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Communication Studies

1900s–1920sThough the study of communication reaches back to antiquity and beyond, early twentieth-century work by Charles Horton Cooley, Walter Lippmann, and John Dewey has been of particular importance for the academic discipline as it stands today in the United States. In his 1909 Social Organization: a Study of the Larger Mind, Cooley defines communication as “the mechanism through which human relations exist and develop—all the symbols of the mind, together with the means of conveying them through space and preserving them in time. This view, which has subsequently been largely marginalized in sociology, gave processes of communication a central and constitutive place in the study of social relations. Public Opinion, published in 1922 by Walter Lippmann, couples this view of the constitutive importance of communication with a fear that the rise of new technologies and institutions of mass communication allowed for the manufacture of consent and generated dissonance between what he called ‘the world outside and the pictures in our heads’ on a scale that made democracy as classically conceived almost impossible to realize.

John Dewey’s 1927 The Public and its Problems drew on the same view of communications, but coupled it instead with an optimistic progressive and democratic reform agenda, arguing famously “communication can alone create a great community”. Cooley, Lippmann, and Dewey capture themes like the central importance of communication in social life, the rise of large and potentially powerful media institutions and the development of new communications technologies in societies undergoing rapid transformation, and questions regarding the relationship between communication, democracy, and community.

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All these remain central to the discipline of communication studies. Many of these concerns are also central to the work of writers such as Gabriel Tarde and Theodor W. Adorno, which has been central to the development of communication studies elsewhere. The first decades of the twentieth century also saw the development of parallel currents of cultural criticism that drew less on the social sciences and more on the humanities. Though trained as a sociologist, the work of W. E. B. Du Bois on art and spirituals stands out here. The study of American public address began during this time frame.

In 1925, Herbert A. Wichelns published the essay “The Literary Criticism of Oratory” in the book Studies in Rhetoric and Public Speaking in Honor of James Albert Winans. Wicheln’s essay attempted to “put rhetorical studies on par with literary studies as an area of academic interest and research. “Wichelns wrote that oratory should be taken as seriously as literature, and therefore, it should be subject to criticism and analysis. Although the essay is now standard reading in most rhetorical criticism courses, it had little immediate impact (from 1925–1935) on the field of rhetorical studies


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