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Challenging Communication Research

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Edited By Leah A. Lievrouw

Communication scholarship has not enjoyed the same kind of theoretical cohesion or ontological security as some disciplines. The field’s intellectual «roving eye» and resistance to establishing a single core body of knowledge has inspired serial rounds of soul-searching and existential doubt among communication scholars, on one hand, and celebration and intellectual adventurism, on the other. The theme of the 2013 ICA annual conference thus raised an interesting question: For a field that is perpetually in flux and «decentered», what exactly is, or should be, challenged? How, and by whom?
The chapters in this collection, chosen from among the top papers presented in London, suggest that the challenges themselves are constantly being reinvented, broken down and reorganized. The communication discipline undergoes continuous change rather than following an orderly, stepwise path toward the neat, complete accumulation of knowledge. The chapters challenge familiar approaches, notions or assumptions in communication research and scholarship and reflect on the field’s multifaceted and increasingly open character in an era of shifting social relations, formations and technologies.
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Chapter Thirteen: Materiality: Challenges and Opportunities for Communication Theory

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Materiality

Challenges and Opportunities for Communication Theory

GINA NEFF, BRITTANY FIORE-SILFVAST, AND CARRIE STURTS DOSSICK



Increasingly, communication researchers are issuing calls for attention to the role materiality plays in communication processes (e.g., Boczkowski, 2004; Boczkowski & Lievrouw, 2008; Leonardi & Barley, 2008; Leonardi, Nardi, & Kallinikos, 2013; Lievrouw, 2014). Resulting in part from the challenges of studying new communication and information technologies, this new focus on materiality offers opportunities for communication researchers to theorize beyond communication through, with, and, in some cases, without a medium to think about the material structures of mediation itself. In this chapter we propose a model for thinking through the communicative roles and functions of the materiality of everyday objects, by using one type of objects, documents, as an extended theoretical example of the importance of materiality for communication.

We argue that documents’ material functions are distinct from (and occasionally orthogonal to) any textual or symbolic meanings those documents may convey. Without understanding the importance of material roles and functions for meaning, communication scholars cannot explain fully how people communicate with, through, and around everyday objects. While our field has a rich theoretical toolkit for understanding the meaning and meanings of things and representations, we struggle to make sense of what things can do in social settings. Material processes in communication have been undertheorized in contemporary communication scholarship, and when material processes have been addressed in our field,...

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