Communication Currents

What distinguishes Communication from other areas of study? What makes the Communication discipline unique?

August 1, 2007
Instructional Communication

Communication is a topic that people assume they know a great deal about, particularly because they interact with many individuals on a daily basis via multiple channels—face-to-face conversations, phone, and email, for example. Yet there is much more to the discipline of Communication than many realize. Communication Currents invited five Communication scholars—Kevin Barge, Brant Burleson, Dennis Gouran, Lynn Harter, and John Heineman—to respond to questions people typically have about the discipline of Communication as well as how the issues studied in the discipline relate to everyday life. See the full column in Communication Currents (Volume 2, Issue 4) for answers to all of the questions posed to our expert panel.

What distinguishes Communication from other areas of study? What makes the Communication discipline unique? 

Kevin Barge: Psychology is interested in is the inner motors, those traits, personality characteristics, and cognitive processing styles that drive people's communication. Psychology is concerned about what's inside people and what causes communication. Sociology, on the other hand, is concerned about what's outside people in terms of the drivers in society, social norms, different social structures that begin to drive people's communication. Communication is different. Rather than communication being driven by personality characteristics and social structures, communication is what creates senses of identity and personality. Communication is what constructs the societies and the relationships and the norms that we have. So I think what Communication has that's very distinct is saying that we need to focus on messages. We look at how talk and conversation and messages begin to create the social arrangements that we live in. For example, there's been a lot of talk about corporate cultures. Where do corporate cultures come from? Corporate cultures come from the way people talk about their organization, the way they construct what values are important, what rituals are important, what standards for performance are important, and what it means to be a member of this organization. So again, I think we need to think about what makes Communication special is it's no longer something that's secondary that can be considered after we think of psychology and sociology. If I can be so bold, we're the game. We're the ones who begin to really look at how personalities, individuals, groups, organizations, and societies get constructed through the way we talk.

Dennis Gouran: I've thought a lot over the years about this question, and it seems to me that what distinguishes us from other disciplines is that we focus on how messages are produced to an extent that others concerned with symbolic exchange do not. We are at the same time concerned with how that process functions. Once messages have been formulated, what kind of life they take on in creating or contributing to other types of message production and how that in turn relates to the outcomes that people achieve as a result of the process of message exchange, be that in terms of task-related outcomes or relational outcomes. I think that makes us distinctive from other disciplines.

John Heineman: As a high school teacher, I see so many students who understand the importance of math, and who understand the importance of writing, which of course, are vitally important, but don't see oral communication as an important part of their scholarly work. And that's really been a goal of mine. We are different than writing, our messages are sent and once they are sent, they are out there in the world and they can't be retrieved, they can't be retracted. It's very different than writing where you get four or five or six different drafts. And you may repeat an oral presentation to another audience that will be different, and so that uniqueness of that moment is something that we can others understand. We know how powerful it is and it really is an issue of power, because our field deals directly with the power that can be gained in both personal and public interactions.

Listening, of course, is unique to our field. The ability to become a strong listener, the ability to really understand the way in which communication works, the barriers keeping you from being a good listener, the strategies that make you a better listener, and the kind of feedback and paraphrasing that can be learned by each individual really makes us unique.

Another area is media literacy. It will be our field that will really help people to understand not only how to create good, effective media, but more importantly, how to be strong consumers of media. How to know what's propaganda, how to know when it's nothing more than logical fallacies, how to know when we are having appeals sent to us that really are to our detriment, how to evaluate those media appeals, and how to deal with them in a really conscious, consumer way.

Communication Currents is a publication of the National Communication Association.