Hypothesis on the Histories of Communication Studies in the U.S. and Canada

File this under “probably not news to lots of people up here.”

This past week in proseminar we discussed competing historical accounts of the field of Communication Studies (recognizing that even what counts as “in” and “out” of that field is debatable). Naturally, one of the questions that arose concerned the differences between the field as practiced in Canada and as practiced in the U.S., especially since there are more and more detailed scholarly histories of the field in the U.S. This is especially vexing because it is a myth that Innis and McLuhan remain towering figures up here influencing Canadian communication studies on the whole. Sure, they’re taught and discussed, both I would not place the work of either person as continuing to guide or structure central questions in the field (indeed, I have always found McLuhan overrated, but I’ve said more about that elsewhere).

The answer that I came up with, and that I’m feeling satisfied with, is economically deterministic and borrowed in part from Gertrude Robinson’s history of the field in Canada (the whole issue is worth a look). In it, she’s got a long table listing royal commissions and the various policy initiatives, regulatory agencies and crown corporations to come out of the commissions. If you want to know why, to generalize excessively, Canadian Communication Studies has a proportionally larger “critical” strain than in the U.S., where numerically, social science and applied approaches dominate the field nationwide, funding has a lot to do with it. While corporate and military money (along with some other federal grants tied to various US policy initiatives) helped shape the careers of early practitioners and centers in the U.S., the concern here was for promoting Canadian culture, and so a great deal of money has gone in that direction instead.

Of course, my alma mater, the Institute of Communications Research, started its life as a psychological warfare outfit before transforming into a much more cultural studies-oriented place, but I think the generalization still holds. Numerically, cultural studies is still a vastly “minority” practice within U.S. communication studies. The money that shaped the fields in the U.S. and Canada came from radically different sources and toward radically different ends.