Communication as a concept always has been with us, but the origins of the discipline are more recent. In the United States, the humanistic roots of the discipline can be found in the study of rhetoric in ancient Greece and Rome, while the social scientific side typically dates its origins to the rise of studies of mass media, public opinion, propaganda, and persuasion early in the 20th century and especially during World War II. Both strands had a decidedly pragmatic bent: The five canons of rhetoric—invention, organization, style, delivery, and memory—were designed to help a speaker better prepare for and argue a position in the court, the assembly, or at a ceremonial event. Social scientists had a similarly pragmatic concern in understanding the functions and possibilities for communication in advertising, media, and technology as well as in face-to-face contexts.
Communication theory, then, followed from the pragmatic concerns about the study of communication. At first, communication scholars turned to existing disciplines for theories—not surprising since virtually every discipline concerned with the human being must study communication to some degree. The recognition of social sciences as legitimate disciplines after World War II gave even more credence to the contributions of psychology and sociology for understanding human communicative behavior. European scholars began to influence communication theory in the United States after World War II as well; heavily influenced by Marxist theories, European scholars from a variety of disciplines have been responsible for the introduction of critical–cultural theories and methods into the study of communication.
Gradually, however, separate communication departments began to form. At first often referred to as departments of speech communication to reflect both the rhetorical and social scientific roots, most departments today are simply called departments of communication or communication studies. In contrast to scholars in related disciplines who tend to consider communication a secondary process for transmitting information about the world, communication scholars see communication as the organizing principle of human social life: Communication constructs the social world rather than simply providing the means for describing that world.
Of course, theories of communication are not distinctive to the Western tradition and the United States. Virtually every culture has been concerned with the nature and functions of communication, and communication scholars are beginning to integrate theories from a variety of countries and cultures. Feminist scholars have sought to describe ways feminine worldviews might foster different modes of communication since the 1970s. Afrocentric and Asiacentric communication are perhaps the best articulated bodies of work to date that describe the communication assumptions and practices of African Americans and Asians, respectively. Increasingly, then, communication scholars are seeking to understand similarities and differences across cultures and to articulate more nuanced theories to reflect these more comprehensive understandings of how communication works.
Although the communication field now has the legitimacy and coherence that comes from disciplinary status, it remains a continually evolving and changing discipline. This collection will offer the student of communication a sense of the history, development, and current status of the discipline with an emphasis on the theories that comprise it. We hope readers in communication will engage these theories in a spirit of ongoing inquiry that is crucial to the continued development of the field. And we hope those in related fields will gain a better understanding of what the communication discipline is all about.