Beyond Mass Communication: A Communication Studies Agenda for India
by Ramesh N. Rao

At The Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, June 14, 2001

Thesis: At the undergraduate and graduate level, as well as in terms of the research agenda of both Indian scholars and Western-trained Indian scholars, what is proffered as “communication” in India is almost always some journalism or mass communication related inquiry or information.  There is a need to understand, and to train students and teachers in the broader and more useful of communication areas: from public speaking and the study of rhetoric, to interpersonal and intercultural communication.

Introduction: Most universities and colleges in the U.S. now have departments of communication, speech communication, or mass communication.  The “subject” or “field” of communication remains heterogeneous, eclectic, and multidisciplinary, and the diversity of communication theory reflects the complexity of communication itself. 

Human beings are “communicative” animals, and therefore how and what and why we communicate has been studied since antiquity.  However, the study of communication in the U.S. and in Europe is a Western, Euro-centric endeavor.  Almost all that is taught in American universities and colleges, in the communication schools and departments, is based on Western academic tradition.  Most Western theory is dominated by a vision of individualism, and most Western theories are dominated by language.  In East Asia, for example, verbal symbols, especially speech, as well as Western-style rationality are not especially viewed as enhancing the quality of communication.  

In recent years many scholars have recognized that communication is central to all human experience.  These scholars, some trained in traditional academic disciplines, and some in departments of speech and mass communication, have come together in the new field called communication.  This field is characterized not only by its focus on communication as a central topic but also by its attention to the entire breadth of communication concerns. 

(Above paragraphs, a summary from Littlejohn’s “Theories of Human Communication”, fifth edition)

Defining Communication

Communication, like many other such broad concepts (for example, “culture”), is difficult to define.  It may not be fruitful to try and come up with a single definition.  Instead, we may try and identify the elements of communication.  A debate on these matters in the 1990s suggested several reasonable possibilities for defining communication.  The debate centered around nine classes of behavior that might be considered communication. 

Most communication scholars agree that intentional acts that are received do count as communication, but they disagree on what else might be treated as communication.  What choice a scholar makes about what constitutes communication will lead him/her down different theoretical trajectories, to ask distinct questions, and set them up to conduct different kinds of communication studies.

Communication Axioms

Communication as a “mode of inquiry”

Communication is a “mode of inquiry” founded upon the human capacity to conceive, craft, receive, and respond to messages.  Operating within this mode of inquiry, a person asks not only “What do people, things, artifacts, and institutions mean or convey as messages,” but also, “How do they convey this meaning?”  The latter question, How is meaning achieved? is important because it acknowledges that making messages is an ongoing, often unpredictable process by which meanings themselves expand, contract, transform, or disappear.  Because of the changing nature of the rules that govern messages and meaning, this mode of inquiry emphasizes novelty and invention as well as formula and custom.

New understanding, new knowledge, or a newly shared conceptual framework may evolve during and because of communication.  The very act of explaining, negotiating, justifying, encoding, or decoding, influences the outcome of a communication effort.  Writing and speaking, for example, can be ways of discovering, ways of managing, ways of controlling, ways of liberating.  Always what we know about a topic is related to, but distinct from, what we can communicate about it.  And in the gap between what we know and what we can say, we learn what we don’t yet know or don’t know well enough or can’t know at all.  This gap both humbles and motivates us as communicators.

Employing communication as a mode of inquiry involves attempting to understand both the potential and the limitations of any particular medium of communication, symbol system, or language.  The self-conscious use of communication to investigate, discover, identify, or create knowledge exemplifies communication as a mode of inquiry.

Essential Skills:

Knowledge

Skills

Attitudes

Western genres of communication theories

Structural and functional theories: generally designate the belief that social structures are real and function in ways that can be observed objectively.  Structuralism and functionalism go back to Plato (who believed that truth is ascertained through careful reflective thought) and Aristotle (who believed in knowledge through observation and classification).  Modern structuralism recognizes Durkheim and Saussure as key figures.

Although structuralism and functionalism are often considered in combination, they differ in emphasis.  Structuralism, which is rooted in linguistics, stresses the organization of language and social systems.  Functionalism, which is rooted in biology, stresses the ways organized systems work to sustain themselves.  Many organizational communication researchers take a structural-functional approach in their work.

Cognitive and Behavioral theories:  While structural-functional and cognitive-behavioral theories tend to espouse the same general ideas about knowledge, the primary difference between the two genres is in their focus and history.  S-F theories tend to focus on social and cultural structures, whereas C-B theories tend to focus on the individual. 

Psychology is the primary source of the C-B theories.  Traditionally, psychological behaviorism has dealt with the connection between stimuli (rewards) and responses (learning).  Cognitive research is “variable-analytic” in that it attempts to catalog significant variables and show ways these are related to one another.  A cognitive theory of communication, for example, might expose the ways people evaluate such message features as credibility, organization, and argumentation, and it might predict the kinds of information that would have an impact on how a person thinks.

Interactionist Theories: view social life as a process of interaction.  These theorists regard social structures as products, not determinants, of interaction.  For example, a family is shaped by the way its members communicate.  Reverses the S-F approach.  Interaction leads to or reinforces shared meaning and establishes conventions like rules, roles, and norms that enable further interaction to take place.  For example, a social theory of organizational communication might show that organizational culture is achieved by story telling and rituals, and that because these story telling and rituals are not the same in different organizations, organizations have very different cultures.

Interpretive Theories: try to discover meaning in actions and texts, from ancient scrolls to the behavior of modern teenagers.  The goal of interpretation is not to discover laws that govern events, but to uncover the ways people actually understand their own experience.  These theories usually emphasize language as the center of experience, and they describe the process whereby the active mind uncovers the meanings of experience.  Interpretive communication theories include cultural interpretation, organizational culture, and textual interpretation.  Interpretive and interactionist theories have a strong kinship based on their mutual concern for language and meaning and their use of interpretive methods.

Critical Theories: are especially concerned with inequality and oppression.  Most critical theories are concerned with the conflict of interests in society and the ways communication perpetuates domination of one group over another.  Many critical theories are based on Marxism although most of these have extended well beyond original Marxist thought.  Many of these theories are structural in orientation, because they are looking for the underlying social structures that affect class and gender relationships.  Critical theories share with interpretive approaches the central concern for language and for the ways language affects experience. 

(Above section, a summary of material from Littlejohn’s “Theories of Human Communication”)

Communication studies in India

In India, most of what is studied as communication is “mass communication”.  From the early “diffusion of innovation” studies, and surveys of radio broadcasting to reach farmers in remote locations, to the latest “diffusion of innovation” studies and the fashionable content analyses of advertising or newspaper or television coverage of some issue or crisis or concern, almost all of what is presented in conferences and submitted to journals in the field is “mass communication” related.  There are few, if any, enquiries into Indian rhetoric and argumentation, communication styles of men and women based on caste, religion, and region, bargaining and negotiation styles, interpersonal communication between and among sexes and in different age groups and across social positions, and intercultural communication between people of different regions, speaking different languages, and with different caste, community, and religious affiliations. 

Why communication studies in India?

Culture affects psychology and cultural differences cause different individual and social behavior.  Social scientists theorize human behavior observing people in their cultures.  Therefore, theories tend to be culturally bound.  A Japanese novelist, Hota (1957) wrote that east of Burma modest silence is a virtue whereas west of Burma eloquence is a virtue.  Neither the word “communication” nor “identity” existed in Japanese till recently.  Not only concepts but also the contexts in which the concepts are used differ from one culture to another.  In the West, “persuasive communication” is taught in a positive context.  In Japan, it is viewed negatively. 

The reaction to “non-applicability” of Western theories is varied.  The extreme reaction is total rejection.  This happened in the 1930s, and some original works were born out of this intellectual movement.  But many of them became too nationalistic and fanatic and ended in failure.

In the 1970s a new intellectual movement called nihonjin ron (studies of Japanese culture and society) was born, and a number of studies on the nature of Japanese society, communication patterns, individual behavior, social consciousness, business management, and government policies were conducted.  These studies supplement Western theories by covering areas ignored by Western scholars.

(Ito, in “Rethinking Communication”, Volume 1, 1989)

Similar to the Japanese experience, I find that there are very few studies in the communication field that draw upon and adumbrate the Indian experience.  Most of the studies are in the area of mass communication, diffusion of innovations, and so on, and there has not been one Indian scholar in the communication field who has brought in his/her knowledge of Indian rhetoric, philosophy, psychology, language, or religion to supplement the study of communication.

The few exceptions include the 1988 book, “Communication Theory: The Asian Perspective” edited by Wimal Dissanayake.  In it is an essay by Prof. Dissanayake titled “Foundations of Indian Verbal Communication and Phenomenology”.  Dissanayake discusses five propositions in this essay:

The few other articles on Indian rhetoric and communication theory include the following:

Therefore two possible areas of research, study, and application present themselves:

Interpersonal and Intercultural Communication

Public Speaking and Rhetoric

The study of interpersonal communication in India will help students learn to pay better attention to their communication behavior in interpersonal settings.  From learning how best to express concern or affection, to dealing with conflicts effectively, and to saving and protecting face, a conscious attempt at increasing efficacious communication should pay rich dividends in society.

India is a multicultural nation.  But it can also be a nation divided by language, region, ethnicity, caste, and customs.  There has been no serious attempt at teaching students how to deal with difference, stereotyping, the issues of caste and regional identities, and the influence of history on our psychological and societal make-up.  The study of intercultural communication at least at the college level will enable students and instructors to pay more self-conscious attention to the dire need for enhancing intercultural understanding.

There are innumerable benefits to studying and practicing public speaking.  In a democracy, in a mature democracy, we expect every citizen to articulate his or her ideas and demands.  One effective tool at loosening the stranglehold of feudalism in India, it is public speaking skills.  Almost every college student in the United States has to take a course in public speaking.  It enables students to evaluate messages and appeals of all kinds; makes them more sensitive to people and situations; and increases their self-confidence and willingness to engage in serious dialogue with others.  These attributes will enhance their value as good citizens, productive employees, and satisfied human beings.  Some of the specific skills that students are taught in public speaking courses include:

Finally, the study of Indian rhetoric will provide students lessons in history, language, and philosophy.  For too long these subjects have been parceled out among departments that have not interacted closely or effectively, and thus what students have learned about these have come piecemeal.  Teaching Indian rhetoric within a communication studies department will provide a fresh boost to some of India’s greatest contributions to humankind.