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.  

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.