Refiguring Mass Communication: A History. Peter Simonson. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press “History of Communications” series, 2010. 261 pp.
This is a rhetorical and historical study into what the term “mass communication” has meant since (and even well before) the term first appeared nearly a century ago.
A member of the University of Colorado communication faculty who began his academic work in religious studies and then turned to intellectual history, Peter Simonson organizes his argument around narrative accounts of five key figures and their own communicative worlds—three of them predating the modern conceptions of mass communication. Indeed, he redefines the very concept by using these significant but overlooked rhetorical episodes in its history. As he puts it in the introduction, his is a study of changes in “mass communication as a social concept, a rhetorical utterance, and a heterogeneous family of social forms.”
His six chapters describe and compare the very different visions of “mass” communication articulated by a range of “expert” observers: the Biblical figure Paul of Tarsus (to study the communication of religion); the nineteenth-century printer turned poet and journalist Walt Whitman; university educator and sociologist Charles Horton Cooley; industrial leader David Sarnoff (to study what mass communication meant in the 1920s as radio got started), and the late media scholar sociologist Robert K. Merton, with whom the author corresponded and conducted interviews.
How each of these exemplars, one from ancient times, two from the nineteenth century, and two active in the twentieth, were selected for study is interesting in itself. Each man (and Simonson recognizes that masculine bias as a drawback to his work) offers quite different geographical and social contexts from which visions of mass communication have emerged, as well as the religious and moral horizons against which they have taken shape, and, finally, the heterogeneous social forms of communication that they point to. A final chapter looks at the concept of mass communication today by examining a modern county fair.
“Overall, the book is intended to extend pragmatist and Emersonian traditions of thinking about communication and rhetoric,” Simonson says. Subject to the background one brings to this volume, some of the discussion can get fairly complex, but Simonson’s insights are worth the effort.
CHRISTOPHER H. STERLING
George Washington University