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The other other other*

Communication the soft social science

Gary Mariano
Department of Communication
De La Salle University
April 2010

Abstract If social science is soft science (the other), and communication is the
soft social science (the other other), then Philippine communication must be
the other other other. I reviewed 56 recent articles in four Asian
communication journals, and conclude that the debate on whether
communication is a full-fledged academic discipline (like physics) remains
unresolved, especially in Asia, where the research straddled between soft
science and empiricism.

Key words philosophy of social science, empiricism, soft science, discipline,

field, Asiacentrism.

The social sciences have a reputation as the soft sciences (Geertz, 1973; Cherns, 1979;

Buddenbaum and Novak, 2001). In turn, communication is regarded as the soft social science

(Lindlof and Taylor, 2002; Carter et al., 2003).

Outside of its sphere, communication does not enjoy the prestige of the other

university disciplines (Beniger, 1987). The same paradox can be observed outside of the

West. There are a number of emerging communication journals in Asia which are

contributing to the development of an Asiacentric (non- or de-Westernized) theory of

communication. Yet the Asian communication scholar is hardly heard of in the Western

dominated arena.

Following Beauvoir’s (Wilkinson and Kitzinger, 1996) take on the hard masculine and

the soft feminine, the social sciences are the other science, and communication the other

* With apologies to Isagani R. Cruz (2010. The other other, D. J. Y. Bayot [Ed.]. Manila: Far Eastern
University Publications) and Elvin Valerio (2010. Ang pelikulang bukod na bukod: Ang pelikulang
alternatibo bilang mapagpalayang sining. Dalumat: Multikultural at Multidisiplinaryong E-Journal sa
Araling Filipino, 1(1),
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other. Is Asian, or even Philippine, communication scholarship then, the other other other?

Is communication a discipline?

One of the biggest challenges to communication’s academic legitimacy is whether it is

a discipline or a field. The two terms are often used loosely to refer to each other. But there is

a fine thread separating them, especially in academe. A discipline usually has a long and

established tradition like law, philosophy and chemistry, while field is used for the more

recent areas like tourism, health sciences, even communication (Malcolm, 2003).

According to Becher (1995), a discipline is a largely autonomous subsystem of the

social system of knowledge, with its own specific procedural norms and orientation models-

methods, paradigms, theoretical underpinning of its subject matter, and career criteria. Kuhn

says a discipline is defined by a corpus of theory, a methodology, and a body of knowledge

(in Pfau, 2008). It must have exclusive powers to recruit and train new members, to judge

who is qualified, and to regulate the quality of professional work (Smart et al., 2000).

To Abbott (2001), a field becomes a discipline when it there is an academic labor

market in which different university departments that award higher degrees regularly hire

each other’s graduates.

Within communication itself, there are those who believe that it is a discipline

(Powers, 1995; Hornsey et al., 2008), albeit a fragmented discipline (Mirchandani, 2005;

Pfau, 2008) with a broad epistemology and ontology (Anderson and Baym, 2004). The more

conservative view it as a field (Phillips, 1986; Malcolm, 2003; Nordenstreng, 2004, 2007;

Jones, 2005; Benoit and Holbert, 2008; Kreps and Maibach, 2008; Wildman, 2008; Zarefsky,

2008). Donsbach (2006) calls it an interdisciplinary field, defined by a common object, i.e.

communication. Then again, he asks if communication scholars even have a well-defined

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A related, and even complicating, question is whether communication is a social

science. In his review of communication journal articles, Donsbach (2006) reported that

while most authors considered their work to be of a social-science nature, they also admitted

to other approaches (see chart, Epistemologies in ICA, from Donsbach, 2006). McQuail

(2005) writes that inasmuch as communication has a social-science tradition, there is as much

humanities in its approach, such as in the cultural studies which he differentiated from the

“mainstream” communication science.

While careful not to call communication a discipline, Benoit and Holbert (2008) write

that it is both healthy and mature. Its journals have relatively high standards (The figure

below, from Neumann et al., [2008] show the predictors of article acceptance).

Communication also boasts of solid accomplishments (Donsbach, 2006), having accumulated

a lot of good empirical evidence on the communication process.

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‘Mickey Mouse studies’

Yet communication does not get as much respect as the other social sciences like

psychology, sociology, and political science. Nordestreng (2004) warns of the so-called

“Mickey Mouse studies” that some scholars publish. Social psychologists Hornsey et al.

(2008) point out to the differences between their approach to communication problems from

that of communication scholars. Social psychologists are theory-driven whereas

communication scholars are descriptive. They also employ quantitative, experimental

methods, as against “meta-methods” like archival research, textual analysis, category sorting,

conversation analysis, interview data, focus groups, and diary studies. And while social

psychology aims for consistency, communication studies often go for variability. One article

(Zarefsky, 2008) lays the logical basis for rhetorical criticism as a way of knowing.

Pooley and Katz (2008) note that sociologists have stopped studying communication

for a very academic reason: the new communication agenda were no longer within their

crosshairs. The rise after World War II of public opinion research proved “unsociological,”

being more akin to psychology and market research. Sociologists became uncomfortable that

the sociology of media was narrowed to the social psychology of persuasion.

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The media philosophies

Anderson and Baym (2004) organized the communication philosophies into four

directions: the empirical, the foundational, the reflexive, and the analytical. The domains

were represented by their combinations: foundationalist/empirical, foundationalist/analytical,

reflexive/empirical, and reflexive/analytical.

Foundational/empirical studies are axiomatic and causal, their methods objective and

metric. Their goal is to make claims about prediction and control of a stable, determined, and

material reality. Reflecting values common to material science, this quadrant is the “hardest.”

The other extreme is the reflexive/analytical. Its theories are politically active, its

method critical and ideologically positioned. Its goal is to make emancipatory claims that

intend value-based social change in a culturally produced rather than “objective” reality; to

advance its own well-being, and to call for change in what is right.

In between are the reflexive/empirical and foundational/analytical. The former

consists of “bottom-up,” grounded theories that seek to understand an interactionist, socially

constructed reality. The latter is the “home” of philosophic authority, its theories formal,

propositional, and logical.

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Scientists study the relationships between variables. The scholars who wrote the first

media and communication research had their roots in the social sciences. Some of them

eventually migrated permanently to communication. The biggest debate was how much of an

effect the media had on the public.

The first belief was that the media produced automatic, immediate, direct, uniform,

massive effects on opinions, attitudes, and behavior on a passive, uncritical, undiscerning,

and undiscriminating public. This was known as the Powerful Media Effects paradigm or the

hypodermic effect. It was symbolized by Lasswell’s linear SMCRE model (McQuail,


The Powerful Effects school was influenced by the behaviorists, particularly Skinner

(1971) who believed that organistic action was determined and not free. It was in the matter

of picking the right reinforcers that gave us the illusion of freedom, he said.

Almost all living things act to free themselves from harmful contacts. A kind
of freedom is achieved by the relatively simple forms of behavior called
reflexes... We do not attribute them to any love of freedom; they are simply
forms of behavior which have proved useful in reducing various threats to the
individual and hence to the species in the course of evolution.

Another behaviorist, Watson (1913), also saw psychology (one of the prisms through

which communication was studied), as a “purely experimental branch of natural science”:

Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior. Introspection

forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data
dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to
interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a
unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man
and brute. The behavior of man, with all of its refinement and complexity,
forms only a part of the behaviorist’s total scheme of investigation.

This thinking emboldened early scholars to assume that man was capable of only one

type of response to a stimulus, and that was the the same kind of response an animal would

uniformly produce when exposed to a similar stimulus.

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Marx and Engels (1848), and later their Frankfurt and New School followers, also

believed in powerful media. Writing about classes, they said that “Modern bourgeois society

with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up

such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able

to control the spells of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

Media, by their account, would be so powerful that they would eventually

control the capitalists themselves (who thought they controlled media), and
that these capitalists would not be free to do as they liked.

The New School dynamic duo of Horkheimer and Adorno noted how media were

were making everyone alike, again dispelling the possibility of individuality. In their

Dialectic of Enlightenment (2002, originally published in 1944), they wrote that “culture

today is infecting everything with sameness. Film, radio, and magazines form a system. Each

branch of culture is unanimous within itself and all are unanimous together.”

McLuhan, the Canadian literature professor turned media philosopher, advanced the

notion of the medium as the message. By message, he did not mean the content of the

communication, but the effects of media, which he described as the extensions of the human

body, and consequently technology. The message of any new medium, or technology, could

be found in “the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension

of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension

of ourselves, or by any new technology” (McLuhan, 1964).

Subsequent research, mainly by Lazarsfeld, debunked this belief. The resulting

Limited Effects theory of Blumer and Katz argued that people were not all that passive, that

they were used media purposively, and that they had many ways of resisting media influence.

Graber (1984) writes: “Political communication is very much a transactional process.

Mass media messages are not im-printed on the minds of media audiences in the precise
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manner in which they are offered. Rather, audience members condense the offerings in their

own ways, select aspects of interest, and integrate them into their own thinking.”

These polar beliefs have since been replaced by a Moderate Effects paradigm, which

holds that media indeed are capable of inducing important effects but only under certain


Majority of the significant social-science type communication research published

within the past 70 years reflect these philosophical mindsets (Beniger, 1987).

Asiacentric communication: Enriching or further fragmenting?

The dominant scholarship can be said to represent a firm attempt to establish

communication as a firm discipline. Yet it is also Western, in scope, orientation, and method.

Should Asian communication scholars, many of them living in Asia and observing Asians

communicate, be limited to a Western paradigm that emphasizes causality, empiricism, and


Foremost among the advocates of an Asiacentric (as opposed to Eurocentric), de-

Westernized, communication scholarships are Miike, Chen, Kim, and Dissayanake, who have

Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Sri Lankan roots, respectively. They are all professors at U.S.


Dissanayake (2006) identifies four research areas in Asian communication theory:

classical texts; concepts derived from ancient traditions; rituals, ceremonies, and

performances; and communication behavior associated with modern everydayness.

Miike (2009) advanced five propositions of the Asiacentric communication

philosophy, that reflect a combination of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. He defines

communication as a process:

• Reminding us that the universe is interdependent and interrelated

• Reducing selfishness and ego-centrism
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• Feeling the joy and suffering of all sentient beings

• Receiving and returning debts to all sentient beings
• Moralizing and harmonizing the universe

Perhaps pushing an Asian orientation will result in further Balkanization of

communication and a further apparent departure from social science. But from the

perspective of the other philosophies like the symbolic interactionists and the social

constructionists, it will be a valid option for Asians studying their own unique, postcolonial,

historicized, contextualized, constructed communicative world.

The Asian communication journals

One way to find out whether this impetus has found acceptance among scholars in the

region is to browse the journals. The following were chosen for this paper because of their

reputation and accessibility: China Media Research (Zhejiang University), Keio

Communication Review (Japan), Asian Journal of Communication (Asian Media Information

and Communication Centre, Singapore), and Plaridel (University of the Philippines) and

sampled at least two recent issues for each publication. Then articles (N=56) were classified

according to Anderson and Baym’s (2004) domains.

Quantitative studies that examined causality and correlations between variables fell

under the first quadrant (foundational/empirical). Studies that used both quantitative and

qualitative data mainly for descriptive purposes were classified under the second

(reflexive/empirical). Here went the content and interview analyses, often descriptive (or

ethnographic) that are popular in communication research.

The foundational/analytical category, the third quadrant, consisted of those studies

that reflected the “prophetic veridicality” about the universals of human life, while the last

quadrant (reflexive/analytical) listed those that called for value-based change in a culturally

produced reality.
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I will admit to the difficulty of compartmentalizing the articles and the possibility that

they could belong to another quadrant or multiple quadrants. I based my classification on the

theories invoked (in some cases there were none) and the nature of the data presentation and

analysis (similarly, some articles did not report any empirical data).

Most of the articles fell under the second quadrant (reflexive/empirical). These were

articles on e-commerce, credibility, media literacy, androcentrism, empowerment, censorship,

politeness, identity discussion, intellectual property, and policy. Some of them were inspired

by theories (like limited effects, behavior and framing) that allow for very quantitative and

causal methods, but the writers stopped short at descriptions. In all four journals, this was the

category with the most articles.

Title Quadrant 1 Quadrant 2 Quadrant 3 Quadrant 4

Asian Journal of Communication 5 10 - -
China Media Research 1 8 - 5
Keio Communication Review 3 6 - -
Plaridel 2 10 6 -
11 34 6 5
Table 1. Distrubution of articles.

The first quadrant (foundational/empirical) had the second most numerous articles.

The analysis was statistical and words like predictors and direct effects appeared in the


Only Plaridel had articles that went into the third quadrant (foundational/analytical).

Themes were archetypes, the public sphere, mythologies, folk narratives, virtual subcultures,

and cultural studies.

The last quadrant (reflexive/analytical) was all-China Media Research. The articles

were mainly on Chinese communication, with at least three identifying themselves with the I-

Ching philosophy.
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This examination, albeit based on a non-representative sample, shows how dispersed

communication research is. And Asia is not very different.


Chemistry is the same regardless of the chemist’s geographic location and ideology. A

rigid discipline has allowed it this universality. To a large extent, the same goes with the other


Communication is an ambiguous position. Part of it is all set to be a legitimate

academic discipline in the classic sense, in the West as in the developing world. (This is of

course paradoxical, because even the “hardest” of social sciences, for as long as human

behavior cannot be universally predicted, will forever will be soft to physicists.) And yet,

there is also an established tradition that does not hesitate to throw conventional values like

objectivity and empiricsm out the window and say, unabashedly, that knowledge has been

achieved. It does sound like the black sheep of the communication family, but this black

sheep is nevertheless as much a member of the family. And with the emergence of

postcolonial, non-Western cousins – the other other other – who might proceed to investigate

communication along exotic orientations and using strange and unapproved methods, the

communication family will have a harder time imposing discipline.

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