A Brief History of the Communication Discipline

While communication behavior is part of every human interaction, no other discipline makes this behavior its unique focus. The Handbook of Rhetorical and Communication Theory tells us that communication departments deal with "...the pragmatics of human communication— how people practically use and, in a sense, are used by symbolic behavior." According to John Waite Bowers, former president of the National Communication Association, the discipline has both humanistic and social science roots. From the ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and Augustine, we have been one of the original Liberal Arts. In recent times, we have added the methodologies of careful social science research to study communication behaviors which use epistemology, perception and social organization theory. We are at the same time the oldest and newest discipline. Departments of Rhetoric were replaced often by Departments of Speech on college campuses just prior to World War I. After fifty years under that name, many departments began to call themselves "Speech Communication" and currently many are "Communication" or "Communication Studies" or other combinations which try to capture both the central focus of the discipline as well as its concerns. Whatever the exact title, communication-related departments in the California State University usually combine most of the traditional approaches and may emphasize some of the more recently emerging areas as well.

Under the label, "rhetoric," the theory and practice of human communication was a core element of Greek, Roman, medieval, Renaissance, and early modern Western education. In the United States, rhetorical education has been one of the essential elements of higher education beginning with Harvard's first year, 1636. The five areas that have been traditionally present in our departments for much of that time include:

Rhetorical and Communication Theory — Scholars concentrate on understanding, analyzing, interpreting, critiquing and correlating principles which account for human communication experiences and behavior. Concerns range from logic and critical thinking to social and psycholinguistic variables.

Public Address — The study of speakers and speeches, including the historical and social context of platforms, campaigns and movements, and how current speakers can learn skills and applications to their own creation and production of messages.

Oral Interpretation and Performance of Literature — A traditional part of the discipline that studies literature through performance. Based on critical analysis of written texts, skilled verbal and nonverbal presentation is the key to communicative interaction from this perspective. [See the Department of Theatre Arts at California State University, Fresno.]

Speech Communication Education — Investigators analyze the communication variables that interact in educational settings.

Speech and Hearing Science — Often associated with speech correction or therapy, this areas involves the study of the physiological, psychological and acoustical aspects of speech and hearing behavior. [See the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders at California State University, Fresno.]

Beginning with the 20th Century, higher education became more specialized and more distinct and precise in methodologies. In the recent past, sociologists, psychologists, journalists, anthropologists, linguists, political scientists, economists and others have all adopted "communication" as a field of research, and much research in these areas continues today to inform us about communication behavior. As a result of our extensive interdisciplinary contacts, readings, interests, and in many cases, training, many of our departments also include one or more of the recently emerging areas of study:

Code Systems — Scholars investigate the uses of verbal and nonverbal symbols and signs in human communication.

Pragmatic Communication — The study and practice of communication that influences or facilitates decision-making.

Interpersonal Communication — Person to person and small group communication generate unique variables and conditions that are the focus of study in this area.

Organizational Communication — The study of interrelated behaviors, technologies and systems that affect communication interaction in organizations.

Intercultural Communication — Researchers look at the process and effects of communicative interaction occurring among individuals of different cultural backgrounds.

Mass Communication — Media effects and criticism are the core of investigation of communicative behavior in this context. [See the Department of Mass Communication & Journalism at California State University, Fresno.]