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Communication Researchers and Policy-Making

Editor: Sandra Braman
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: October 2006

 REVIEW 1: Amin Alhassan

Communication Researchers and Policy-Making, edited by Sandra Braman, is a unique collection of landmark essays and works that have shaped the field of communication policy studies. Comprised of 26 chapters, it has the luxury of being historical and examines some of the enduring questions in communication policy research such as media effects, the bifurcated world of research and policy, the unsettled relations between critical and administrative research, and the recurring disjuncture between theory and policy practice.

In addition to an introduction and conclusion penned by editor Braman, the book is divided into three sections: "Policy as a Research Context," "Relationships with Policy-makers," and "Relationships with Academia." Aware that there are multiple ways to approach the field of communication policy research, Braman provides an alternative schema within the table of contents that works around a few of the field's key words, including: the need, the politics, the ideas, formal, informal and indirect relationships, negotiating theory, and negotiating research. As a sourcebook, the dual categorizations help researchers use the book as both a quick reference and for further readings.

In Braman's introduction, titled "The Long View," she notes that communication policy research is replete with remarkable moments of lost opportunities. For instance, she narrates the story of how during the early years of the Clinton administration, the White House literally hit a brick wall when it approached some of the well known cultural studies theorists to help out in drafting a policy on culture. A White House staffer, with experience in cultural studies, invited faculty from a well-established center for culture studies in the US who were concerned with the disjuncture between policy theory and policy practice, to help develop a governmental paper. Strangely, the faculty refused to respond to the invitation. Braman uses this remarkable example to illustrate what she calls the "depoliticization effects of politics" trend among communication policy researchers. The depoliticization effect is actually a paradox. How is it that communication and cultural policy research in some quarters has turned away from seeing the state as its key audience? Braman suggests that internal politics among epistemic communities have resulted in the abandonment of larger political questions in society. One only has to reflect on the ideological battles over quantitative versus qualitative methodologies that characterized communication theory debates in the 1970s and 1980s (or what Braman labels "the politics of the empirical" trend) or the struggle over social research as a science in the form of natural sciences or a non-science.

The first section, "Policy as a Research Context," contains 8 essays, including Woodrow Wilson's canonical 1887 essay "The Study of Public Administration." It is not about communication policy per se. However, Braman is justified in letting it serve as a curtain raiser because Wilson was probably one of the earliest North Americans to raise questions about the role of public opinion in the business of government. It is this historical moment of theorizing public communication and Wilson's pragmatic approach to controlling public opinion as part of the science of administration that may be of interest to communication policy scholars. For instance, anyone familiar with Walter Lippmann's 1922 classic Public Opinion will find Wilson's ideas, written 35 years earlier, quite interesting:
    Whoever would affect a change in a modern constitutional government must first educate his fellow-citizens to want some change. That done, he must persuade them to want the particular change he wants. He must first make public opinion willing to listen and then see to it that it listens to the right things. He must stir it up to search for an opinion, and then manage to put the right opinion in its way. (71)
This section also includes works of iconic figures that have helped shape the trajectory of communication policy studies including Harold Lasswell's 1951 piece "The Policy Orientation." Writing within the post-World War II era, Lasswell argues for a more instrumental approach to the pragmatic concerns of policy. This section also has a series of chapters dealing with the never-ending conflict over media effects and a search for a final word on the relationship between content and causality.

The second section, "Relationship with Policy-makers," includes 8 chapters, most of which explore the incestuous relationship between the state and the academia. Christopher Simpson's 1993 article, "US Mass Communication Research, Counterinsurgency, and Scientific 'Reality,'" is a revealing account of the less than noble origins of mass communication research. As Simpson writes, "Government psychological warfare programs helped form mass communication research into a distinct scholarly field" (256). He goes on to provide copious evidence about some of mass communication's founding figures' complicity in the psychological warfare programs of the United States government during and after World War II. Those who are reading and learning this for the first time will find the revelations troubling. At the same time, they'll find it fruitful in thinking through the relations between the state and academe during war years, especially given the fact that we are in one such era now.

If Simpson's contribution gives readers a bad moral aftertaste for the murky origins of communication policy studies, William Buxton's historic and ethnographic report on the link among Rockefeller Foundation philanthropy, communication specialists, and American policy communities will probably rupture your settled understanding of Lasswell, who, in addition to being discussed earlier, is often considered to be the author of the "who says what in what channel to whom and to what effect?" model of communication. Through meticulous archival research, Buxton leads us to a new understanding of who was intellectually behind the formulation of this model. It was John Marshall, associate director of the Humanities Division of Rockefeller Foundation, who initiated what has come to be known as the transmission model of communication in the 1940s. The transmission model, in contrast to what James Carey would later label the ritual model of communication, later came to define the dominant intellectual trajectory of communication research in the United States.

Also included in this section is Ellen Wartella's evocative essay on "Communication Research on Children and Public Policy." She points out that most communication research results do not make it to the public domain because researchers are often ignorant of how to act as public intellectuals. Wartella laments that "to approach communication scholarship today without an understanding of the political commitments inherent in a line of research, in the kind of issues that are taken up for study, and in the potential uses of that research, is incredibly na´ve" (371).

The third section, "Relationship with Academia," is comprised by 8 chapters, including John Dewey's 1931 "Social Science and Social Control," Paul Lazarsfeld's 1941 "Remarks on Administrative and Critical Communications Research," and James Carey's 1978 "The Ambiguity of Policy Research." All of the section's chapters capture moments of tensions that have historically characterized the academic life of policy science. But it is Braman's introductory essay, "Facing In: Researchers and Academia," that brings the challenge up to date. As Braman rightly points out, the fact that policy research tends to be a pragmatic venture often means that scholars who want to make the most impact have to publish in journals that are not necessarily academic, but accessible to policy actors. The dilemma is that such publications are sometimes not counted as "publications" or "research" but as "service" during the university tenure review process. As Braman notes, "the internal contradiction that this presents to universities has recently become a matter of open debate within academia, for as administrators face growing budgetary constraints they increasingly question the value of supporting communication departments if those units are unable to help resolve the pressing policy issues raised by changes in the nature of the information environment" (415).

However one approaches the conflicting perspectives on the relationship between academia and policy practice, the question that is often raised is whether policy research is a barrier to theory development. While the debate is unresolved, Braman seems to lean towards pragmatism and believes that policy researchers need to be engaged in both policy making and theory making.

In some ways, this point returns us to Braman's introductory chapter, in which she identifies seven trends characterizing a long view of the relationships between communication research and communication policy practice. They include:

  • the politics of the empirical;
  • the expansion of the domain;
  • theory as barrier;
  • the value of comparison;
  • the depoliticization effect of politics;
  • the detachment of effects from social processes; and
  • the emergence of a "post-law" society.
Of these trends the problem of communicating research results due to the sometimes inaccessible language of theorists (which Braman labels "theory as a barrier") is indeed an ironic instance of incommunicado within communication studies. It is a fact that policy-makers, looking for digestible answers for social problems, are often turned away from academic discussions because the findings are often presented in abstract terms. Further, as Braman points out, "Issue oriented analysis often fails because it does not include attention to the institutions in which issues are embedded and about which they revolve" (17). Braman suggests that mid-level theory is strategically important as a means of using research results effectively.

Of Braman's seven trends, the "emergence of a post-law society" is especially instructive. Braman contextualizes the trend as follows: "Factors contributing to the shift to a post-law society include the privatization of formerly public functions, the movement of the constitutional locus from national to international level, and the transfer of decision-making power from humans to machines" (23). Unfortunately, however, none of the collected essays in this volume addresses this. Obviously Lawrence Lessig's celebrated work, Code and other laws of cyberspace and the body of literature that is gradually ground swelling under the rubric cyberculture studies are already helping to address most of what Braman labels as post-law society. The trend's internationalization dimension is exemplified by increasing attention being paid to the roles played by the WTO, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund in the affairs of global communication and culture (see, for example, Drahos and Braithwaite 2002).

Positioned as a sourcebook on communication research and policy-making, the collection is extremely -- and strangely -- US-centric. Of the 25 contributors, only one, William Buxton, is from outside the United States, and even then, Buxton, a Canadian, writes on an American topic. Historically, communication policy has a decidedly nationalist frame despite the heavy diplomatic activities that often characterize its international dimension -- whether it is UNESCO's activities around the call for a new communication order in the 1980s or the recent International Telecommunications Union sponsored global summits on information society held at Geneva in 2003 and at Tunis in 2005. This nationalist frame may not be true in the emerging post-law society.

There is also the striking omission of race and gender in communication policy. Such work exists. For instance, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) much celebrated reports, "Falling through the net," published serially in 1995, 1998, and 1999, have been instrumental in putting "digital divide" discourses on the American and global policy agenda. In some respects, this was one historic moment when race was significantly problematized and introduced into policy discourse. Adding such a perspective to this collection of milestone works in communication policy would have been enriching. The absence of perspectives on gender on communication policy theory and practice in this collection is another disturbing omission. A proactive effort to include more female contributors and scholars who work with gender could have gone a long way to revamp the suppressed history of women's contributions to policy discourses.

On the whole, this collection of classic essays and comprehensive introductions that frame them is an ambitious project that surely comes to fruition. Sandra Braman has accomplished a commendable task of assembling timeless works for communication policy researchers. As a sourcebook, it easily qualifies as key reference material for both students and faculty. My personal recommendation is that Communication Researchers and Policy-Making is well cut as a mandatory reading for a graduate seminar in communication policy -- especially those that aim to historically ground contemporary policy analysis.

Drahos, P. with Braithwaite, J. 2002. Information feudalism: Who owns the knowledge economy? New York: The New York Press.

Lessig, L. 1999. Code and other laws of cyberspace. New York: Basic Books.

Lippmann, W. 1922 [1965]. Public opinion. New York: Free Press.

NTIA. 1995. "Falling through the net: A survey of the 'have nots' in rural and urban America." Department of Commerce, US government.

___. 1998. "Falling through the net II: New data on the digital divide." Department of Commerce, US government.

___. 1999. "Falling through the net: Defining the digital divide." Department of Commerce, US government.

Amin Alhassan:
Amin Alhassan is a faculty member of the York/Ryerson joint Graduate Program in Communication and Culture in Toronto. His research interest is in communication policy and international development.  <amalhass@yorku.ca>

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