Communication Studies

Communication studies is a broad and interdisciplinary field that explores the processes by which people create, exchange, and interpret communicative messages. The academic field of communication comprises interrelated subfields, ranging from critical communication to mass communication to organizational communication to technical communication, to name but a few. Many of these subfields examine surveillance—particularly surveillance’s relationship to issues of power, control, and discipline within organizational and societal contexts. The significance of these issues has grown in recent decades due to the creation of new laws and the development of new technologies that allow for increased levels of surveillance. This entry traces the beginning of communication studies, lists the interdisciplinary subfields of communication that are widely recognized, and highlights how many of those subfields contribute to the study and understanding of surveillance in today’s society.

Due to the field’s interdisciplinary concerns, communication studies incorporates characteristics from the humanities (e.g., rhetoric, persuasion) as well as social sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology). Communication studies also goes by a variety of labels, depending on the academic institution it comprises: “communication,” “speech communication,” “communication arts/sciences,” “media studies,” or “media ecology,” for example. For these reasons, the NCA has specified 10 interrelated subfields within the larger discipline of communication: (1) critical/cultural communication, (2) environmental communication, (3) health communication, (4) intercultural communication, (5) interpersonal communication, (6) organizational communication, (7) mass communication, (8) political communication, (9) rhetorical communication, and (10) technical communication. Although not formally recognized by the NCA, additional areas of interest for communication scholars include journalism, film criticism, public relations, and computer-mediated communication.

Many subfields of communication studies examine the issue of surveillance—particularly, the subfields of critical communication, mass communication, organizational communication, and technical communication. Scholars within each of these contexts examine surveillance’s relationship to power, control, and discipline. >From a functional approach, surveillance of the environment is considered a main function of mass communication. That is, individuals rely on newspapers, radio, television, and other communication channels for both warnings about potential dangers in their environment (e.g., natural disasters, terrorist attacks) and information that is useful in everyday life (e.g., fashion trends, stock prices). Organizations, such as government agencies and corporations, also use these communication channels to monitor responses and to identify potential challenges to their policies. From a critical perspective, however, such surveillance can also be used as a form of power to control and discipline those being surveilled. Michel Foucault’s work with the penal system revealed how prisoners become defined through communicative discourses, which simultaneously serve to establish the prisoner’s relationship to society. Epitomized by the panopticon—a prison system designed around a guard tower located at its central core—Foucault argued that invisible and unverifiable supervision resulted in self-disciplining, as inmates internalized the possibility of being surveilled at all times by censoring their own behavior.

The potential for surveillance to result in abuses of power is especially evident within organizational communication processes. Contemporary organizational members are increasingly subjugated to the ever-present possibility of surveillance. From security cameras to monitored phone calls to “secret shoppers,” many employees must constantly behave as though they are being surveilled during customer interactions, even when they are not. The significance of such surveillance has grown in recent decades due to the creation of new laws and technologies. For instance, The USA PATRIOT Act, which the then U.S. president George W. Bush signed into law shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, allows government surveillance of anyone suspected of terrorist-related activities, even U.S. citizens who have not been linked to any type of terrorist group. Similarly, the development of unmanned aerial vehicles and remotely piloted aircraft now allow nonprofessionals to surveil private property from high above—a legal issue that remains indeterminate in many areas of the United States.

J. Jacob Jenkins and Nien-Tsu Nancy Chen

See also Agency ; Computer Surveillance ; Foucault, Michel ; Free Speech ; Freedom of Expression ; Global Surveillance ; Panopticon, The ; PATRIOT Act

Further Readings

Foucault, Michel. The Birth of the Prison. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1979.

Iedema, Rick, et al. “Surveillance, Resistance, Observation: Exploring the Tele-affective Volatility of Workplace Interaction.” Organizational Studies, v.27 (2006).

Sewell, Graham, et al. “Working Under Intensive Surveillance: When Does ‘Measure Everything That Moves’ Become Intolerable?” Human Relations, v. 65 (2012).

Snyder, Jason. “E-mail Privacy in the Workplace: A Boundary Regulation Perspective.” Journal of Business Communication, v.47 (2010).