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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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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...

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