Communication as an Idea and as an Ideal

H Dan O’Hair & William F Eadie. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook. Editor: William F Eadie. 2009. Sage Publication.

It is rather passé, if not overindulgent, to characterize communication as a ubiquitous phenomenon. As an ever-present process in our lives, not only is it convenient to take communicating with others for granted, but we are quick to blame communication maladies for many of the social ills confronting us. For some years, it was fashionable to refer to discussion about communication as meta-communication. Craig (2005) more recently referred to such deliberations as meta-discourse. Almost 50 years before the buildup of interpersonal communication as an academic specialty area, Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) promoted the idea that one “cannot not communicate.” That is, at any point when we develop reciprocal awareness of another, anything we do (or don’t do) is the act of communicating. We’re trapped—we can never not communicate. So instead we become obligated to a process that more often than not is judged uncharitably. Take most terms associated with the outcomes of communication.Communication breakdown is a popular one and generally refers to incompetent or indolent effort. The opening quote of this chapter, about a “failure” to communicate, was popularized from the 1960s movie Cool Hand Luke. Communication failures are often associated with perceptual misalignment or cultural ignorance. Another perspective altogether is that engaging in more communication is a ready answer to many problems, whether they be personal, professional, or political.

Lest we appear sanguine about communication as an ideal, fodder for the canons of those who view communication as a panacea can be observed from substantial organizational entities. Communication was the focus of a study reported in the MIT Sloan Management Review where 50 former and current CEOs and CFOs were interviewed about their views on communication in organizations. To a person, these organizational leaders viewed the communication function as vital to their success. Their remarks can be summed up as follows:

  • You cannot overcommunicate; use every mechanism (The New York Times).
  • Speak in harmony—one story, one basic message (GlaxoSmithKline).
  • You must modify your messages by constituency (Dell).
  • Move from a “want-to-communicate” to a “have-to-communicate” strategy (Textron).
  • I’m either communicating or thinking about it (FedEx).

Robert Craig (2005) once noted,

The idea that communication is important, the idea that human problems are caused by bad communication and can be solved by better communication, the idea that communication is a technical skill that can be improved by applying principles and techniques disseminated by communication experts, the idea, in short, that it is “good to talk”—these ideas are elements of a cultural pattern that has evolved in particular historical circumstances in close association with specific social practices and related cultural themes of human progress, modernization, and globalization. (p. 660)

Craig’s treatise was one of almost resignation blended with a dose of responsibility. Where do our responsibilities lie for the idea and ideals of communication?

We’ll first consider how some of our present ideas about this “thing” we call “communication” came about, and we’ll offer a rationale for why common ideas about communication are inadequate. We’ll summarize some of the current thinking about the idea of communication, and then we’ll offer a view of the idea of communication that can also serve as an ideal for communication study.

Communication as an Idea

The easiest way to think of communication is through its common meaning in several languages: as transportation, or a means of getting a message from one point to another. In fact, some of the earliest models of communication emphasized this mechanical means of moving a message. Harold Lasswell (1948) described communication simply as “Who? Says What? To Whom? With What Effect?” Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (1949), in describing how the telephone works, indicated that a source encodes a message and that encoded signal is transmitted via a channel to a device that decodes the signal and makes it come out of a receiver in the form of the original message.

But these models are more complex and more of a problem than they might seem on the surface. Lasswell’s (1948) model, for example, assumes an entire psychology behind each of his people in the model (“Who?” and “To Whom?”). He assumes an entire social process behind the construction of the “Says What?” portion of his model, including the nature and meaning of language, the expectations of the situation, and cultural influences on what is said. And then, there’s the matter of the “With What Effect?” portion of the model. Lasswell clearly saw this as the central element of his model, because at the time so much attention was being paid to how both various media and various forms of persuasion influenced individuals—and there were considerable debates over the conditions that would produce either strong or weak effects, both on individuals and on public opinion.

Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) model seems straightforward enough until you add in one factor: noise in the channel. As engineers, these authors were interested in noise in particular, because it interfered with telephone conversations, particularly long-distance connections. Noise was a technical problem that could be solved, in theory, by reducing the number of connecting points through which the signal had to travel in order to get from PointA to Point B (satellites proved to be wonderful ways of reducing those connections), but it was also a human problem, because people would try to guess the content of the message and in doing so would fill in the blanks that were left by the noise. So the model wasn’t as clean and elegant as, perhaps, its creators thought, because at each end of the encoder or receiver you not only had a piece of technology but also a human who was trying to make sense of the message that was sent or received.

How to make sense of the human piece? A popular approach of the same period as the models we just discussed involved looking at how people use language. The study of what was called general semanticswas popular in the era immediately following World War II, and it was based on the idea that the world would be able to get along much better if we used language in a more precise fashion. As outlined by its founder, Alfred Korzybski, and popularized by scholars such as S. I. Hayakawa and Irving J. Lee, general semantics sought to explain how people use language by using the central metaphor of how maps fit with the territory being charted. The three metaphoric propositions about language were as follows:

  • The map is not the territory. Words are arbitrary, though agreed-on, symbols that usually have no correspondence to the things they are supposed to represent.
  • The map is not all of the territory. Words can never completely represent the things for which they stand; words are, to one degree or another, abstractions.
  • The idea map would include a map of itself. We have to use words to describe other words, and so abstraction is built upon abstraction.

General semanticists liked to come up with catchy slogans to make their points—for example, “Words don’t mean; people mean.” By this, the general semanticist meant that meanings of words were constantly changing, even though their meanings might appear to be stable. Hipsters, for example, tend to play with language, and at various times have described things they like as “bad” or “hot” or “cool.”

While these ideas about how we use language in communication are useful, the concrete suggestions that general semanticists make are good to remember but don’t solve the “problem” of communication. General semanti-cists remind us that we are most likely to be understood when we are using concrete, as opposed to abstract, words when we remember that someone’s use of a word at one time may not be the same at another time and when we recognize that we can never cover “all” of something with the language we use.

A more contemporary outgrowth of general semantics has been a focus on how we use language to “construct” the world around us. While general semanticists assumed that the world is material (the “territory”) and words are but arbitrary descriptions of the material world (the “map”), those who use social construction as a perspective turn that notion on its head and contend that the world exists because people have constructed it, together, through the agreed-on use of symbols. So words become most important, rather than the things the words may be describing. The classic story about the three baseball umpires discussing their philosophies of working behind the plate illustrates this point. One umpire said, “Some’s balls and some’s strikes, and I calls ’em as they is.” The second umpire said, “Some’s balls and some’s strikes, and I calls ’em as I sees ’em.” And the third umpire, who took social construction to heart, said, “Some’s balls and some’s strikes, but they ain’t nothin’ until I calls ’em.” There is a good deal more discussion on social construction and its implications for understanding communication in a different manner in “Social Construction and Meaning Creation” (Chapter 15).

In his landmark book Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, John Durham Peters (1999) contended that our fascination with communication comes primarily from the use of technologies to disseminate messages to those who would be unreachable otherwise. These technologies need not be mechanical ones; they could be as simple as addressing a group of people face-to-face. Philosophers and ethicists have been well aware that using technologies to disseminate messages has the potential for mischief, and so our understanding of communication often arises out of the activities associated with communication that we wish to avoid, such as manipulation, deception, or lack of authenticity. Miscommunication is typically the problem; while “communication” is typically reified as an ideal state (we’ll have more to say about this point in the second portion of this chapter).

Peters (1999) identified two basic forms of communication: dissemination and dialogue. Both have roots in ancient times. Dissemination is illustrated quite clearly in Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. This parable exists in various versions, but in each version Jesus uses the idea of something small that potentially can grow into something quite large to illustrate how his teachings would take root and spread.

Dialogue is the other basic form of communication. Here, Peters (1999) calls on Phaedrus, which was written by Plato, as an illustration. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to go into a detailed explanation of this philosophical exchange between Socrates, a renowned teacher, and Phaedrus, his student. Suffice it to say, though, that the conclusion reached by their philosophical conversation, according to Peters, is that the ultimate goal of human interaction is authentic connection, with mutual love being the highest form of that bond. In such a view of communication, dissemination of information is relatively unimportant, except in how what we perceive we have in common serves to bring us together.

Dissemination and dialogue are not stand-ins for “mass communication” versus “interpersonal communication,” however. Radio can be a very intimate medium, for example, creating at least the illusion that the host and listeners are having a personal exchange. On the other hand, much of our daily face-to-face interaction revolves around routine exchanges of information, creating almost no bond in the process. We surround ourselves with media and interpersonal environments that provide plenty of information, and yet each of us experiences loneliness and yearns for true connection. How to manage the dissemination and promote the connection is the central problem that all of us, as communicators, face, and it is the ultimate problem on which communication scholars focus their work.

Communication as an Ideal

Communication is thought of both as an ordinary action and as an extraordinary act. It is ordinary because it is a major human activity that we engage in each day, but it is extraordinary because communicating with others has the capacity to provide social support and comfort, engage others in deliberation and debate on important issues, delight us with stories and performances, help us understand and manage who we are as people, and manage or resolve conflicts. There are far more often calls for more (and better) communication than there are for less (or worse) communication, though there are often calls for moderation in the use of both pen and tongue. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it,

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines … Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action. (Act 3, Scene 2)

In point of fact, we probably don’t follow Hamlet’s advice as often as we should. We assume that more (and better) communication will nearly always produce a more positive outcome than will less (or worse) communication. Many times, such is the case, but not always. Let’s consider, briefly, the kinds of problems that scholars were considering when the field of speech, one of the components of the communication discipline, was just beginning to establish itself as an area of scholarly study.

We usually assume that we are better off today than in earlier times, although it is wise to remember a comment from George Orwell—“Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” When considering the scholarship from the early years of our discipline, it is easy to observe that much of the work was pedagogically based. However, there were some pioneering intellectual thoughts given to the scientific study of communication. In 1915, in the first publication year of the Quarterly Journal of Speech (then known as the Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking), J. A. Winans argued for a more scientific and practically relevant study of the speech discipline:

Problems enough of every sort. Some are large, some small. We shall not for some time be driven to the painful emendation of the text of Demosthenes or to studying the influence of Quintillion on Patrick Henry. We ought not to be led into dry-as-dust studies, and I do not fear that we shall be; we are too constantly confronted by the practical nature of our work. Our difficulty will be in getting into a sufficiently scientific frame of mind. Probably we shall do foolish things at first, as others have. We should begin humbly and grow. Each man of course can do but a small part of the work. We shall proceed, but slowly—all the more reason why we should begin soon. (p. 22)

In 90+ years, have we delivered on the idea and ideals of communication research so eloquently advanced by Professor Winans (1915)? Our goal is to comment on the virtues and vices entangled in thinking of communication as an idea or as an ideal. “It is always a perplexing challenge to resolve in one’s own mind whether conditions lead us down paths of promises that excite us or promises that frustrate us. Sometimes these promises are one and the same” (O’Hair, 2006, p. 6). We all have ideas about what constitutes communication and its essence. In thinking through our history, we have identified three essential elements that capture our notions for communication as an ideal: (1) voice, (2) community, and (3) responsibility.


The communication field is quick to engage the metaphor of voice to represent the freedom and empowerment to participate and express oneself. Two common elements are often thought to constitute voice: access and agency. Access underlies the more basic of these phenomena and will be construed as a permissible entrée to the expression of ideas and opinions. Agency is a qualitatively different construct in that elements of empowerment stand ready to impose a privileging function in service of one’s rights to expression and contribution.


Access is more easily judged from a general perspective, although it is more elusive to assess from a local or contextual perspective. Most feel that access to participation is a worthwhile ideal. Perhaps the immigration debate stands as representative of that assumption. However, at a general level, too many of us offer lip service to the need for greater access to communication—including the challenge of the digital divide that we conveniently assumed was a temporary and embarrassing blip on our moral radar screens.

Access has captured our attention in more subtle ways through the lure of transformative communication technology. Instant messaging and cell phone use have reconcep-tualized how we communicatively relate with others in very strategic ways. More specifically, communication technologies have created an assumption of what Katz and Aakus (2002) describe as perpetual contact. In their book by the same name, these authors describe “how the internal psychological feeling of being accessible or having access changes social relationships” (p. xxi). Their position, situated among many others, is that cell phone use in particular is having a profound effect on normative communication patterns and that many of the unanticipated uses of this technology are proliferating.

We can first look to surveys as evidence of widespread use. In a poll conducted by BBDO Worldwide in 2005 (and reported by Peter Leo in the Pittsburgh Gazette on March 16, 2006), 75% of cell phone users reported that they had their devices turned on and within reach during waking hours, 59% would never loan their cell out, and 26% felt that it was more important to drive back home to get their cell phone than their wallet. Take, for example, the notion of absent presence. Kenneth Gergen (2002), a pioneer of the social construction approach, claims that, “at times our presence may go completely unacknowledged. We are present but simultaneously rendered absent; we have been erased by an absent presence” (p. 227).

James Rule (2002) illuminates a potential conundrum in understanding cell phone use. Rule wonders, “Does the demand for mobile phones … more closely resemble the need for an appendectomy or that for a drug fix? To what extent do the needs for which people use mobile phones appear to have pre-dated the technology?” And, as Rule points out, some needs are clearly important such as in emergencies; other needs more likely resemble an addiction model (p. 251).

Another issue of access focuses on the strategic management of interaction. For some, communication technologies offer opportunities for strategic communication. Text messaging in particular is preferred when users are motivated to reduce cues in order to avoid emotional expression. Teenagers suggest that text messaging friends about their plans on Saturday night can appear innocuous instead of desperate—“So what’s going on tonight?” Recipients can then strategically avoid the issue (“Not sure yet”) without implicating themselves and, at the same time, helping the friend save face—an essential strategy in teen life (O’Hair, 2006).

Strategic management of interaction also implicates less talk altogether. There is often an assumption that more communication is better. That is, we should always communicate to fix our problems. Communication scholars have frequently agreed that less talk is sometimes better. One of the hallmarks of conflict management techniques is avoidance in certain situations—cooling-off periods. In other instances of strategic interaction management, less talk and more action is a superior alternative. Walk the walk should not be discounted. Issues of access and responsible communication will continue to capture our attention.


Agency constitutes a fundamental issue in communication scholarship and will be no less important in advanced technologically embedded contexts. Broadly conceived agency starts with the rights to free speech and exhortation in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For its part, the National Communication Association (NCA) has dedicated itself to the ideals of free speech, with several of its policy resolutions contained in the NCA Policy Platform promoting uninhibited but responsible expression, including the following:

  • Credo for Free and Responsible Communication in a Democratic Society
  • Credo for Free and Responsible Use of Electronic Communication Networks
  • Policy on Diversity
  • Policy on the Digital Divide

The mere fact that a large professional communication association advances a number of statements on free expression suggests that free speech continues to be temporally affected and socially constructed. Communication agency has always been at risk of compromise due to the interpretative lenses of those who find it not as a pure ideal but as one that is managed in service of other ideals. The alternative is a position advanced by Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist from Harvard University, who remarked,

We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That’s the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we’re in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it’s time to make a run for the fence.

This standpoint harkens back to earlier contests over absolute free speech, and this perspective may not suit the tastes of those holding more moderate viewpoints—hence the notion of responsibility. How do we in the discipline of communication promote the ideal of free speech in a responsible manner? With the advancement of communication technologies, issues over free speech will come up ever more. With access and agency come two critical issues: maintaining a comfortable level of privacy and disentangling the relationships between communication and terrorism.


For some, agency necessarily entails the right to privacy and anonymity. Take recent examples of college professors being videotaped during class and finding their performance published on YouTube. Predictably, many in the academy are disconcerted by such instances of privacy violations. The American Association of University Professors considers posting videos of professors a violation of intellectual property rights. In an online discussion of the issues, faculty weigh in from multiple perspectives, with some suggesting that video content can be digitally manipulated characterizing professors as bumbling fools (some do not need any editorial help in this regard); others suggest that the issue can be addressed by videotaping all lectures with a time stamp to be used as incontrovertible evidence of what actually happened in class.

Privacy issues extend to general society in meaningful ways as well. Consider the perspective of Kevin Kelly (2006), Editor-at-Large, Wired and the author of New Rules for the New Economy:

Fancy algorithms and cool technology make true anonymity in mediated environments more possible today than ever before. At the same time this techno-combo makes true anonymity in physical life much harder. For every step that masks us, we move two steps toward totally transparent unmasking. We have caller ID, but also caller ID Block, and then caller ID-only filters. Coming up: bio-metric monitoring and little place to hide. A world where everything about a person can be found and archived is a world with no privacy, and therefore many technologists are eager to maintain the option of easy anonymity as a refuge for the private.

How do we unpack the baggage that surrounds privacy as a form of communication agency? Is anonymity an essential characteristic of agency?

An additional issue worthy of consideration is the public-private dilemma that has recently caught up with high school students who post online content from home. With MySpace and Facebook reaching millions of high school students in increasing fashion, school administrators have entered the fray of what constitutes responsible communication agency. Note the following incidents, which were reported in the October 26, 2006, edition of USA TODAY:

  • A student was expelled at an Indianapolis-area school for posting sexually explicit remarks about a teacher on MySpace.
  • A cheerleader in the Fort Worth area was dismissed from the squad for allowing someone else to post content regarding other cheerleaders on her blog.
  • Pittsburgh school officials removed a student from the volleyball team for criticizing an art teacher on the Internet.

School officials argue that issues of First Amendment rights have less applicability based on the two issues raised earlier: temporal dynamics and socially constructed perspectives. To wit, Paul Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators contends that school safety issues, especially in light of recent instances of school violence, are enough to trump freedom of expression. “The context of the times obviously adds a dimension of concern.”

Communication and Terrorism

One last point is worth consideration. Access and agency, through technology, create opportunities for communication of all types—those that empower and those that intimidate (O’Hair, Ploeger, & Moore, in press). Thomas Friedman (2005), in his best-selling book The World Is Flat, makes salient the argument that a flat world is one where communication is handy, inexpensive, and limitless. He goes on to emphasize that it is important to understand that it is not only the computer geeks, elementary students, and grandmothers who become empowered with flat-world communication, it is “also al-Qaeda and other terrorists networks” (p. 8). Miller, Matusitz, O’Hair, and Eckstein (2008) remind us that crimes of terrorism are communication acts, marked processes where terrorists symbolize their views with the help of unwitting audiences. Miller and colleagues take up the issue of describing differently the relational partners involved in terrorism: the terrorist group, the media, and the audience. Miller and colleagues describe the relationship as

a more complex web involving terrorists groups, their symbolic messages, the codependency of media and the obligatory sense of the audience. Such a codependency phenomenon goes beyond a simple dyadic relationship between eager, gullible, naïve viewers and enthusiastic, greedy, corrupt media corporations. The codependency is, at minimum, triadic, for it must of course include the terrorists themselves. Terrorists must trust in the media to accomplish one of their primary objectives: the spreading of fear and terror…. The media provide a means for social integration and social empathy by allowing audiences to gain insight into the circumstances of others—identifying, empathizing, and sympathizing with them in efforts to gain a sense of belonging. The public may feel obligated—even compelled—in their need to comprehend the destructiveness of a terrorist act or the impact it must have on its victims. (pp. 58–59)

Communication is indiscriminate in its ability to empower. It is always well to remember the ideals of our profession for supporting the promise of voice. With freedom of speech comes responsible expression. Communication scholarship must stand ready to offer insights into this conundrum.


Community is a term employed by multiple disciplines with the intent of characterizing patterns of interaction. Community can be conceived in a geographic sense, as a composite of individuals who work, live, and play in close geographic proximity to one another, such as local communities. “However, geographic convenience does not itself create a sense of community. Another way of thinking about communities is from a perceptual sense where proximity may or may not influence how a community is constituted” (O’Hair, Heath, & Becker, 2005, p. 311).

The idea of communication is frequently found in communities. As O’Hair and colleagues (2005) commented,

We know about communities of scholars and communities of practice; even spiritual groups and softball leagues think of themselves as communities (a sense of community). Key to concepts of communities is how they are fashioned and sustained through communication processes and shared meaning. (p. 311)

Within this section, we will take up several issues that are emerging as staples of community communication. Marc Andreesen, the founder of Mosaic, later known as Netscape, captures some important thoughts about how communities form:

People have an innate urge to connect with one another. And when you give people a new way to connect with other people, they will punch through any technical barrier, they learn new languages—people are wired to want to connect with other people and they find it objectionable not to be able to. That is what Netscape unlocked. (Friedman, 2005, p. 63)

It is through community participation that we are able to confirm the democratic vision espoused by Thomas Jefferson. Most important, citizen involvement increases government accountability.

Families as Reemerging Communities

After decades of surveys and polls lamenting the decline of the family as an important social unit in people’s lives, perceiving families as communities is on the rise. In fact, some research suggests that families are enjoying resurgence as a place for communication and community. Consider the following poll results, as reported in the May 22, 2006, issue of Newsweek and the October 30, 2006, issue of Time:

  • 76% of parents claim that they are closer to their children than they were to their own parents, and 71% report more communication with their college offspring than with their parents at the same age.
  • A generation ago, parents were seen as obstacles to social interaction, while today they are embraced as among their children’s best friends.
  • College surveys found that freshmen report more than 10 interactions per week with their parents using cell phones, e-mail, and text messaging. Most reported broad satisfaction with this level of contact, and 28% reported that they would like even more interactions with their fathers.
  • Many college students fully expect to move back in with their parents regardless of their financial situation.

Compare these data with a survey conducted with 1,622 Americans by USA Weekend for its October 27–29, 2006, issue, which revealed that 67% of respondents think that “eating together as a family is a better way to instill good values in children than going to religious services regularly or volunteering regularly.” Or consider an extensive study conducted in 2005 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting that parents now spend much more time with their children than in previous generations, with fathers reporting twice as much time communicating and caring for their children.

Are we experiencing a “cocooning” effect, alluded to by community scholars such as Robert Putnam (2000), whereby families wrap themselves in each other and fail to engage the members of other communities? As we examine other community effects, we may find that only communication research will be able to tell us how family communication influences wider community participation.

Virtual Communities

One of those communities is of the virtual type. Research investigating online communication has provided insights into how individuals interact in a virtual fashion for the purpose of sharing information and opinions and thus cooperating to form social systems (Jones, 1995). A rather poignant position was advanced by Katz, Rice, Acord, Dasgupta, and David (2004), which dismantled the arbitrary chasm between online and physical communities promulgated by others. Instead of insisting on distinctions, they argue for a bridging or progression of these communities, which serve humankind in similar ways. Take, for example, the phenomenon known as smart mobs. “Smart mobs consist of people who are able to act in concert even if they don’t know each other” (Rheingold, 2002, p. 63). Instantiations of this sort are numerous, as evidenced by the following examples, taken from Rheingold (2002):

  • The “People Power II” smart mobs in Manila that overthrew the presidency of President Estrada in 2001 organized demonstrations by forwarding text messages via cell phones.
  • The Web site enables fans to stalk their favorite celebrities in real time through Internet-organized mobile networks and provides similar channels for journalists to organize citizen-reporters on the fly.
  • Cell phones relieve teens from temporal restrictions, allowing them to sustain communities without regard to time. “For teens, if you have a cell phone you can be late.”
  • Muslim parents have become distraught at the idea that once disallowed social relationships between boys and girls now flourish through cellular technology. In Syria, community building among teenage girls has disrupted a once paternalistic and restrictive family structure.

Virtual communities should be examined from an opportunistic perspective, offering instances for understanding how people choose to form social bonds.

Community Resilience

Community involvement is not a new phenomenon; a National Research Council committee recommended that deliberative and participative community processes should be engaged to inform public policy choices (Stoto, Abel, & Dievler, 1997). The committee argued that these processes lead to a more informed public and more support for decisions. Even community members who do not directly participate in the planning and deliberating process have more positive views of policy decisions based on their perception that the process was fair and inclusive of community members’ viewpoints (Arvai, 2003).

Regardless of physical or virtual means, increasing community involvement and participation spawns positive civic and social effects often referred to as resilience. “Resilience is a community-building idea promulgated by Grotberg (2002). Resilient communities are those that enjoy strong relationships within and outside the family, understand the need for vibrant community services (such as education, health, social welfare), and are energetic in developing a community climate that is compassionate, empathic, respectful, and communicative. Building resilient socially networked communities, where stores of communication capital reside, offers greater comfort and security than disconnected communities” (O’Hair et al., 2005, p. 313).

Communities have offered up the promise of communication for centuries. Community is a convenient but essential element of how societies function. It is within communities that we find out what people are thinking and how they are relating to one another. Rebecca Townsend (2006), in a recent review essay in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, wrote that it is within communities that we develop “an appreciation for how knowledge, identity and agency are related” (p. 214).


The third issue of communication as an idea or ideal involves responsibility. We have acknowledged earlier that communication is not the answer to all the maladies facing society. However, when conditions present themselves, communication scholars do have fundamental responsibilities in addressing the problems and missteps of humankind. This becomes apparent in the articles in communication journals that take a critical perspective to societal problems and the embrace of journals that are devoted to a critique of society and especially hegemonic institutions (e.g., Critical Studies in Media Communication). There are a number of viewpoints that could be privileged from this perspective, but we focus on two: responsibility to the human condition and advancing meaningful contributions.

Responsibility to the Human Condition

As Vitousek, Mooney, Lubchenco, and Melillo (1997) suggest, “We are changing Earth more rapidly than we are understanding it” (p. 494). Isn’t understanding an essential element of the “ideal of communication?” Our understanding of others must come not only from investigations, as we have been doing, but also from monitoring conditions and trends. The IBM Center for The Business of Government published a report titled Six Trends Transforming Government (Abramson, Breul, & Kamensky, 2006). The report identifies key drivers for change:

  • The aging population
  • The continued rapid development of technology
  • Globalization of economies and services
  • Lack of confidence in government
  • External threats—terrorism, disasters, and so on

To these trends, we must add income inequality. The Economic Policy Institute reports data (in The Economist, December 29, 2004) that between 1979 and 2000, household income in the lowest fifth grew by 6.4%, while income from households in the highest fifth grew by 70%. Historically, we know that income disparity is a fundamental source of societal distrust and unrest. How do we in communication respond to these trends and challenges?

One answer for communication scholars lies in taking advantage of opportunities meant to address societal problems. Communication and related disciplines are now seen as integral to addressing a host of emerging practical problems. For example, disciplines such as communication are expected to play a key role in reforms in health care. Communication scholars are expected to make substantial contributions to homeland security initiatives ranging from surveillance to interdiction, community preparation, and violence mitigation. Communication scholars will also be expected to contribute to the identification and communication of meteorological risks. These new initiatives reflect a shift in priorities to problem-based solutions. The idea of communication moving more toward a pragmatic enterprise for its research is a new idea that is contested as an ideal.

Advancing Meaningful Contributions

How will communication professionals respond to these and other challenges facing the human condition? Many in the academy consider communication to be an inherently applied discipline. It is ironic that many in the field of communication thought just the opposite—that the only practical or applied aspects of communication were instructional practices, pedagogy, and controlling communication apprehension. As O’Hair and colleagues (2009) wrote, applied communication research “has been graced with an ever-expanding exposure to methods. Post-positivists, humanists, interpretivists, and critical theorists find applied research an enterprise that more easily accommodates their ideas and questions.” Moreover, communication scholars have made important contributions to our understanding of communication problems such as the following: severe weather warnings, pandemic flu campaigns, organ donation, food safety, gender equality, safe-sex messages, shelter-in-place (terrorism), direct-to-consumer drug advertising, terrorism, community building, cancer patient advocacy, and climate change.

The NCA has pursed practically relevant contributions for some time. Article II of the NCA constitution states, “The purpose of the association shall be to promote criticism, teaching, research, andapplication [italics added] of the artistic, humanistic, and scientific principles of communication.” NCA’s 2003 strategic plan specifically states, “NCA will engage in selected projects that extend and apply communication scholarship to other academic, professional, and civic communities.” A second stipulation states that “NCA will promote its publications to a wide audience of scholars and practitioners.”

Of course, as communication scholars, we hope to be in step with our colleagues who believe that theory should always play an indispensable role in applied research. We are mindful of Kurt Lewin’s famous statement, “There is nothing more practical than a good theory.” Theory and practice inform each other. Julia Wood (2000) perhaps said it best when she argued that “applied communication research is not bounded by domain. Its nature cannot be demarcated usefully by context … What defines and distinguishes applied communication research is its insistence on putting theory and research into the service of practice, and equally, of studying practices to refine theory in order to gain new understandings of how communication functions and how it might function differently, or better” (p. 189).

Communication as Both an Idea and an Ideal

In closing, we are persuaded by Martin E. P. Seligman (2002), a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania and author of the best-selling book Authentic Happiness, who argues that the greatest achievements “occur in cultures that believe in absolute truth, beauty, and goodness.” We join with Thomas Friedman when he argues for promoting dreams instead of memories. The future of the communication discipline lies not only in celebrating our past but also in honoring our obligation and commitment to the human condition. In this sense, we embrace the idea of communication both as an intrinsic part of the human condition and as an ideal for making a difference in the lives of those who surround us, locally and globally.