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Historical Development of the Field and Departmental Strength


The historical roots of the study of communication are often traced to classical Greece, where such philosophers as Aristotle articulated principles of rhetoric and effective persuasive discourse. The social-scientific study of communication, the focus of the program, emerged during the early decades of the 20th century. At that time, communication research was not conducted within a single institutional entity; rather, researchers from the then-emerging disciplines of sociology, psychology, political science, marketing and advertising sought to understand the role print, film and radio might play in producing a variety of effects in their audiences. During this period, the journalist Walter Lippman wrote extensively about media, public opinion and democracy, and the Chicago school of sociology initiated a number of media effects studies, including the ways in which newly arrived immigrants used the press to orient themselves in American society. The voluminous Payne Fund Study of the late 1920s and early 1930s examined the effects of movie attendance on youth. The political scientist Harold Lasswell’s extensive work on propaganda during this period was also influential in shaping the development of communication research.


During World War II, several social scientists with interests in communication worked in government agencies conducting research in areas related to morale and propaganda. In addition, beyond the war effort, research aimed at understanding the impact of political information disseminated by the mass media during election campaigns on voting behavior was initiated in 1940 by the influential sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld. Inspired by psychologist Kurt Lewin’s innovative studies of group decision making during World War II, researchers began to study face-to-face communication in groups under the rubric of group dynamics. Researchers came to realize that face-to-face interaction serves an important function in altering the effects of media-disseminated messages, thus suggesting the importance of understanding social influence processes in groups. Although several communication researchers of this period explicitly embraced the idea that communication theory could be bootstrapped out of their applied research projects, little theory was actually generated.

At the end of World War II, many communication researchers who had worked in the government returned to academic institutions and established communication research programs. Carl Hovland initiated a highly productive research program devoted to the study of communication and persuasion at Yale University. Institutes for the study of communication were established at the University of Illinois and Stanford University, and the Annenberg School for Communication was instituted at the University of Pennsylvania. At the same time, the social-scientific study of communication began to find an institutional home in existing journalism, broadcasting and speech departments, which, had been concerned mainly with communication skills instruction.

Although the great bulk of communication research published during and before World War II was applied, focused on mass media effects, and animated by commercial and social concerns, commencing in the 1960s communication research became increasingly motivated by theory and expanded beyond the media effects domain. Inspired by the meta-theoretical perspectives afforded by Shannon and Weaver’s Mathematical Theory of Communication, Wiener and Ashby’s writing on cybernetics and control theory and von Bertalanffy’s general system theory, theory development became a central activity in the discipline. Beginning in the early 1970s, social interaction researchers also expanded their research purview well beyond that represented by the communication and persuasion paradigm prevalent in the 1950s and 60s.

Today, in addition to studying social influence processes, social interaction researchers examine the role verbal and nonverbal face-to-face interaction plays in the development and maintenance of relationships, deceptive communication, interpersonal conflict and negotiation. Research specialties devoted to studying social interaction both within formal organizations and across cultures have become quite large and highly active, and both social interaction and media effects researchers have established growing area specializations in health, political and instructional communication. Advances in communication technologies that enable mediated social interaction (computer-mediated communication, Internet, mobile telephones, computer games) have spawned increasing interest in the social and psychological effects these technologies have on their users as well as how attributes of the technologies shape communication praxis.

The Department of Communication at UC Davis has shown a similar pattern of evolution over the past 40 years. Established as the Department of Rhetoric in 1966, its primary focus was on humanistic approaches to communication study in the tradition of classical rhetorical scholarship. The Department established a masters program in 1971. With the addition of faculty trained in the social sciences, the Department’s name was changed to Department of Rhetoric and Communication in 1987. The advent of a divisional structure in the College of Letters and Science in 1995 led the Department to become part of the Division of Social Sciences. In 1998 the Department became the Department of Communication, housing a faculty exclusively concerned with quantitative, social scientific approaches to the study of communication. Current faculty members’ research interests in the social interaction and the technological mediation of communication mirror major research areas that have developed in the field at large.