Thursday, December 16, 2010

Communication as Eurocentric Disciplining

In working with one of my graduate students on the history of communication theory, we were going through some of the seminal texts (Delia, Rogers, Glasser) that narrate the story of the discipline. When these texts are interrogated to examine the ideological assumptions, it becomes fairly clear that explicit in the narratives of these texts is the articulation of the superiority of Western American thought as the savior of the world. That America will lead the world into development and Enlightenment becomes the key thread in the early strands of the discipline, and somehow gets ingrained in the key thoughts of the discipline. So when one goes back to Lerner and Schramm and Rogers (and the list goes on), one learns about the fundamental assumptions they made in their understanding of communication in terms of rational processes and frameworks of persuasion (as defined by Ameri-centric criteria) that would remove darkness in the Third World.

Of course, during the times when these authors were making these assumptions, US was fairly insular as a cultural space. Looking back, one might articulate today that they were incredibly naive and arrogant, not only in terms of their understanding of the world, but also fundamentally about their understanding of US social thought. Their writings seem to reflect the fact that they had very little understanding and insights into the wealth and richness of thought that existed in civilizations that pre-dated US and European histories by centuries.

I wonder if these scholars were naive about the regressive elements of neo-colonialism that served as the basic tenets of the work they did (such as the propaganda work), often framed under the frameworks of development and progress (Examples such as Iraq make this linkage most explicit). Looking back in the context of questions of human rights in the current geopolitical context, one might argue that perhaps one of the most regressive cultural institutions of the twentieth/early twenty first century was the culture of colonialism, justified through the language of superiority of Euro-America (ranging from modernist assumptions about rational communication to eugenic arguments about the superiority of the White race). Worth noting in neocolonial discourse is the convergence between the superiority of Whiteness embodied in Enlightenment rationality of rational communication and the eugenic rationality of the superior White gene.

In the context of the postcolonial critiques that have been offered in academe, what strikes me as incredibly amazing is how we continue to use these texts as seminal texts and keypoints for references without critically interrogating them and their underlying ideologies. Similarly, we continue to operate on the basis of the rudimentary concepts of persuasion and communication competence that were theorized within the confines of these narrow-minded thinking of mostly American researchers, drawing upon the logic of American superiority. We did not and don't really interrogate the biases (of patriotism, racism, cultural jingoism: "America is the best, other cultures are primitive") that seeped into the early definitional terrains of communication, and continue to play out in the ways in which we operationalize communication concepts, measure them, and build our theories on the basis of them.

In terms of the fundamental principles of science (I only bring up this reference because the current descendants of this Enlightenment rationality often like to refer to Communication as a science), what seems the most disappointing to me is the very unscientific nature of our discipline in spite of its grand claims about being a social science. Where are the critical reflections of concepts? Where are the interrogations of biases? Where are interrogations of seemingly simple problems such as the testing of US-based theories on populations of US college subjects is hardly a test of the universality of the theory? Where is the provincializing of the Communication discipline that so desperately needs to happen?

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