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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