Communication Theory and Social Change

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Communication Theory and Social Change

Robert T. Craig
University of Colorado at Boulder

A keynote presentation to the
Indonesian International Conference on Communication
Universitas Indonesia, Jakarta
22 November 2010

The theme of this conference, “Global Challenge to the Future of Communication: Digital Media and Communication Freedom in Public Discourse,” is fundamentally concerned with communication in relation to social change. In this paper I reflect on communication theory as an element of social change. I argue that communication theory is more than just a conceptual toolset for explaining or influencing social change. Communication theory has a growing presence in the discourse of modern societies. It is not only about society; it is also in society and contributes to the evolution of the communication practices that constitute society. Insofar as communication theory participates in the constitution of society, communication theory potentially is social change. It cultivates particular ways of understanding human social existence in terms of communication processes, ways that may challenge traditional cultural understandings and practices. In the following sections I introduce two examples to illustrate how communication theory can be a conceptual tool for explaining society while also existing within society and participating in processes of social change. Specifically, I examine the concepts of network and ritual to show how these ideas originated and continue to evolve in particular cultural traditions in conjunction with profound changes in the communicative constitution of society. Second, I step back to take a broader view of metadiscourse—a term defined as discourse about discourse that includes both theoretical and ordinary practical ways of talking about communication. Communication theory engages critically with ordinary ideas and ways of talking about communication, such as network and ritual. The discourse of communication, on both theoretical and practical levels, also engages critically with other discourses such as traditional authoritarianism and political realism. In this complex scene of social conflict and metadiscursive debate, communication theory participates in social change. In a final comment, I suggest how this view on the role of communication theory in social change may be a stimulus to conversation about our conference theme. Network

While the concept of network has had an important role in theories of communication and social change, it also has had a significant role in the evolution of social practices and self-understandings away from traditional and bureaucratic structures of hierarchy and toward the flattened and connected forms of interaction that Castells (1996) has described as the network society. According to Mattelart (1996, 2000), the word network originally related to lace making and had nothing to do with communication. In the 16th century the term was borrowed as a scientific metaphor to explain the circulation of blood. Soon after, blood circulation was used by French engineers and planners as a metaphor to describe connected channels of transportation and communication such as road and canals, through which the commercial and cultural lifeblood of the nation flowed. In the 19th century the concept of network was extended so that it referred not only to connected communication systems but also to the universal bonds of human communication that the growth of communication networks was beginning to make possible. Thus, the concept of network initially evolved in practical and intellectual discourses in conjunction with modernist ideas about communication as flow, rationalization, and universal progress. From the late 19th century the model of an electrical network became increasingly central to the network concept, and the idea of network was increasingly associated with decentralized control structures (Eriksson, 2007). Of course, most of this happened...
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