James W. Carey and Communication Research

Reputation at the University’s Margins

by Jefferson D. Pooley (Author)
Textbook XX, 234 Pages


Winner of the 2017 James W. Carey Media Research Award
James W. Carey, by the time of his death in 2006, was a towering figure in communication research in the U.S. In this book, Pooley provides a critical introduction to Carey’s work, tracing the evolution of his media theorizing from his graduate school years through to the publication in 1989, of his landmark Communication as Culture. The book is an attempt to understand the unusual if also undeniable significance that Carey holds for so many communication scholars, as well as making his work accessible to advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Thesis Drift
  • Chapter 2. Innis in Urbana
  • Chapter 3. A Cultural Approach
  • Chapter 4. A Plea for Public Life
  • Chapter 5. The Return of the Repressed
  • Conclusion. Reputation at the University’s Margins
  • Index


This book began with a puzzle. Asked to speak at a 2007 memorial conference in James W. Carey’s honor, I wrestled for months with his oddly shaped reputation. Unquestionably prominent within the American field of communication research, he was virtually unknown beyond its borders. For communication scholars Carey remained, in C. Wright Mills’ sense, a name that needs no explanation. For everyone else—even researchers in allied fields like film studies or the sociology of culture—his writing barely registered.

For me the puzzle was direct and personal. I was one of Carey’s graduate students—his last, in fact. He chaired my dissertation defense the month before he died. Because he was ailing in his final years, I rarely saw him, but felt his presence in the gauzier sense I evoke in the book. As for so many others, I have a hard time accounting for the particulars of his influence. Surely his career-long preoccupation with the history of the field left an imprint, though even here my interest centered on his disciplinary story-telling, rather than his historian’s craft as such.

In a way, then, this book is an attempt to understand the unusual if also undeniable significance that Carey holds for so many communication scholars, myself included. Another way of saying this is that the book—which traces Carey’s thought from his graduate school days through to the 1989 publication ← vii | viii → of his reputation-sealing collection Communication as Culture—is an extended tribute to his legacy.

The book is not a full-fledged intellectual biography. Carey certainly deserves such a study, but space constraints and the limited scope of the project—in both chronological and thematic terms—dictated a more modest approach. Carey’s papers and other archival materials are only sparingly cited, and interviews with colleagues and graduate students were mainly used to supplement an otherwise publication-dependent narrative. His teaching, administration and public speaking do surface in these chapters, but receive nowhere near the focused attention they deserve. And his intellectual friendships with figures like the economist Julian Simon are merely flagged—an especially costly omission, since Carey conceived of, and enacted, intellectual life as a conversation. Perhaps this book’s narrow focus—on the dynamics of reputation and relative field prestige, as illustrated by Communication as Culture’s backstory—excuses these deficiencies.

David W. Park’s invitation got the project started, though it was his thoughtful editing, unwavering patience, and treasured friendship that ensured its completion. I am grateful to Sue Curry Jansen, Steve Jones, David Paul Nord, Joli Jensen, Andie Tucher, Deb Lubken, and Norman Sims for reading and commenting on chapters. Special thanks to Norman Sims, David Thorburn, Larry Grossberg, John Nerone, Steve Jones, and Lisa Freeman for their interviews. Deserving of thanks, too, are Barbie Zelizer and the Annenberg Scholars program at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, where I delivered an early version of the book’s argument. Brooke Duffy, the world’s best scholar-friend, helped prop up my morale and keep me laughing. My Muhlenberg College colleagues, especially Sue Curry Jansen, Amy Corbin, Elizabeth Nathanson, and John Sullivan, read bits of the manuscript along the way and supplied helpful feedback.

The deepest thanks to my wife, Karen Beck Pooley. There would be no book without her support and sacrifices. ← viii | ix →


James W. Carey, born in 1934 to a working-class family, was by the time of his 2006 death a towering figure in U.S. communication research. His intellectual contributions came from the outside: He made his career as a critic of the discipline’s scientific pretensions, in a series of impossibly eloquent essays published in the 1970s and 1980s. As collected in his 1989 Communication as Culture, these essays opened up intellectual space for a different kind of scholarship.1

Yet Carey conducted almost no empirical research, nor was he a systematic theorist. He did not groom a school of devoted followers, and he left behind nothing like a blueprint for overhauling the discipline. He never published a book-length study.

He was, instead, preoccupied by a handful of more-or-less stable themes: an extended plea for a verstehen-style reconstruction of the meanings humans make through communication; a related concern with expressive culture and social order; meditations on public life and journalism’s proper place within it; and the linked claim that Western societies are biased toward extensions in space.

A major aim of this book is to elucidate these themes in Carey’s work. And yet their substance, as argument and scholarship, only goes so far in ac ← ix | x → counting for his enormous stature within U.S. communication research. It’s true that his prominent posts at Illinois and Columbia helped to transmit his ideas, but that’s not nearly enough to explain his superlative fame. Carey had become, by the 1990s, a fixture on the field’s introductory syllabi, a one-man paradigm called on to orient students. Nearly every mass communication textbook published since 1990 at least glosses his thinking.

Consider, too, the dozens of memorials published in the years following his death, many written by former students. No other figure in the history of communication research has been honored in memory like Carey. A number of these short essays openly grapple with a paradox: Carey was deeply important to me, the former student writes, but I have a hard time pinpointing the stuff of influence itself. Many of these tributes cite, instead, Carey’s mesmerizing lecture style, or broader traits like his intellectual curiosity.

So it’s not Carey as thinker, nor Carey as dean—nor even Carey as teacher, at least in the conventional sense of passed-along knowledge—that makes sense of his place in the field’s consciousness. To get the full picture, we need to grasp Carey as talisman—as a walking symbol for the life of the mind. His example as an intellectual resonated with graduate students and young scholars making their way in a discipline with few such models.

The contrast with the discipline was crucial: Carey’s qualities, attractive on their own, acquired their special appeal when set in relief against the normal-science desiccation of most communication research. And his was not a dissent from nowhere. He issued his critique-by-example from an intellectual space—the humanities and humanistic social sciences, and even little-magazine literary culture—with its own form of authority and gravitas.

For communication scholars, Carey enacted an alternative ideal of academic identity. In place of regression analysis and CV-padding, he substituted the Kenyon Review and the old saw. He was a craftsman-essayist, joyfully indifferent to the conventions of APA citation norms. His writing—urbane but unpretentious—was an implied rebuke to the leaden prose that filled the discipline’s journals. In person, and especially on the conference stage, he was a captivating presence—noteless erudition crossed with gesticulating eccentricity. On the page, in the classroom, even at the bar, he mixed a storyteller’s wit with a commitment to intellectual life as a genuine conversation. He modeled, in short, a tweedy, high-minded alternative to the professional social scientist’s cross-tabulated careerism.

It is telling that the negative side of his project—the critique of the discipline’s scientism—proved far more influential than his positive program for ← x | xi → an interpretivist cultural studies. Carey identified, then named, then lanced that fraction of communication studies tethered to a self-image modeled on the natural sciences. The authority of his brief against scientism can be read in identity terms: here was a dressing-down of “behaviorism”, “positivism”, and the “effects tradition”, narrated in sweeping, binary terms and backed by the quoted wisdom of humanities-oriented eminences like Clifford Geertz and Richard Rorty. Even those who never adopted the positive side of his thinking came to embrace (or reject) him as a totem of anti-positivism.

As Carey himself often observed, though not in this context, identity normally coheres in opposition to some “other”. In academic life—especially in the last 40 years, as tied to wider cultural trends—many scholars have come to define themselves against a “mainstream” other. Because Carey modeled academic life as a (humanistic) vocation, and because he told such good stories about the bankruptcy of positive science, he resonated with generations of younger scholars and graduate students who were, with his help, fashioning their own intellectual self-concepts.

Disciplinary Prestige

So Carey was a giant figure within communication research, and his name is still getting regularly invoked. Perhaps more surprising is his invisibility outside the field. Even scholars working in cognate areas like film studies or the sociology of culture are ignorant of Carey and his work. Bring him up, and you are likely to get blank stares or puzzled allusions to comedic acting. This book is a sustained attempt to account for Carey’s lopsided stature.

One obvious explanation I considered was disciplinary chauvinism. Siloed in sub-fields, most scholars fail to notice the vast majority of their own discipline’s research, let alone work from adjacent fields. But the sheer size of Carey’s recognition gap—blinding in-field renown, total obscurity without—was one hint that inter-disciplinary indifference was not the main story.

Another clue was that Carey built his reputation not in the U.S. discipline’s center—such as it was—but instead along its periphery. He was known for, and known by, his broad reading outside communication research. He spoke in the language of sociology, philosophy and literature, and positioned his thought as part of that broader conversation. Yet sociologists and philosophers weren’t the ones listening. Communication scholars were—and with rapt attention. Carey’s position on the field’s margins, in other words, seemed ← xii | xii → to enhance his appeal. He was, in effect, rewarded for his distance from the discipline’s center—but still invisible to his would-be conversants outside the field. Something else was going on.

The key to understanding Carey’s case, I came to believe, was communication’s status problem—its place in what I began to think of as the topography of disciplinary prestige. Youthful, polyglot in origin, and exiled to the university’s professional-school margins, U.S. communication research is routinely dismissed as a lightweight latecomer with a vocational handicap. Even departments, like sociology, that suffer in the university’s prestige hierarchy are comparatively advantaged over their colleagues across campus in the speech department or journalism school.

Communication’s lowly perch has provoked regular cycles of soul-searching and pleas for disciplinary self-assertion. But the reasons for the field’s weak standing in the university’s prestige economy cut deep. “Communication”, as an organized academic enterprise, was jerrybuilt atop a motley cluster of barely compatible, legitimacy-starved skills-training traditions.

In topographic terms, then, communication studies sits in a depression, surrounded—if not by peaks—then by the foothills of the social sciences and humanities. The metaphor, overwrought as it is, helps to vivify the effects of prestige on the circulation of ideas. If the prestige disparities are big enough, intellectual currents tend to run in just one direction. In the case of communication research, concepts and tools flow in from sociology, political science and other surrounding fields. Only rarely do communication scholars’ ideas win the upstream struggle back to the source.

These prestige dynamics, I argue, help to make sense of Carey’s reputation. He was a border-dwelling importer, a skilled exegete and creative synthesizer who translated ideas from surrounding, higher-status fields. His eloquent, field-specific critique of scientism, for example, was a re-narration of the arguments of high-profile dissenters like Rorty and Geertz.

It was Carey’s position upstream from the field that, more than anything, helps to explain his recognition gap. On the one hand he benefitted from his location, accruing intellectual capital from the high-prestige fields of origin. The poorly defined and weakly policed disciplinary center was itself a product, to some degree at least, of the same centrifugal pull. On the other hand, his one-way brokerage—his identity as a communication scholar addressing the field—meant that he suffered the same fate as his colleagues. In the balance of intellectual trade, communication studies is not merely a net importer, but something closer to the Hotel California: ideas flow in, but they can never leave. ← xii | xiii →

Carey’s prominence, in short, depended on his location on the borderlands of higher-status fields. The particular contours of U.S. communication research—as shaped, in part, by relative prestige—made for an especially propitious reception.

The Field

The legitimacy problems of U.S. communication research derive, in a fundamental sense, from the discipline’s double mission as an academic field whose teaching, student enrollments, and raison d’être are grounded in vocational skills training. As British scholar Jeremy Tunstall observed over 30 years ago, in an essay titled “The Trouble with U.S. Communication Research”, the “fact that a single individual can teach courses in, say, magazine editing and research techniques in social psychology is a tribute to human adaptability, not to a well-conceived academic discipline”.2 The fateful marriage of skills and analysis was consummated in the discipline’s formative years and exacted a reputational price from the beginning. An array of attendant and follow-on traits of the field—along with self-feeding dynamics—have secured the discipline’s place on the professional-school margins of the U.S. university system.

Beginning in the late 1940s through the 1960s, a loose, interdisciplinary field of social scientists working on “communication” topics was largely replaced by newly established programs in professional schools of journalism and speech departments. Both fields converged on the “communication” label as a response to their insecure place in the rapidly changing, post-World War II research university.

On both tracks—journalism schools and speech departments—traditional instruction in applied skills was awkwardly merged with scholarship. Both the journalism- and speech-derived ends of the “communication” discipline prospered in the balance of the 20th century, at least as measured by faculty hiring and student enrollments. But the discipline’s relative prosperity—a product, in truth, of the demand for vocational training—could not dispel the mission incoherence institutionalized by the field’s founders.

A number of factors, set in motion by the discipline’s institutional history, have contributed to U.S. communication research’s sustained and intractable legitimacy crisis. Taken together, these factors have opened up a yawning prestige gap between communication and adjacent disciplines. ← xiii | xiv →

1. Professional/academic double mission: Most communication departments are in the business of skills training, with academic analysis as a significant but secondary focus. The curricula of these programs reflect their roots in applied journalism and speech courses. Journalism-derived programs train journalists and related trades like advertising and public relations, while speech-oriented departments provide instruction in public speaking (and, often, acting and broadcasting). These units were established with this skills provision in mind, and ongoing and intense student demand merely reinforces that original charge. Especially in the case of journalism-derived departments, media-analysis coursework and faculty subsist as a kind of academic appendage on these programs’ core, history- and enrollment-driven mission to train media workers. The resulting schizophrenia—academic research and coursework in awkward co-habitation with vocational training—contributed to a pervasive sense of incoherency, which other scholars in the university, and even the educated public, detect.

2. Suspect professional status: All professional-academic disciplines arguably incur a reputational cost for their applied components. But unlike, say, law or medicine—professions with well-established scholarly traditions, histories of aggressive boundary work, and legal licensure—journalism’s professional status is questionable at best. The claims for advertising and public relations are weaker still. And very few indeed would assert that public speaking constitutes a bona fide profession. The promise of communication education is vocational training and gainful employment, not professional status. In that respect, communication programs resemble business schools—but without the economists and plush carpeting. One byproduct is lower esteem for communication programs within the academy.

3. Late-arriving: Academic units carrying the “communication” label arrived relatively late, with the first doctoral programs appearing in the late 1940s. Communication research has a long past but a short history: scholarship in speech, rhetoric, journalism and other media topics predated the establishment of formal degree programs. But this work was produced under the sponsorship of fledgling speech and journalism programs, or else within the established social sciences and humanities. As an organized discipline with a recognized identity, communication research is a relative newcomer. Even though the other social sciences were differentiated, in the U.S. case, a mere 50 years earlier, the relative youth of communication has compounded the discipline’s legitimacy challenges. ← xiv | xv →

4. Nomenclature: A related problem for the new discipline was the word “communication” itself—its novelty but also its nebulousness. References in English to “communication research” only begin to appear in the late 1930s, in the run-up to U.S. involvement in World War II.3 The term was in relatively wide circulation during and especially after the war, on through the 1950s—but as a label for an interdisciplinary field of psychologists, political scientists, and sociologists. Once claimed by journalism schools and, slightly later, speech programs, the term’s referent became increasingly vague. Especially in the hands of disciplinary entrepreneurs like Wilbur Schramm, the label’s sheer capaciousness—its seeming claim to all of human interaction—opened up a gap between the organized field’s scholarship, on the one hand, and the term’s undefined but expansive reach, on the other. In this light John Durham Peters has referred to U.S. communication research as an academic Taiwan, claiming all of China while confined to a small island.4


XX, 234
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (September)
Communication theory Media studies Communication research History of media studies History of communication research Sociology of academic knowledge Media theory
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XX, 234 pp.

Biographical notes

Jefferson D. Pooley (Author)

Jefferson Pooley (PhD., Columbia University) is associate professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College. He is co-editor of The History of Media and Communication Research (2009) and Media & Social Justice (2011).


Title: James W. Carey and Communication Research