History of Communication Study Overview


After reading this chapter you should be able to:

  • Identify the four early periods of communication study.
  • Explain the major changes in communication study in the 20th century.
  • Identify major scholars who helped shape the field of Communication.
  • Discuss how Communication departments and professional organizations formed.

Communication is an increasingly popular major at colleges and universities. In fact, according The Princeton Review: Guide to College Majors, Communication is the 8th most popular major in the U.S. With increased demands placed on students to have “excellent communication skills” in their careers, many students choose to earn their degree in Communication. Most of us implicitly understand that humans have always communicated, but many do not realize that the intellectual study of communication has taken place for thousands of years.

As with the rest of the book, this chapter is divided by events that preceded the industrial revolution (2500 BCE – 1800’s), and those that occurred after the industrial revolution (1850’s-Present). Previous to the invention of the printing press, which pre-dated the industrial revolution by a few hundred years to develop, the formal study of communication was relatively slow. However, as a result of the printing press and the rapid expansion of technology that followed during the industrial age that increased the amount of easily shared information, the formal study of communication gained considerable momentum, developing into what you now understand as Communication departments and majors at colleges and universities around the country.

To keep our focus on the two time periods that greatly mark the development of communication study, we have divided this chapter into the Old School and New School. Part I focuses on Old School communication study by highlighting the origins of our field through the works of classical rhetorical scholars in ancient Greece and moving through the enlightenment period that ushered in the industrial age. Part II focuses on the New School of communication study by identifying how the four early periods influenced the development of communication study over the last 100+ years into what it is today.

To fully appreciate the current state of communication study, it’s important to have a historical perspective—not only to understand the field itself, but also to know how you ended up in a Communication class or major. Over time, the study of communication has largely been prompted by the current social issues of particular time periods. Knowing this, we’ll examine the pertinent questions, topics, and scholars of the Classical, Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods to find out what they learned about communication to help them understand the world around them. Next, we will highlight the rapid growth of contemporary communication.

There is a historical bias that gives the accomplishments of male scholars in Ancient Greece the greatest recognition for the early development of our field. Because society favored and privileged European males, it is often difficult to find written records of the accomplishments of others. We believe it is essential that you understand that many of the earliest influences on communication study also came from feminine and Eastern perspectives, not just the men of ancient Greek society. No doubt you’ve heard of Aristotle, but ancient Indian literature shows evidence of rhetorical theory pre-dating Aristotle by almost half a century. In fact, Indians were so attuned to the importance of communication, they worshipped the goddess of speech, Vach (Gangal & Hosterman). The Theosophical Society states:

To call Vach ‘speech’ simply, is deficient in clearness. Vach is the mystic personification of speech, and the female Logos, being one with Brahma….In one sense Vach is ‘speech’ by which knowledge was taught to man…..she is the subjective Creative Force which…becomes the manifested ‘world of speech.”

The Mypurohith Encyclopaedia tells us that:

Vach appears to be the personification of speech by whom knowledge was communicated to man….who, ”created the waters from the world [in the form] of speech (Vach).”

Unfortunately, many of our field’s histories exclude works other than those of Ancient Greek males. Throughout the book, we try to provide a balanced view of the field by weaving in feminine and Eastern traditions to provide you with a well-rounded perspective of the development of communication study around the world. Let’s start by focusing on the earliest period of the Old School – The Classical Period.