Communication Studies

Research may focus on a variety of topics. Mass media are studied for the content of their programs, the way those programs are produced and the impact of various influences on programming. Media economic structure and the media's role in political life are also topics of research.

Portrait of Marshall McLuhan
A portrait of Marshall McLuhan, looking into a mirror, circa 1967 (photo by John Reeves, courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-165118).
Professor McLuhan
Marshall McLuhan at the Coach House on the University of Toronto campus, circa 1950s (courtesy Robert Lansdale Photography, University of Toronto Archives).
Northrop Frye, writer
Frye's enormous influence derived from his insistence that literary criticism is a symbolically co-ordinated discipline that outlines the shape of the human imagination itself (photo by Andrew Danson).

Communication Studies

Communication studies explore the ways in which information is given meaning by those who produce, distribute and interpret it. Communication studies are a relatively new academic discipline, with departments or programs in 13 Canadian universities and many colleges; with 2 journals (Communication et information, Laval, and Canadian Journal of Communication, McGill University, Montréal); with national and Québec associations, and a number of organizations appealing to specialized interests and involving academics, representatives from industry and government and members of the public.

Research may focus on a variety of topics. Mass media are studied for the content of their programs, the way those programs are produced and the impact of various influences on programming. Media economic structure and the media's role in political life are also topics of research. Communication studies may also focus on how particular messages are presented in films, advertisements or school texts; in press statements made during election campaigns; in news reporting and in government documents; or in the way a group meeting or public inquiry is conducted. The purpose of communication analyses is to identify the full range of meanings, whether intended or not, to see how those meanings are structured into the final message that people receive, and to examine the impact of what is being communicated.

Some of the most important work in communication studies was done by Harold INNIS, the Canadian economic historian who turned his attention to communications in his later works. Innis argued that the way information is disseminated influences not only the impact of the message but also its content and the shape of social life as a whole. Although Innis died (1952) long before the computer or satellite age, his work on ancient writing systems and modern radio enabled him to predict many of the changes that were to occur in a society dependent upon rapid transmission of information. Research in communication studies today draws upon Innis's insights in examining, for example, the impact of literacy and TV on Inuit communities, the relationship between economic and communication development and the impact of new information technologies.

An important aspect of communication studies in Canada is the impact of government policies (see CULTURAL POLICY) and of agencies such as the CANADIAN RADIO-TELEVISION AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION.

Communication studies developed in the US as an amalgam of engineering, social psychology, advertising or propaganda rhetoric. The focus in the often highly empirical American work is on the dissemination of information. In Europe communication studies are more often theoretical and include the study of ideology and consciousness. In Canada communication studies drew their original impulse from the humanities - 2 of the better-known contributors being Marshall MCLUHAN and Northrop FRYE. Canadian communication studies also draw heavily from psychology, sociology, philosophy, political science and economics. This research can be distinguished from the American and European traditions by its synthesis of theoretical and empirical work and by the attention given by many writers to producing recommendations for government policy.

An underlying focus in much Canadian research, and certainly among the active francophone scholars, is "cultural" experience. Particular attention is given to COMMUNICATIONS IN QUÉBEC and among regional or native cultures; to problems associated with regional, francophone or national identity; and to centralist and decentralist strains in Canadian social development. Communication studies explore how, when and why cultural products such as film, music or literature become significant to some or all members of society. Communication studies may be taught in Canada in conjunction with journalism, business communication, cultural studies and educational or technical media programs.