Monday, November 30, 2009

On the future of communication ... and the importance of answering "the big" questions

Here are a few slightly modified and shortened sections from a column I just wrote for the AEJMC newsletter, dealing with the future of communication as a discipline, and the importance of finding answers to the big, "sloppy" questions of our time:
"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.”

Interestingly, President Obama has prioritized the search for answers to many of these sloppy, unmanageable problems, ... ranging from mandates for a green economy, to climate change, stem cell research and global warming.  All of these issues relate to the increasingly blurring lines between science, politics, society … and, of course, communication. These are the same areas where most societal debates of the next 50 years will take place. And unless we as communication researchers and educators find a way to make both scholarly and public contributions to these conversations, we will increasingly be marginalized as a discipline.

[A]ll of these debates further highlight the need for theory and methodology as a core field of inquiry in our discipline. ... Some of the most significant contributions to societal discourse by communication scholars have been based on (macro)theoretical models, such as the Spiral of Silence or Cultivation Theory, that dominated decades of scholarly research agendas but also influenced how society thinks about communication-related issues, including media and violence, parental TV ratings guides, election polling, and the evolution of social norms.

Communication theory and methodology, ultimately, are also at the center of effective education in the field of communication. Ten years from now, the media landscape will have undergone even more dramatic changes than we saw in the last decade. And as important as skills training may be, many of the medium-specific or industry-specific competencies we can convey to students today will be made obsolete by emerging technologies and changes in our social structure. So the key question becomes: How do we prepare students for jobs that don’t even exist yet?  And the answer is simple. We need to prepare our undergraduate and graduate students for a world that no longer thinks along medium-, content- or discipline-specific boundaries. In fact, many of the big social questions outlined earlier require answers that draw from knowledge in multiple disciplines. The challenge, therefore, is to equip our students with skill sets that include abstract, theoretical thinking, methodological sophistication, and other types of disciplinary expertise that make them competitive in specific areas of employment, but to also give them the transdisciplinary outlook on the world that will allow them to take leadership roles in solving society's big upcoming challenges.