By Dietram A. Scheufele, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Communication as a discipline has come to a crossroads. The “mass” in mass communication has morphed into different publics that generate, exchange, and use content in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. And these changes in how content is produced and communicated are paralleled by much more far-reaching shifts in how some cohorts in society interpret traditional notions of privacy, objectivity, and source credibility. And so far, our discipline has not done a very good job at offering answers to what have become increasingly pressing questions in various societal debates. How do social media change how we interact with one another? How does information get disseminated in a fragmented multi-channel media environment? And what does the future of (mass) communication look like?
The tricky part, of course, is that many of the answers to these questions transcend the boundaries of our discipline. This is particularly challenging for a young field, such as communication, that continues to struggle with its identity and its desire to compete on an even playing field with much larger disciplines, such as psychology and political science. And if we are not careful, we may follow these disciplines down some dead ends. A good example is the debate surrounding Republican Senator Tom Coburn’s proposal in October 2009 to prohibit the National Science Foundation from “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects.” Coburn, of course, used the label “political science” but targeted social science much more broadly. And his comments rekindled an old debate among political scientists about incremental disciplinary research versus big questions. Cornell’s Peter Katzenstein summarized this intra-disciplinary dilemma best: “Graduate students discussing their field … often speak in terms of ‘an interesting puzzle,’ a small intellectual conundrum… that tests the ingenuity of the solver, rather than the large, sloppy and unmanageable problems that occur in real life.” [Read more...]