Communication: A post-discipline?

Perhaps the most interesting book I brought from the annual conference of the International Communication Association, held in Washington DC the last week of May 2019, was Communication: A Post-Discipline by Silvio Waisbord. Edited by Wiley, the volume is an excellent map of the state of the communication field with all its tensions, fragmentations and, why not, frustrations. Sometimes these topics seem distant, especially at a time when almost all researchers are interested in very specific topics and pay little attention to what goes beyond their specific field of work. However, those of us who are interested in communication theories or the limitations of traditional approaches to digital mutations are always enthusiastic about these transversal paths.

Beyond theoretical fragmentation

In my blog Hipermediaciones have already written several times about the fragmentation of communication theories inspired by Robert Craig’s diagnoses (see Communication Theory: 25 años no es nada). In that post I wrote the following:

What is the current situation of communication theories? Both Craig and the author who comments on his text (Barbie Zelizer) agree that the chaos in the field of communication theories has increased in recent years: we are facing a process of dispersion by creating new insights and theoretical conversations. In his new article Craig claims the utility demonstrated by his model in recent years either to represent the field, justify its existence, or explain it to students, but ends up concluding that, as in 1999, communication theories are characterized by their “productive fragmentation.”

(…) Zelizer proposes some points on which to focus our attention, among them the congenital weakness of the field and the fact that communication disciplines are more importing than knowledge exporters. This is a consequence, in part, of a look (external but also internal) according to which the field of communication is “young”, “poorly consolidated” and unable to sustain its own epistemological existence without resorting to sociological, psychological or economic crutches .

The book by Silvio Waisbord, an Argentine researcher living in the United States, goes beyond the theoretical niches and proposes a much broader view of the fragmentation of communication studies that covers its methodological, theoretical, thematic and institutional aspects. The book also analyzes carefully the side effects of digital mutations and globalization processes on our field of research.

Fragmentation and hyperspecialization

Kintsugi (金 継 ぎ) is the Japanese art of fixing ceramic fractures with resin varnish mixed with gold, silver or platinum. It would be said that, in the scientific world of communication, during the last century researchers have dedicated themselves to hammering the dishes until they are reduced to infinity of small epistemological pieces … But this vision of the problem is not exact: communication has never been an unified field. We never had a communicational unified vase. Its origins in the first half of the twentieth century were varied (there were people from sociology, political science, psychology, etc. investigating communication) and its subsequent development only deepened that initial dispersion. Waisbord says about it:

Fragmentation is the result of the confluence of several factors. The muldisciplinary genealogy of the field has been a major cause. Communication was multidisciplinary before multi- and inter-disciplinarity became important trends in academia (p. 17).

Away from fractured disciplinary and intellectual genealogy, the constant drive toward specialization in academic work has also exacerbated the fragmentation (p. 21).

These fragmentation and hyperspecialization processes have generated two antagonistic positions between researchers and communication theorists:

The consequences of disciplinary fragmentation are mixed. Some lament the fact that fragmentation means the dilution of the well-defined and agreed-upon core elements that define any discipline. Others, instead, celebrate fragmentation because it loosens the straitjackets of disciplinary theories and methodologies and nudges scholars into exciting lines of research (p. 22).

I think that Latin American researchers tend to place themselves on the side of those who celebrate the interdisciplinarity and fragmentation of the field, since they see in it a disruptive element that would differentiate communication from other “disciplines” and give it an almost infinite methodological freedom. I am not so convinced of the benefits of hyperspecialization and fragmentation, but at the same time I assume that gathering the pieces of pottery to rebuild a communicational vase (which never really existed) is at this point an impossible task.

Returning to the book, Waisbord takes up and updates a classic theme: can a more or less integrated disciplinary field be built if discussions about the same concept of “communication” proliferate among ourselves? The definitions of what is communication have been going on for decades and constitute a classic subgenre within the theoretical production. Obviously, semantic deficiencies expand to many other concepts that we use daily (I think of words such as “medium”, “information”, “mediation”, “mediatization”, “fake news”, etc.). These weak semantic bases make it difficult not only for disciplinary unification but directly for dialogue between researchers.

Waisbord, who directed the prestigious Journal of Communication for several years and therefore has a very broad vision of contemporary scientific production, proposes six conceptions (communication such as connection, dialogue, expression, information, persuasion and interaction) in an attempt to put a little semantic order in the conversations, but he is aware that “there is no Esperanto in the babel of communication scholarship” (p. 45).

The digital and the global

The digital turn further complicated communication research and fueled the creation of new specializations. The emergence of digital networks was a shock in a field accustomed to dealing with the mass media. Networking forced us to review the theories and methods applied to broadcasting (in my article Mapping conversations about new media: the theoretical field of digital communication I described this theoretical mutation) and to think about new concepts and approaches. The fact that our whole life is filtered by digital networks — Waisbord rescues the concept of “mediation of everything” introduced by Sonia Livingstone at the ICA 2008 conference (PDF) — increases the confusion of those who want to find a thread in the thousands of research published under the umbrella of communication.

Regarding globalization, it has also been a process that has contributed to the emergence of new voices, approaches and ways of addressing research and communication theorization. On the one hand, Waisbord tells us about the “institutional globalization” that affects departments, faculties and events. With numbers in hand, the author confirms something we all know: although communication research ceased to be an exclusive heritage of the United States as in the golden age of Mass Communication Research, the presence of researchers from a handful of Anglo-Saxon countries (I include in this concept the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and neighboring countries) is still decisive. The Latin world (European and American), African and Asian (except for countries that have a direct line with the Anglo-Saxon group) are in a marginal situation. Waisbord points out some of the causes already known to all, from the hegemony of English to the epistemological differences that limit the dissemination of these works.

Regarding the “intellectual globalization”, Waisbord is committed to the “des-westernization” of research. It is not the first time that Waibord touches on this subject: already in 2014 he had coordinated with Claudia Mellado a monograph of Communication Theories dedicated precisely to “des-westernization”. In his new book Waisbord explains that

De-westernization refers to a shift in academic knowledge to broaden the analysis by considering experiences, research findings, and theoretical frameworks developed in the rest of the world (p. 100).

Waisbord moves elegantly on this issue but continues to warn us that “replacing western countries with another form of intellectual narcissism and parochialism is hardly a solution which would stimulate self-reflectivity about the underpinning of scholarly work and foster critical thinking” (p. 106). Although he does not mention it in the book, it would be interesting to cross these pages with the debates about the “epistemologies of the South” that are becoming fashionable below the Ecuador line.

On the other hand, every time we talk about these issues, a concept appears, that of the “global South”, to name the countries that were previously considered “Third World” or “developing”. I say it bluntly: when I hear or read the words “global South” my hair gets on end and I start salivating. Moreover, I would say that every time someone writes “global South” a species dies out in the Amazon … Putting in the same bag the production of Latin American, African or Asian researchers seems an insult to common sense. If the intention is to overcome colonial eyes and make other approaches visible, to think that there is something called “global South” is more imperialist than Margaret Thatcher’s fleet heading to the Falklands/Malvinas.

Post-discipline

What to deal with the fragmentation and hyperspecialization that reigns in the field of communication? Waisbord, in an attitude that I share, proposes to assume this state of fragmentation and learn to live with him:

We should recognize and embrace the proliferation of approaches to the study of digital communication amid the constant reinvention of fields of study related to “communication studies”. This attitude demands challenging the modernist project of science identified with a single conceptual system and a finely defined and dominant paradigm, and defending ontological openness, not only in the name of intellectual originality but also as a distinctive quality of the continuous blurring of academic boundaries ( p. 90).

At the end of the book Waisbord bets on the concept of post-discipline. To get to that concept the author reviews (too quickly for my taste) concepts such as trans-, post-, multi-, inter-disciplinarity. Although the volume is not a manual of communication theories, I think that defining these concepts better — to which I would add the bi-disciplinarity introduced by Miquel de Moragas in the 1980s — would have served to enhance the commitment to the idea of ​​“post-discipline”.

But what are post-disciplines? Waisbord defines them as “intellectual trading zones” where researchers meet, develop a common language and build theories around common problems and questions (p. 127). These conversation zones are not exactly new: Waisbord mentions some theoretical frameworks such as functionalism, structuralism or materialism as examples of spaces that connected research in the social sciences and even the humanities (p. 128). At the end of the book the author proposes some possible lines of progress within this post-disciplinary logic, but I do not share them because I do not want to turn this story into a spoiler.

Kintsugi

In Communication: A Post-Discipline Waisbord maps a territory in permanent state of mutation, analyzes the tensions, cracks and dislocated tectonic plates that characterize it and presents a range of explanatory hypotheses to trace the origins of fragmentation and hyperspecialization. The effort is enormous and they make it a fundamental text for any “communication researcher” who wants to leave the cave and see what happens around him/her.

Waisbord has made an effort worthy of a Kintsugi master to gather pieces of different vases and see if anything can be done with them. If I had to indicate a weak flank of the book, it is the following: in a volume so attentive to the need to open up to the theoretical production of the global South and to incorporate new interlocutors beyond the Anglo-Saxons, the absence of Latin American authors is surprising. Can we talk about “mediations” and not mention the work of Jesús Martín-Barbero? When Waisbord touches on the theme of “theories of mediatization”, beyond mentioning the classics of Andreas Hepp, Freiderich Krotz, Sonia Livingstone and Nick Couldry, a reference to the pioneering works of Eliseo Verón would have been welcome. And if we talk about the fragmentation of the field, the exhaustive works of the Mexican scholar Raúl Fuentes Navarro are an obligatory reference to understand the state of theoretical production in Latin America and its positioning in front of the great paradigms of the “global North”.

It would be great that in future English editions (or in the Spanish one, which, I hope, will be coming soon) these voices were incorporated into a debate that surpasses the conversations between some European and North American researchers. Beyond these absences that, as a reader, I identified in the text, Waisbord’s book presents an updated, critical and very suggestive map about the current state of theoretical and scientific conversations about what we call “communication” without even knowing well about that is.

New metaphors

While reading the book and writing down notes on its margins, I thought about the Quantum exhibition of the CCCB and some questions came to my mind … At this point: should we continue talking about “fragmentation”? Wouldn’t it be better to assume that we are in the presence of an atomized, quantum scientific field, with thousands of epistemological microparticles colliding with each other? More food for thought for future stories.

Originally published at http://hipermediaciones.com on July 21, 2019.

NOTE: translation from the Spanish original post made with Google Translator and checked by the author. Sorry for the possible mistakes, I’m not an English native speaker.

UPF researcher: interfaces, digital media, transmedia & media ecology/evolution + TEDx + PI of H2020 @Trans_literacy + blogger: hipermediaciones.com @cscolari

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