"'Tis the Season to Be Jolly": A Yuletide 1980 Assessment of Communication Research

By Miller, Gerald R. | Communication Studies, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

"'Tis the Season to Be Jolly": A Yuletide 1980 Assessment of Communication Research


Miller, Gerald R., Communication Studies


The past two decades have witnessed marked improvement in the work produced by communication researchers. Today's research is marked by increasing reliance on theory, a greater emphasis on programmatic research, and attempts to fit methods to particular research objectives. These advances, along with a dramatic increase in the number of capable communication researchers, have combined to heighten the credibility of communication research among colleagues in related disciplines. Although many issues remain unsolved, progress is the key word in assessing events of the last 20 years.

As my title suggests, these words are written to the accompaniment of yuletide sights and sounds. The tree is lighted, the presents under it. A full December paycheck, unencumbered by next month's deductions for federal old-age compensation and for the three-day furlough declared by the university to erase a budget shortfall, nestles cozily in my pocket. Holiday music emanates from the stereo, and the tantalizing aroma of plum pudding fills my study. Can I possibly be other than optimistic about the field during this holiday season? Is it conceivable that Phillips's pessimistic assessment was penned on April 15, or some equally ominous date? Since I cannot answer this question, I can speak only for myself: I feel more like a disciplinary Santa than a holiday Scrooge. Moreover, as I shall try to substantiate, the current status of affairs in communication research justifies my rosy feelings.

My primary objective is not to offer rejoinders to Phillips's indictment of what he has chosen to call "communication science," but rather to provide an admittedly personalized thumbnail sketch of the present state of the art in communication research. Nevertheless, a few initial observations about his remarks seem appropriate. Although I agree with some of the comments he has made, several aspects of his attack disturb me. For instance, he implies that certain conditions were spawned by the emergence of the communication scientist, whereas I prefer to view these same conditions as features of the scholarly scene since antiquity. Whether one confers ultimate wisdom on Aristotle and Plato, Baird and Korzybski, or Berlo and Kerlinger matters little insofar as the general point is concerned: discipleship on the part of at least a few is a perennial feature of all fields of inquiry. If anything, scientific concern for systematic, careful verification of knowledge claims has relaxed the hold of personal authority as a source of knowledge. At the very least, these verification principles provide a reasoned basis for arriving at judgments about what Phillips and I know, as opposed to what we believe.

Moreover, Phillips occasionally begs the question by arguing as though the existence of certain conditions provides prima facie evidence of the sorry state of the field; in the language of argumentation, he assumes that which is in need of proof. Again his indictment of scholia and true believers serves as a convenient example. It is not immediately apparent that the presence of strong personal loyalties constitutes an unmixed scholarly curse, for without them, it is entirely possible that some useful research tasks would remain unfinished. As I am sure Phillips would agree, communication researchers are no less human than other people, and this in turn implies that their professional activities are impelled by various scholarly motives. For some of these persons, a Kelmanian process of identification, rooted in the desire to establish a satisfying role relationship with an attractive mentor, undoubtedly serves as a motivational key to their productivity. Although it may be intriguing to dispute whether such a motive is as noble and untainted as other sources of scholarly inspiration--for example, the "detached, disinterested search for truth" often romantically championed in treatises on the joys of scientific inquiry--my pragmatic bent causes me to invest greater concern in what people do than in their precise reasons for doing it. …

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