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James W. Carey and Communication Research

Reputation at the University’s Margins

Jefferson D. Pooley

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.

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Chapter 1. Thesis Drift


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By the time James W. Carey defended his University of Illinois dissertation in early 1963, the key features of his intellectual style were already taking observable shape. There’s something curious about this claim, because his thesis does not lean heavily on, say, John Dewey or Harold Adams Innis. Indeed, these and other profound influences on the published Carey are notably absent from the dissertation. As a result, in some ways the document reads like an impostor text, with jarring, even alien theoretical anchors. This is not the Carey we read and cite.

Still, some of his core ideas—arguments that would later establish his reputation—are lurking here. Also present are rhetorical devices that would go on to typify Carey’s approach to intellectual claim-making. Even the dissertation’s odd-seeming roster of cited theorists is consistent with his later work, in form at least: in 1963 as in the decades to come, Carey delivered his arguments through the voices of others.

A pair of concepts borrowed from historians of sociology help explain the intellectual style already detectable in Carey’s dissertation. The first is from Charles Camic, who has developed the idea of strategic predecessor selection.1 Camic shows how Talcott Parsons, in his 1937 classic The Structure of Social Action, drafted a quartet of European thinkers to make the case for his vol ← 1 | 2 → untaristic theory of action.2 Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto and Alfred Marshall, whom Parsons depicted as...

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