding of communication. But these traditions certainly did not shape communication research with the same intensity, varying according to the time and context. What are the strongest downward and rising movements of these traditions specifically in research in the United States?

RC: Every tradition defined in my 1999 article is still practiced today, which is evidenced by the continued existence of rhetoric, semiotics, phenomenology, cybernetics, and so on, as theoretical topics and academic fields. Of course, the seven traditions are not all equally influential in current communication research, and a lot of current research is not easily placed in any one of those traditions. For example, poststructuralist critical theory is influenced by semiotic, phenomenological, sociocultural, and rhetorical, as well as critical conceptions of communication. Poststructualism perhaps should be defined as a tradition in its own right, if we conclude that it constitutes a fundamentally distinct conception of communication. However, of the seven traditions defined in 1999, I think the dominant ones now, specifically in US research, are the sociopsychological and the critical traditions. The great division in our field is between empirical communication science and humanistic-critical studies. The field of rhetoric still flourishes but the rhetorical tradition as I defined it in 1999 has lost influence. Most rhetoricians now seem to think of themselves as critical scholars. The Critical and Cultural Studies Division is now the largest interest group in the (US) National Communication Association, and several other NCA interest groups also align with critical studies. However, empirical communication science is also growing rapidly, and social psychological conceptions of communication continue to play a central role, along with cybernetic concepts related to cognition and information processing.  Communication science has also taken a strong turn toward biological approaches, and some are now arguing that biology should be recognized as a distinct tradition of communication theory.

OD:  In your opinion, the dominant understanding among American researchers remains that communication is a process in which some information is transmitted from a sender through a medium? And how does your own understanding of the phenomenon diverge or converge with this dominant idea?

RC: I’m not actually sure what the dominant understanding of communication is among US researchers, but I think most would agree that the traditional transmission model of communication is oversimplified. The official definition of communication on the National Communication Association website presents a “transactional model of communication” in which “people use messages to generate meanings within and across various contexts” (https://www.natcom.org/about-nca/what-communication). The emphasis in defining communication has shifted from the transmission of information to the interactive production of meaning in context, with media as an important part of the context. This shift is related to the rise and decline of different theoretical traditions we were just discussing, and it is generally consistent with the constitutive metamodel of communication theory that I have proposed. 

OD:  Regarding the Rhetorical tradition, communication is understood as the practical art of discourse. How does your point of view on the phenomenon relate to this understanding, and how do you situate your contributions to communication theory within (or outside) this tradition?

RC: Rhetorical theory was an important part of my undergraduate education, as I mentioned earlier, and it has deeply influenced my thinking about communication theory and communication studies in general. The modern discipline of communication can trace its origins to the ancient Greek art of rhetoric. For Aristotle, rhetoric, the art of persuasion, was an offshoot of the practical discipline of politics. I conceive a similar relationship between the modern practical discipline of communication and the various arts and technical branches of communication studies, including the art of rhetoric, that are its offshoots. In the modern world, communication has become a complex field of social practice that extends beyond politics into every aspect of social and personal life, and the arts and technologies of communication have proliferated accordingly. We need a practical discipline of communication to deliberation on normative problems in the practice of communication, just as the Aristotelian practical discipline of politics ideally governed the normative use of its technical offshoot, the art of rhetoric. 

The constitutive metamodel of communication theory also draws from the rhetorical tradition. In the metamodel, communication theory itself is an art of discourse that that appeals to commonplace beliefs about communication and develops lines of argument for deliberation and debate on communication problems.  In that regard, rhetoric, although just one of seven traditions of communication theory in the metamodel, is also an element in the design of the metamodel as a whole. However, the same can be said of other traditions. All seven traditions contributed to the design of the metamodel, as did a later addition, the eighth tradition of pragmatism (Craig, 2007). As a tradition of communication theory, rhetoric provides us with a fundamental conception of communication that exists in dialogue and debate with other fundamental conceptions from the traditions of semiotics, cybernetics, and so on. 

OD: In common, the traditions of communication theory identified by you originated in European thought, and the new theories are developed predominantly by American and European scholars who frequently work with the traditions of their respective countries. Considering this inequality in the theoretical field, Latin American scholars began to speak in terms of the decolonization of communicational thinking. How do you relate to this movement of claiming knowledge outside the Anglo-Saxon orbit? On the other hand, do you see the risk of erasing the matrixes that originated the tradition of communication theories? 

RC: Cultures are always evolving, so whatever “decolonization” means in this context, it cannot be to return to some pure, pre-colonial indigenous epistemology. The project of dewesternizing or decolonizing communication theory faces a paradox if the very ideas of “communication” and “theory” are regarded as Western impositions, which, in a sense, they are. But you cannot have “indigenous communication theory” without some conceptions of “communication” and “theory.” In this light, we need not worry about “erasing the matrices that originated the tradition of communication theory.” Those matrices will continue to be available for whatever uses modern communication scholars, including scholars committed to decolonizing the field, choose to make of them.  The development of traditions of communication theory rooted in nonwestern cultures is an entirely positive movement in my view. It will not diminish communication theory at all but can only enrich and invigorate the field while improving its cultural relevance. We must acknowledge, however, that decolonizing the field means accepting some adjustments to the academic power equation on editorial boards and the like, more than just welcoming new ideas in principle. 

OD: In "Constructing theories in communication research" (2013b), you question whether communication theories can express universal principles that apply to all cultures, or whether the phenomenon of communication is culturally variable, and therefore it is necessary to have specific theories for each culture. What answer have you been writing to this question? 

RC: Communication is both universal and culturally variable. The global growth of academic communication studies both follows and potentially accelerates the globalization of communication itself, as a cultural concept and as a field of social practice, but the globalized concept of communication may clash with local cultures, in relation to which it must then be adjusted or “glocalized” to be made relevant to local practices. The decolonizing movement in communication studies that we were just discussing is perhaps one manifestation of that process, one in which local conceptions of communication feed back to influence the global. I believe any concept of communication, regardless of its cultural origin, is potentially universal insofar as it can be interpretated and made relevant to communication in any cultural context. But this implies that a universal concept can be interpreted differently and have different meanings in each local culture. In this assumption I follow philosophical hermeneutics, which asserts that universal principles take on different meanings as they are applied to each new practical situation.  So, culturally based theories of communication should be welcomed by everyone because they become potentially universal resources for understanding communication problems and practices, albeit with somewhat different practical meaning in different times and places. This is the basis for multicultural dialogue in the field of communication theory. Cultural variability in communication theory is not, therefore, a problem, but cultural domination can be a problem and must be resisted when it distorts multicultural dialogue in the global field. 

OD: As a historical leader in the field, what challenges do you see for the maturation of the communication field? And what trends for communication studies in the future?

RC: My realistic expectation is that the field of communication in the near future will continue to consolidate institutionally as an international academic discipline while also continuing to proliferate sub- and inter-disciplinary specialty areas and approaches without regard to a coherent theoretical core. At best, this process of simultaneous institutional consolidation and intellectual fragmentation will produce something resembling the dynamically innovative “post-discipline” that Waisbord (2019) has envisioned. However, the discussion of our disciplinary identity and purpose must go on, in order to make some sense of our institutional consolidation, even if we cannot realistically expect that discussion to produce a fully coherent discipline. I would like to think that the concept of a practical discipline contributes something useful to the discussion of disciplinary identity and purpose because it reveals a common thread running through our diverse activities in communication research and education, which potentially ties the field together and explains the social importance of our work. We are already a practical discipline in many respects and could continue to develop well in that direction. 

In a longer view, the fate of the academic field of communication depends on the fate of communication itself—I mean communication as a cultural concept and practice, not as a sheer physical-biological phenomenon.  Communication in the latter sense will go on, of course, in some form as long as the world goes on, but the cultural future of communication is less certain.  The global rise of communication can be partly explained as a result of technological and economic forces, but cultural trends associated with modernity and globalization have also been involved, and the rise of communication has brought with it a certain expectation that information, democratic dialogue, and better communication in general can be instruments of human progress.  More and more, personal and social problems are framed as communication problems, and our discipline is expected to offer practical solutions. It seems to me that the legitimacy of our discipline depends on such cultural beliefs about the importance of communication and the relevance of our work for improving communication. 

However, there is no guarantee that those supportive cultural trends will continue.  With the rise of communication comes social change that may conflict with traditional ideas and institutions (Craig, 2013a).  Religious and cultural conservatives may associate the idea of communication, for example the idea that we should resolve our differences through dialogue, with undesirable trends toward relativism and secularism.  Others may associate the idea of communication with weakness in situations that would be more effectively resolved through the exercise of power, perhaps including violence or threats. Trends toward political authoritarianism and the cynical development and use of the technical means of communication for purposes of warfare, manipulation, and misinformation undermine the normative legitimacy of communication as a social practice.  Our discipline cannot thrive in such a toxic culture, and as a practical discipline we are called upon to resist it. 


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Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory, 9(2), 119-161. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.1999.tb00355.x

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Craig, R., & Daros, O. (2022). Para além das sete tradições da teoria da comunicação: Entrevista com Robert T. Craig [Beyond the seven traditions of communication theory: Interview with Robert T. Craig]. Questões Transversais, 10(19), 39-47. https://doi.org//10.4013/qt.2022.1019.05 

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Neuman, W. R. (2016). The digital difference: Media technology and the theory of communication effects. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Waisbord, S. (2019). Communication: A post-discipline: Wiley/Polity Press.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

"Deliberative Play" - Articles now online for a forthcoming special issue of the American Behavioral Scientist

The purpose of this special issue on “Deliberative Play” is to explore from several approaches the occurrence of playful interaction in deliberating groups and its normative and practical significance for the communication process that constitutes democratic deliberation. 

Democratic deliberation can only occur within a communication process.  Communicatively achieved deliberative quality is a matter of degree and can be enabled by forms of interaction that are not per se deliberative. Thus, play in itself is not deliberation, but, as the studies in this special issue suggest, it may function in a communication process to serve deliberative ends, which may call for some further reconsideration of deliberative norms to take account of such a function. (from the Introduction)

The special issue will not be out for a while, but all of the articles are online. Below is the table of contents with links to the articles, followed by an excerpt from the introduction that further explains the idea of deliberative play. You can read the article abstracts online for free, but access to the full articles requires a subscription--check your library.


Introduction: Deliberative Play -- Robert T. Craig

Storytelling and Deliberative Play in the Oregon Citizens’Assembly Online Pilot on COVID-19 Recovery -- Laura W. Black, Anna W. Wolfe & Soo-Hye Han   

Facilitating Deliberative Play -- Leah Sprain

New England Town Meeting and the Cultivation of Deliberative Play -- Rebecca M. Townsend & Trudy Milburn

Freedom of Discussion versus Predetermined Futures in Deliberation Processes -- Anna Przybylska, Marta Bucholc & Shin Mazur

To Play Is the Thing: How Game Design Principles Can Make Online Deliberation Compelling -- John Gastil

From the Introduction:

Conceptualizing Deliberative Play

A principle underlying the concept of deliberative play is that practical action that displays the virtue Aristotle called phronesis or practical wisdom involves a certain kind of play in the process of deliberation and judgment that leads from uncertainty to action. This normative concept of deliberative play is informed by insights from Aristotle's philosophy of praxis or deliberative action (Aristotle, 1941; Dunn, 1993; Koch, 2014), Hans-Georg Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics (Gadamer, 1981, 1989), philosophical pragmatism, especially John Dewey’s theory of inquiry and reflective thinking (Dewey, 1938, 1989; Craig, 2001), and Gregory Bateson's communication theory of play and fantasy, especially his concept of play as a metacommunicative frame (Bateson, 1972; Goffman, 1974). These ideas suggest four key features of deliberative play as a communicative practice.    

The first key feature of deliberative play is indeterminacy or uncertainty of outcome: The outcome of deliberative play is indeterminate until the moment of judgment or decision. 

For Aristotle, praxis was a kind of action that requires choice in situations of uncertainty. He wrote in Nicomachean Ethics that praxis requires deliberative judgment, that "all deliberation is investigation" and that deliberation is "concerned with things that happen in a certain way for the most part, but in which the event is obscure, and with things in which it is indeterminate" (Aristotle, 1941, p. 970). His theory of the virtues suggests that the indeterminacy of action arises in part the fact that the choice of what to do often requires us to navigate between opposing values that are both valid. For example, to act with true courage means to find the golden mean between virtuous risk taking and prudent caution which respects both values (Kock, 2014). Aristotle wrote little about the process of deliberation except to describe it is a kind of investigation. 

Dewey's pragmatist theory of inquiry also described practical deliberation as a kind of investigation, a thought experiment that moves from an initial state of doubt or uncertainty to arrive at a practical judgment by imagining and weighing the anticipated consequences of alternative courses of action (Dewey, 1989, pp. 193-195). Neither Aristotle nor Dewey seems to have described deliberation as playful, but it is arguable that the movement from uncertainty to practical judgment that defines deliberation in both philosophies requires a certain kind of “free play” of thought and discourse in considering alternative courses of action. 

A second key feature of deliberative play, then, is a free, loose, loping, to-and-fro form of movement (free play) in thought and discourse.

Gadamer (1981, 1989), who did write about play, explicitly placed his philosophical hermeneutics in the tradition of Aristotle's practical philosophy. Also inspired by Heidegger's hermeneutic phenomenology, Gadamer described our experience of living in the world as a process of interpretation or striving toward understanding. Gadamer wrote about play primarily in the context of art and aesthetics, but the free "to-and-fro" movement that is essential to play for Gadamer is also essential, in his philosophy, to the experience of art, to the practice of conversation or dialogue, to the process of translation, and to interpretative inquiry in general, including practical deliberation. For Gadamer, deliberation involves an ongoing movement back and forth between, and weighing up, of various possibilities until a resolution or decision emerges in experience. This deliberation is not purposively directed toward a definite end but requires losing oneself in the play of possible meanings or actions and being open to the experience of a resolution.

For Gadamer, this openness to the experience of deliberation is not just an intellectual recognition of the uncertainty involved in practical choice but is an existential stance that is also typical of philosophical pragmatism. For example, William James wrote that "the pragmatism or pluralism which I defend has to fall back on a certain ultimate hardihood, a certain willingness to live without assurances or guarantees" (James, 1987, p. 941). It is this existential comfort with uncertainty that allows the deliberating person to engage in a free play of ideas in the to-and-fro movement of deliberation without being driven to premature closure. The playful movement of deliberation is between alternative ideas, values, actions, or solutions to a problem and requires an "as-if" orientation to those problems or actions.

Thus, a third key feature is that deliberative play requires an "as-if" ontology of thought and action. What this means in part is that deliberation involves "entertaining" or “playing with” ideas that one does not necessarily believe, as if one might believe them, in order to consider alternative actions or solutions. This is one way to understand the quality that deliberation theorists call openness or open-mindedness—a willingness to consider various ideas or possible actions one does not necessarily believe or intend to do, a willingness to imagine what it would be like to believe or do those things, for the sake of giving them fair consideration. 

Bateson's theory of play and fantasy becomes relevant when we think about how this "as-if" ontology of deliberation operates in social interaction and dialogue. Bateson theorized that play depends on a metacommunicative frame in which we can signal to each other that actions that might appear hostile should not be taken literally. When animals play, for example, their interaction resembles a fight but is not really fighting. It has the free, loose, loping, to-and-fro quality of movement that signals play. The animals interact "as if" they are fighting. As Bateson (1972, p. 180) wrote, in a play frame “the playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite" (actual combat). Bateson’s theory explains how features of play identified in Huizinga’s (1950) classic analysis, such as pretending (the “as-if” quality) and magic circle marking a boundary between the play-ground and real life (the play frame) are accomplished in social interaction. 

A reasonable hypothesis is that deliberative play can involve a similar frame shift from straightforward argumentation to a frame of entertaining or playing with possibilities, speaking "as if" one might believe in them, and that this deliberative play frame is signaled by some metacommunicative cues that have yet to be identified or studied systematically. 

Of course, it is unlikely that deliberative play closely resembles the animal play that Bateson observed, nor is deliberative play necessarily nonserious “fun and games,” although it could be game-like. What exactly constitutes a play frame in deliberating groups is a question of frame analysis (Goffman, 1974); it is an empirical question that the studies in this special issue begin to investigate. It seems likely, however, that deliberative play can be metacommunicatively framed in a variety of different forms.  

A fourth key feature, extending the idea that deliberative play can be framed in different forms, is that it can be framed "as if" either cooperative or competitive. This may seem paradoxical because democratic deliberation is often thought of as an essentially cooperative activity, which it may be ideally and sometimes really, but even so, for cooperative deliberation to be accomplished interactively it has to be metacommunicatively framed "as-if" it is cooperative, because deliberation involves making arguments about potentially contentious matters. In other words, deliberation can look like fighting in some ways, and can be in danger of actually turning into a fight unless it is metacommunicatively framed as deliberative play by using signals of some kind. For example, cooperative deliberation might framed by signaling a stance of open-mindedness and willingness to hear other people's ideas (Sprain & Ivancic, 2017).  

However, deliberative play can also be framed "as if" it is competitive. For example, it can be framed as a debate. In a debate, the speakers metacommunicate "as if" they are fully convinced of their own side and largely unwilling to entertain the other side's ideas. They talk this way even if they are really open-minded people who may be personally undecided on the issue. But they frame their interaction as a debate, a competitive game that can be a form of deliberative play when it occurs in the larger context of a deliberative process in which it helps the audience of the debate to entertain opposing ideas by considering the strongest possible case for each of them. In other words, debate is not literally deliberation, but it can be framed as a kind of game, a competitive form of deliberative play.

The four key features outline a tentative theoretical framework of deliberative play that the five articles in this special issue apply, explore, and evaluate in different ways. The remainder of this introduction previews the five articles and concludes by reflecting on their implications for the future development of deliberative play in theory and practice.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Cultivating Communication Practices


"Cultivating Communication Practices" was the theme of a small academic conference I recently attended in Boulder, Colorado. Organized by University of Colorado colleagues David Boromisza-Habashi, Natasha Shrikant, and Leah Sprain, the three-day summer event brought CU faculty and grad students together with researchers from several other US and European universities in the beautiful setting of Boulder's historic Chautauqua Park, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Thanks to Donal Carbaugh for tweeting the photo below. (For the record, I'm third from the right.)

I was pretty excited about the conference theme, because the idea of cultivating communication practices has been at the heart of my work on communication theory for many years. In my view, an essential purpose of academic communication studies is to improve communication practices to better address the problems we face as individuals and as a society (Craig, 2018). Broadly speaking, we pursue that goal by developing expert knowledge about communication and disseminating it by various means including classroom teaching, professional training, and media (this blog a tiny piece of that). That's how we contribute to the ongoing "metadiscourse" (communication about communication) that shapes the understanding and practice of communication in society.  

An obvious way to develop better practices would be to invent forms of communication, such as group facilitation techniques or media literacy practices, and do research to prove that they work as intended. That might seem straightforward enough, but it's not what most communication scholars actually do. In reality, various kinds of research and critical-analytical work go on in the background to develop the  knowledge that informs our thinking about communication practices. Broad philosophies and theories of communication deepen our understanding of issues and suggest different ways of approaching practical problems. Historical and cultural studies show how communication practices have evolved in particular cultures, how they can express deeply felt beliefs and values, and how they can also unconsciously serve to perpetuate social injustice. Empirical research reveals general causes and effects of communication behavior. Applied research shows how communication works or doesn't in particular situations. These and other kinds of academic studies inform our understanding of communication problems. They create the knowledge base for whatever cultural authority communication scholars can claim for offering advice about how to improve communication practices. 

So, in my view, there is no single methodology for "cultivating communication practices," but many kinds of research can be useful in different ways. However, I still believe we can learn a lot by systematically thinking through what is involved in cultivating communication practices and tailoring methods for that purpose. This is what Karen Tracy and I have tried to do in our work on Grounded Practical Theory (GPT), which is an approach to studying communication practices to conceptualize key problems, techniques for managing those problems, and philosophies of the practice that can guide the use of techniques (see Craig & Tracy, 2021). 

Communication practices often encounter dilemmas because people pursue multiple goals that may compete for priority. For example, Heidi Muller's (2014) GPT study of teacher-led classroom discussions found that teachers face a dilemma between getting students to engage with each other and getting them to engage with the course material. Both goals are important, but they are not always easy to combine. Lively discussion tends to drift away from the course material but focusing narrowly on the material can kill the discussion. The different techniques that teachers use to manage this dilemma can be justified by different pedagogical philosophies. GPT aims to cultivate the practice of classroom discussion by articulating dilemmas, techniques, and implicit philosophies of the practice, thus providing relevant ideas in moments when teachers find themselves reflecting on how to manage the problems that they face in the classroom. 

In my talk in the opening session, I explained my enthusiasm for the conference theme and that I would be listening to the other presenters both to learn about their different approaches to cultivating communication practices and to generate questions and insights about their projects from a GPT perspective. The conference presentations and discussions were as fascinating as they were informative, and they did leave me with a lot to think about in the following weeks. Here are three takeaways from my thinking so far.   

1. Cultural awareness is essential and complicated.  All communication practices are cultural: they develop in a culture and can only be understood in that context. "Cultivating" a practice means somehow contributing to the culture that nurtures it. Many of the conference presenters were trained ethnographers of communication, and their research illuminated diverse communication practices ranging across professional matchmaking in Los Angeles (Sunny Lie Owens), refugees telling their stories through a refugee speakers bureau (Michelle Brown and Natasha Shrikant), discourses of queer, trans and nonbinary identities in American Muslim communities (Emaan Salim), and much more. How can ethnographic studies cultivate communication practices? This raises complicated questions about how ethnographers relate to the cultural communities that they study. Conference discussions turned repeatedly to questions of who gets to define a practice and address its problems. Traditionally, the ethnographer is an outside observer who only describes and interprets a culture, primarily for an audience of other outsiders including researchers and students. Now it is increasingly common for cultural researchers to identify with the communities they study and to direct their work toward critical discussions of practices within or with respect to those communities. Such critical studies can cultivate communication practices in relatively direct ways, but more often they do so indirectly by contributing to the general awareness in society of practices in different communities. A second takeaway is an insight about how that indirect kind of cultivation can work.  

2. We cultivate practices by noticing things that spark deep conversations about them. This idea was voiced by conference participant Joanne Marras Tate in a discussion of her very interesting research on stories about unusual animal sightings during Covid lockdowns in Brazil and the US. The online discussions about animal sightings revealed assumptions and opened dialogues about the place of humans in the natural world. Research that brings those stories to a wider audience can spark more conversation on environmental issues. The larger point is that most communication research doesn't cultivate practices by directly offering advice on practical problems, but interesting research that gets  people thinking and talking about their practices can influence practices indirectly. Just by spreading awareness of a practice like modern matchmaking, for example, research could spark conversations that contribute to cultivating the practice. 

3. Dilemmas are everywhere! Maybe one good way to spark conversation about a practice is to point out problems that people experience but that they haven't necessarily noticed or thought about in that way. This is the approach we take in GPT research, often looking first to uncover the dilemmas of a practice as a starting point for problem solving. Most of the presentations at the Boulder conference were not GPT studies, yet I was especially struck by the fact that most of them pointed out some dilemma in a communication practice. Media fact-checking in Asian communities faces a dilemma between providing information versus taking a stance (Natasha Shrikant). Communication training faces a dilemma between providing concrete prescriptions that don't always work versus general concepts that can't be enacted (Cindy H. White). Scientists participating in the public sphere face a dilemma between having input as expert authorities versus becoming activists (Menno Reijven). Participants in dialogue groups face a dilemma between the norm that they should speak only for themselves versus the necessity to speak for others to accomplish inclusion (Elisa Varela). Community collaboration across political divisions in a conflict zone faces a dilemma between advancing the community versus perceived disloyalty to a side (Blessed E. Ngoe). Forging an identity in a context of systemic racism, African Americans face a dilemma between being African and being American (Danielle Hodge). I hope my nutshell statements of these dilemmas haven't done too much violence to what the presenters intended. My point is just that practical dilemmas are everywhere in communication, and noticing interesting dilemmas be a great way for communication research to spark the conversations that cultivate communication practices. 

Further Reading

Craig, R. T. (2018). For a practical discipline. Journal of Communication, 68(2), 289-297. https://doi.org/10.1093/joc/jqx013  

Craig, R. T., & Tracy, K. (2021). Grounded practical theory: Investigating communication problems. Cognella. 

Muller, H. L. (2014). A grounded practical theory reconstruction of the communication practice of instructor-facilitated collegiate classroom discussion. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 42(3), 325-342. https://doi.org/10.1080/00909882.2014.911941 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

What Does a Mask Communicate?

a medical face mask on the floor

I started writing this post two years ago and left it unfinished. I wasn't sure what point I was trying to make with it, and then I got distracted from blogging by, well, let's blame it on the pandemic and the general craziness of 2020, which for me and my wife included downsizing and moving from our home of 30 years in Boulder, Colorado, to a condo in Center City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (It was a happy move for us, but the timing during a pandemic was awkward.) Then there was the general craziness of 2021, and now, ta-da!, the general craziness of 2022. Through it all, some of the craziness has involved tensions around masks and mask-wearing, and I've been wanting to get back to reflecting on masks as a communication problem. So, two years later and for what it's worth, here we go. 

One way to state the problem (maybe not the best way, but I'm going with it for purposes of this post) is: "What does a mask communicate?" In communication theory, this question can be approached from the tradition of semiotics, the theory of signs and meaning. From a semiotic point of view, a mask communicates when it it means something to someone—that is, when it functions as a sign. Semiotic theory gives us concepts that are useful for breaking down the complex ways that a sign can have meaning. 

In this post I'm going to explore a little of that complexity of meaning, but first I'd like to open a tiny time capsule from 2020, found in my first draft of this post, a vignette of mask-wearing and meaning in the early months of the pandemic, which I then bring up to date with a brief note on the present:

Boulder, Colorado, May 14, 2020:  As I run to the barbershop, the heavy rain lets up and I pull back my jacket hood, revealing three months growth of shaggy gray hair. Just reopened under new public health rules after weeks of lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19, the shop has announced that customers must wait outside and in order to be admitted must use hand sanitizer and wear a... OH, SHIT! I FORGOT MY MASK! "Sorry," I say to the casual young guy behind a small table that partially blocks the shop entrance, "I left my mask in the car. I guess I was distracted by the thunderstorm. I can run back and get it..." No problem," he says while spraying sanitizer on my outstretched hands, "we'll lend you a mask." 

Half hour later: Looking good on top and grateful for it, I add a big tip to the bill, drop my borrowed cloth mask in the hamper by the door, and step into the bright sunshine and fresh air of a spring afternoon in my Colorado town. As I walk the two blocks to my car I'm self-conscious of not wearing a mask, which we're now officially required to do in public. I pass people on the sidewalk, some with masks and some not, and exchange glances with several. One man (also not wearing a mask, I notice) veers briskly into the street to avoid me. Safely back in my car, I say to myself, "Okay, this is what we are dealing with now. Don't forget that mask again!"

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 28, 2022: On my daily walk through the city and along the Schuylkill River, I see maybe 1 out of 25 people wearing a mask, plus a few carrying one hanging from an arm, at the ready. I still carry a mask in my back pocket, just in case. Masks are no longer required in public, even indoors. However, with Covid-19 recently surging yet again (the sixth wave?) I've been thinking I should wear the mask more often in crowded indoor places. 

Through the last couple of years, wearing a mask has communicated a lot of different things to different people in different contexts, yet with some core of meaning that remains much the same. Ironically, the basic function of wearing a mask these days is mostly about not communicating something, namely the "communicable" disease of Covid-19!  But, while we may avoid communicating a virus by wearing a  mask, we cannot avoid communicating some meaning, however vague or unknowable it may be. It's an axiom of communication theory that "you cannot not communicate." That is, when you are in the presence of others, anything noticeable about you or your actions potentially "says" something to somebody, regardless of your intentions. Efforts to avoid communication, for example by avoiding eye contact, merely communicate that you are trying not to communicate. Wearing a mask is no exception. It's very noticeable, especially so because because it hides the face, which is normally a main focus of attention when we interact. So, wearing a mask in the presence of others (or not wearing one when others do) is definitely communicating, but what exactly it is communicating in a given situation can be hard to know. Yet there is, as I said, a core of meaning that remains much the same.  

A couple of recent academic articles by semiotic theorists are helpful for thinking about this problem. The Italian semiotician Massimo Leone (2021) points out that in any situation the meaning of wearing a mask "is threefold, like the meaning of any communicative device: (1) what I mean by wearing a mask; (2) what is meant to people by wearing a mask; and (3) what is meant by the mask itself."    

Not wearing a mask can communicate just as well as wearing one, and just as unintentionally. On that spring afternoon in Boulder in 2020, I was clearly nervous about not wearing a mask, I think for at least two reasons: (1) I was worried about disease transmission; and (2) I was worried that other people, not knowing I was mask-less by mistake, would assume I was cavalierly putting them in danger by resisting the public health order to wear masks. That was not the person I wanted to be or the message I wanted to be sending in that situation. I may have tried to correct the misimpression by screwing up my face in frustration, to what effect will never be known.  

Leone argues that the core meaning of the mask itself is inseparable from its essential protective function. These are medical masks, quite different from the more decorative or symbolic kinds of masks worn around the world for traditional religious rituals or carnivalesque events like Mardi Gras. Prior to the pandemic, protective masks were mainly associated with doctors and nurses in hospital settings or with workers needing protection from contaminated air in places like mines and construction sites. Such masks can be colorful or otherwise decorative, even fashionable, but the primary reason for wearing them is still for protection. In this they differ, says Leone, from hats and sunglasses, which also have a protective function but often are worn primarily for reasons of self expression and style. In the absence of a pandemic, masks are unlikely to persist as a popular fashion accessory. It's possible, however, that the practice of wearing masks for protection from disease or air pollution, which was already common in some Asian countries before the pandemic, will continue to some extent in Western countries.  

Beyond the core meaning derived from the mask's function, what is communicated by wearing a mask depends a lot on context and has shifted over time. Very early in the pandemic, if you saw someone wearing a mask you might have assumed they were sick and should be avoided. Advice from public health authorities in the winter and spring of 2020 was inconsistent and confusing for a number of reasons, including uncertainty about how the coronavirus was spreading and the effectiveness of masks for preventing it. There was also, initially, a worldwide shortage of masks, and some messaging discouraged us from wearing them unless we were sick, to preserve the existing supply for health care workers who absolutely did need them.  

As the public health case in favor of mask-wearing became clearer in the spring of 2020, efforts to increase the supply of masks multiplied and the meaning of wearing a mask shifted.  Another recent article about the semiotics of mask-wearing by Mickey Vallee (2022), a Canadian media scholar, discusses how a "global mask-making cottage industry," which he associates with the anti-consumerist DIY movement, emerged along with messaging that promoted mask-wearing as "a caring gesture" that we do collectively to protect each other (not just ourselves) and to "flatten the curve" of virus transmission. 

Mask-wearing as a symbol of social solidarity was already common in Asian societies where masking during public health emergencies was an established practice. Interestingly, the now-familiar protective mask was invented in China during an early twentieth century pandemic, and in that cultural context the mask acquired connotations of medical modernity and pride in China as an advanced nation. With the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, masking became a world-wide practice.

Even then, however, public health orders that required masking stirred political controversy in the US, and the meaning of the mask was caught up in some of our cultural contradictions. On the one hand, "we're all in this together" is a slogan that appeals to many Americans. On the other hand, many Americans don't like being told what to do, especially by elite authorities such as public health officers. 
In 1918 and 1919, as bars, saloons, restaurants, theaters and schools were closed, masks became a scapegoat, a symbol of government overreach, inspiring protests, petitions and defiant bare-face gatherings. All the while, thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/03/us/mask-protests-1918.html)
Similarities to the US situation in 2020 and 2021 were not unnoticed by observers. As the pandemic wore on, right-wing populists gathered cultural strands of rugged individualism and anti-intellectualism to create a backlash against masks and public health restrictions on freedom in general. Still our malevolently clownish president through 2020, Donald Trump sowed confusion and sparked conflict in his own party by officially endorsing the public health advice to wear masks while also pandering to the right-wing resistance by mocking mask-wearers and declaring that he himself would not wear one. 

In an increasingly polarized environment, not wearing a mask in some American places clearly communicated that one was loyal conservative Republican, while wearing a mask equally clearly communicated that one was not. As an anti-Trump liberal Democrat, I felt that wearing a mask signaled my solidarity with like-minded others. This semiotic logic would obviously pose a problem for right-wingers who wanted to wear masks to protect themselves against Covid-19 yet didn't want to be mistaken for gutless un-American liberals. Masks like the one pictured below offered a solution to this problem. 

Semiotic theory says the mask is polysemic, meaning that it can have a lot of different meanings, some of which are highly contested. As public health orders have receded since 2021, the political heat around masks has gone down, yet differences remain. Searching Twitter a few minutes ago for the phrase "wearing a mask means" turned up numerous comments, including the following;

Kim Burrell should be ashamed of herself for peddling anti-mask and anti-vaxx nonsense when it's Black folks who've been hardest hit by Covid. To imply that getting vaccinated and wearing a mask means you don't "believe enough" is the same backwards mentality that keeps Black folks from seeking therapy. (@FountainPenDiva)

I take a medication that makes me exceptionally scent-sensitive. Wearing a mask means fewer migraines. (@dewsterling)

Wearing a mask means you've died.
Spiritually. (@johnsville14)

In Vietnam, wearing a mask means you love your Country. (@Sinh_MD)

Not wearing a mask means you're a selfish entitled git. (@Margo1hand)

Not wearing a mask means that you choose a stalled, unhealthy, selfish society. (@GalNooks)

At least wearing a mask means that people won't mistake me for a conservative. 🙃 (@salmliam)

We were pummeled with terror for 2 years. For the first year it was QUITE scary for sure! Then we were also told that wearing a mask means you're a good person and showing your face means you're not. The messaging purposefully divided and othered. They don't want to be the other. (@DrJamesOlsson)

Or maybe wearing a mask means he can assess risk? Or maybe he has a health condition? Or maybe a close relative is in a high risk group? I know it's hard for you to believe that someone might wear a mask bc they care about someone other than themself. (@BabblnBostonian)

Lol all that wearing a mask means is that you probably aren’t a little bitch. No need to ascribe grandeur, just means basic courtesy and respect for life. Actual pro-life. (@SullySparks1)

Wearing a mask means you get to inhale your own essence and who doesn’t want that? 🥰 (@_BlurtBobain)

He'll, if I'd have known that wearing a mask means I "don't trust" the Invisible Man in the Sky, I'd be wearing a mask 24/7. (@file_49)

Angry woman asked me why I'm "wearing that piece of garbage on my face" and I said "because I love you and want you to be ok".  It turns out telling angry strangers you love them makes them quiet.  Mental note to self. (@tamalama67)

At what point did people start assuming wearing a mask means you're sick, as opposed to wanting to prevent sickness lol  (@StrewthQueen)

Further Reading

Leone, M. (2021). The semiotics of the anti-COVID-19 mask. Social Semiotics, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1080/10350330.2020.1868943 

Vallee, M. (2022). A mask between you and me. Media, Culture & Society, 44(5), 903-921. https://doi.org/10.1177/01634437221077175 

Friday, July 8, 2022

Review of "Banning Words: Problems With A Movement" by Amardo Rodriguez (Public Square Press, 2022)

Book cover
Image source: https://m.media-amazon.com/images/I/41hCXAbHZZL.jpg

A new book by Amardo Rodriguez, professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, is well worth reading for the outside-the-ideological-boxes, communication-based argument that it makes against campus speech codes that ban the use of certain words, such as the N-word (his prime example). 

In the history of American education, conservatives have traditionally been the most vociferous advocates for banning things -- books, ideas, words, or people -- that they regarded as indecent, immoral, unpatriotic, subversive, or otherwise dangerous to society. The tradition continues with current efforts to ban teaching that promotes what is misleadingly called "Critical Race Theory" or that normalizes nontraditional sexual and gender identities. (A law recently enacted in Florida was dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by critics.)

However, the impulse to ban things has never been a monopoly of the political right. Ideological censorship, surveillance, and purges of "class enemies" and dissidents have been staple policies of left-authoritarian regimes in other countries, and conservatives have lately complained that something similar has been going on in American universities that are dominated by left-leaning faculty and students. The specific target of these complaints is often campus speech codes that ban "hate speech" or language regarded as racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or otherwise injurious to traditionally oppressed and underrepresented groups. 

Conservatives ironically find themselves opposing campus speech codes with the same "freedom of speech" arguments that liberals traditionally used against conservative bans. Now it is political progressives who defend restrictions on the freedom to speak in socially harmful ways. 

Conservative polemics on the subject bristle with horror stories about speakers being shouted down on campuses and professors being investigated, "cancelled" or disciplined for using banned language in the classroom. In one case, a professor was fired when he insisted on quoting the N-word as it appeared in appellate court opinions covered in a law class that he taught. He clearly was not using the N-word either casually or hostilely as a racial epithet. He was reading it from legal opinions in which it was used factually by judges ruling on legal cases about the word's use. Nevertheless, students in the professor's class were outraged and demanded action against him for racist speech. Campus administrators sided with the students, and he was ultimately fired. 

Rodriguez cites this and similar examples in his book, "Banning Words: Problems With A Movement," but his argument against banning words on campus escapes the polarized ideological dynamics of conservative versus progressive. Instead, he uses communication theory to argue that banning words relies on false assumptions about language and communication that can only serve to stunt our development as human beings. 

"At the foundation of this new trend of banning words on college campuses," he argues, "is the assumption that words and symbols form the foundation of communication" (p. 97), that words have certain definite meanings regardless of context or intent, and that "because words can allegedly inflict harm, just like how a weapon can harm, restrictions are necessary" (p. 13). In contrast to this "transmission model of communication," Rodriguez explains,

Communication theory has long rejected the notion that human beings are empty receptacles who can be filled up with messages. It now uses a model that stresses transaction rather than transmission... that human beings are always filtering and processing everything. Consequently, how one person perceives, experiences, and makes sense of something can be very different from how another person does. Communication is about recognizing, navigating, and transacting our different meanings of things. (p. 73)

Speech bans are intended to support campus "diversity" policies, but "for advocates of hate speech laws and codes, diversity resides in boxes and groupings" (p. 93). For Rodriguez, these policies actually deny and repress diversity, rather than support it:    

No doubt, human diversity is about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, and sexual orientation. But human diversity is also about our different temperaments, backgrounds, circumstances, sentiments, ambitions, resources, prejudices, values, beliefs, fears, ethics, politics, and tribulations. It is also about our different rationalities, sensibilities, spiritualities, modalities, pedagogies, ideologies, and epistemologies. (p. 87)

And human diversity in this fuller sense is essentially related to dialogical forms of communication:

Diversity makes communication possible and valuable. Communication has meaning only to the extent that speaker and listener have different thoughts. Communication is about recognizing and engaging another perspective. In other words, in limiting and diminishing communication, these new bans limit and diminish diversity. The flourishing of diversity is bound with the flourishing of communication. Only through communication can our full diversity appear in all its fecundity and possibility. Rules and regulations will always diminish diversity. Both do so by strangling communication. For with rules and regulations, nothing is open for negotiation and deliberation. There is only submission. Finally, that diversity is bound up with communication means that communication demands vulnerability—owning the limits of what we can understand. That we are physically incapable of understanding most things completely and absolutely means that we must always allow for the possibility of a view or position that is different to our own. These new bans end this possibility. We are to assume that there is only one correct course of action when dealing with certain words. Communication is unnecessary. In this way, these bans make for less diversity by making for less communication. (p. 93)

Rodriguez acknowledges the essential place of power in communication, which is important because the rationale for campus speech codes relies on the idea that they are needed to counteract the power to dominate and demean others that has traditionally accrued to whiteness, maleness, and other socially privileged identities. But instead of empowering members of traditionally oppressed groups, he argues, speech bans actually disempower them by casting them as helpless victims who are unable to control and negotiate the meaning of their own experience, and who therefore require institutional protection from harmful speech. 

Indeed, he argues, speech bans only serve to strengthen the institutional power of "the neoliberal 'all-administrative university'" (p. 80), which is inherently hostile to diversity despite official pronouncements to the contrary. "The reality," he writes, "is that no institution can genuinely promote diversity and remain an institution" (p. 129). What institutions require is not diversity but conformity to rules. As an exercise of institutional power, speech bans ultimately depend on violence to enforce conformity:

Hate speech laws and codes represent an order that impedes human development. By imposing this order under the threat of sanction, communication becomes impossible. We must submit and conform, or else face the consequences. (p. 82)

Here Rodriguez emphasizes how institutional power stifles communication, but elsewhere he is clear that communication always has a political dimension:

Then I discuss how language is political. We are always fighting over language, as in who can use what language, what language is appropriate in what context, what language belongs to whom, what language should govern the public square, what language best describes a situation, and so forth. Because language is always political, it is always about power—as in, who decides whether to call a person a terrorist or a freedom fighter? (p. 134)

In this light, speech bans are more than an expression of institutional power. They express the rising power of historically oppressed groups to control language via institutional rules:
[The N-word] is about power. It is about Black folks, after 350 years of slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow, finally having any power to impact how White folks use language. For this reason, many Black folks have no intention of giving up this newfound power. (p. 134)
I think the author's point is that this power comes at a cost because it produces mere outward conformity in speech that fails to express what people actually think and feel. Thus it prevents "the kind of honest and difficult communication" (p. 67), the genuine dialogue about race, that is arguably needed to produce social change. 

The power that Rodriguez refers to is real and reflects clearly recognizable norms of language use. As a notable example, Rodriquez, a Black man, uses the N-word in his book freely and without apology, whereas I, a white man, have avoided it in this review, substituting the euphemistic "N-word" even when quoting his book. You could say this is merely performative on my part, or you could say it follows a rule of etiquette, and, as such, counts as an expression of respect. I have no problem with following a formal rule that requires me to show respect for people who have always deserved it but have long been denied it. 

The communication theory of genuine dialogue teaches that the "honest and difficult communication" that is the gold standard of human relationship, if we achieve it at all, is only possible in brief moments and cannot be expected all the time. For the most part we have no choice but to rely on routine communication practices, including formal etiquette, to get along. But social routines are always about power, as Rodriguez points out, and the struggle for social change plays out in ongoing fights about what is appropriate. 

Institutional rules, such as bans on words, are not the same as social norms, but they are justified in terms of social norms, they influence social norms, and in some ways they are easier to fight about than social norms, just because they are clearly explicit and enforceable. In that regard, they may have the potential to serve as instruments of social change, even granting the strong, thought-provoking case that Rodriguez makes against them. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Empathize ... or Fight?

a woman's fist

Under the headline, "I’m Pro-Choice. But I Don’t Think Pro-Lifers Are Bad People," the linguist and New York Times opinion writer John McWhorter explains how his experience years ago as a graduate student eating meals with a group of Republican law students and listening to the talk that went on among them changed his attitude toward Republicans:

But some years later, after having spent hours on end listening to these law students discuss issues political, against my inclination I could not help starting to notice that they usually made a kind of sense....These were earnest, intelligent people who simply processed the world through a different lens than mine.

Referring to the current flare-up of the abortion issue as the US Supreme Court seems about to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that established a constitutional right to abortion, McWhorter's point is that those who stand with him on the pro-choice side of the issue should not demonize those on the pro-life side. These are not ignorant or bad people; they are earnest, intelligent people who process the world through a different lens than ours, and who sincerely believe that the right to life of a fetus outweighs a woman's right to reproductive freedom. So, we should empathize with their strong feelings on the issue, even while continuing to disagree with their priorities as we process the world through our own, different lens. 

I don't question the validity of McWhorter's point, taken on its own as a matter of principle, but he has little to say about what it means in practice in our current situation. In my head, I can empathize with McWhorter's empathy for anti-abortion activists, but then I hear another voice warning, in response, that yes, we should assume that our opponents are mostly earnest, intelligent people--and for that, that they are all the more dangerous in battle!

And battles there are. On the day McWhorter's column appeared, The New York Times editorial board declared: "Americans are about to lose a constitutional right. It’s worth fighting for." The editorial points out that if the Supreme Court rules as expected, the abortion fight will go on in state courts and legislatures across the country. With abortion bans already passed in many states and proposed in others, abortions could be illegal in more than half of the states in a few months, and "the anti-abortion movement isn't stopping there" but will be pressing for a national ban. There will be legal disputes between conservative states trying to restrict abortions outside their borders and liberal states trying to provide access for women from states where abortions are banned. "For the foreseeable future, the real battle for reproductive freedom will be fought in the states, by regular Americans, and their state and local representatives, who are trying to protect this fundamental right while they still can."

The editorial doesn't demonize abortion opponents but neither does it make a point of empathizing with them. It focuses on their apparent goals and strategies, the policies they are pushing for, and legislative strategies for opposing them. The communication practices of the pro-choice side are framed entirely in terms of "pushing," "fighting," and "battle." Despite their metaphorical violence, we can assume these terms refer to the usual political communication practices of organizing, fundraising, campaigning, protesting, petitioning, lobbying, and legal advocacy. Part of what is required is mobilizing large numbers of people and motivating them to act for the cause. Anger can be a great motivator, and demonizing the other side can be a great way of arousing anger (on both sides though, but the other side is angry anyway). So, is McWhorter telling us not to do that?

Not explicitly. He doesn't really say anything about political communication strategy. He's apparently talking about how we should personally feel toward people we disagree with. One communication model would argue that if we can empathize with people on the other side (and they with us, a big "if" in this case), as McWhorter feels we should, we all may be more willing to engage in a communication process that addresses the legitimate concerns of both sides through dialogue, negotiation, and compromise. This approach is always worth trying in moments when it seems possible, but despite evidence that the broader public would be open to compromise on the abortion issue, the anti-abortion movement, with major victories now in sight, clearly is not.  

Like it or not, then, we find ourselves in a "battle," and the battle frame entails a different communication model in which empathy for the other side has smaller and more instrumental roles to play. The current war in Ukraine may be a far-fetched analogy, but one function of empathy in that situation is illustrated by Thomas Friedman's argument that the US should avoid "boasting" about our indirect contribution to Russian military losses because of the unpredictable reaction it might provoke from a "humiliated" Russian president Putin. Friedman's empathy for Putin's vulnerability to humiliation is meant to inform a communication strategy against him, not to soften our feelings toward him. 

Are there ways of engaging in political "battle" while still honoring the validity of McWhorter's admonishment against demonizing those who disagree with us? McWhorter is right, after all. Demonizing the other side may be a convenient rhetorical strategy for mobilizing our own side for battle, but it is seldom an honest expression of the truth about our opponents, most of whom are probably earnest, intelligent people. Our anger toward them may be perfectly justifiable as well as motivationally useful in the current situation, but there should be limits on how it is expressed. Even in war, there are rules. 

A rule that is often proposed for political conflict is "civility," but critics have argued that the norm of civility is inappropriately used to stifle legitimate expressions of anger in public discourse. "The expression of anger is essential to public life," argues Karen Tracy in Challenges of Ordinary Democracy (Penn State Press, 2010). Rather than civility, Tracy proposes "reasonable hostility" as "a defensible ideal of communicative conduct" that "take[s] seriously the need for passionate, angry expression as well as the importance of respectful expression" (p. 202). 

Not so much a matter of how we personally feel toward our opponents, reasonable hostility is a matter of how we talk to them and about them, with tokens of respect even in the expression of passionate anger. There are probably many good techniques for striking this balance in discourse, and a useful job for communication researchers is to identify them and cultivate their use. Two techniques that Tracy mentions are using formal names and terms of address, and using "argument metalanguage"--terms from argumentation theory such as issue, claim, reason, argument, and assumption--to describe what both sides are saying. 

These are not ways of empathizing; they are ways of fighting while conveying the basic respect for opponents that empathy demands.