William Stephenson: Traveling an Unorthodox Path to Mass Communication Discovery

By Esrock, Stuart L. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, June 2005 | Go to article overview

William Stephenson: Traveling an Unorthodox Path to Mass Communication Discovery


Esrock, Stuart L., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


William Stephenson came to the University of Missouri School of Journalism as a distinguished professor in 1958. But at first glance, some mass communication researchers might have asked, why?

Physicist and psychologist, methodologist and theorist, Stephenson was a brilliant researcher with incredible energy that drove him onward to new endeavors. His academic interests were as varied as his scholarly activity and the homes for his work. Yet, although Stephenson's early body of work clearly reflects the intellectual perspectives and disciplines that he embraced, the connections to mass communication are not so readily apparent.

Indeed, Stephenson was not trained in communication, and his early work largely ignored our field of study. Still, this brief biographical sketch suggests that a researcher trained in classical sciences was relevant in journalism some 50 years ago and, further, that his work warrants a reexamination today. Why exactly did Stephenson attract the attention of the Missouri School of Journalism, and what can we today, as mass communication researchers, take from his work?

Connecting Quantum Physics and Mass Communication

William Stephenson was born in England in 1902 (Brown, 1991). His initial academic interests focused on the field of physics. Stephenson received an M.A. from Oxford and then a Ph.D. in physics from Durham University in 1926 at the height of the quantum theory debate.

Some initial roots of his eventual interest in mass communication can be found here in Stephenson's writings about a concept he termed complimentarity (Logan, 1991). Quantum physics largely relied on a series of assumptions; scientists could not directly see or touch subatomic particles, yet they theorized about them. Likewise, Stephenson reasoned that researchers could not see the inner workings of the human mind or directly experience what a research participant was experiencing. Accordingly, Stephenson believed the uncertainty of this relationship, or complimentarity, dictated to researchers that complex occurrences should not be reduced into a single hypothesis or theory but instead, a range of possibilities needed to be considered. Later applying the concept of complimentarity to mass communication, Stephenson urged researchers to view the impact of media in a multidimensional manner and push for hypothesis production, using a collective approach that draws on multidisciplines.

Stephenson used the knowledge he gained in physics to further his interest in behavioral science. He refocused his efforts, moving to the University College in London to study psychology with the father of factor analysis, Charles Spearman (Barchak, 1991). Stephenson received his Ph.D. in psychology in 1929 and served as a research assistant to both Spearman and his successor, Sir Cyril Burt. During this period, Stephenson worked on some of the earliest research into psychometric testing of human characteristics such as intelligence. Stephenson applied his perspective on principles from quantum physics to measure the human mind, in sharp contrast to Burt's work during the time period. That foundation provides yet another intersection between Stephenson and mass communication (Logan, 1991).

In contrast to Burt's reliance on a single operational definition of intelligence, Stephenson argued for a broader interpretation. In accordance with his definition of complimentarity, Stephenson thought intelligence could be operationalized in a multiplicity of manners and that the predominate group of psychometric researchers of the era were ignoring the range of possibilities that they, and even their very own research participants, had to offer. As he studied psychology, Stephenson embraced the concept of self as fundamental to understanding human behavior, that is, the unique core of every human mind that serves as the foundation for an individual's thoughts, feelings, and drives. Given what he saw as the centrality of self, Stephenson argued that researchers had a responsibility to account for subjectivity and self-reference if they were to truly gauge human behavior (Brown, 1996; Logan, 1991).

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