Communication Yearbook/11

James A. Anderson

The bookjacket of Communication Yearbook/11 breathlessly informs us that this latest version is presented in an "exciting new `dialogue' format." We are not confronted by summaries of research over the past few years; contributions of scholars are followed by commentaries from other scholars. This yearbook is not to be read as an encyclopedia. Thus there are two matters to evaluate: the merits of the contributions and the merits of the format.

In principle there is much to recommend the approach. As the editor, James A. Anderson, argues in his introduction this format has, among others, two benefits. Although contributions were edited to improve clarity, they were not revised to protect contributors' flanks from critical analysis. Indeed, they invite criticism. And Anderson believes criticism ought to be a regular public activity that is owned. He regrets the extent to which so much of the review process in the production of scholarly literature is done by anonymous critique.

That's all very well but the real question is: Does Anderson make it work this time out? This question has two parts: does a particular article contribute to our understanding and is that understanding advanced by the commentaries? The answer is that the better the article the better the commentaries and some commentaries work better than others. This is not surprising, given a volume of 13 articles, ranging from agenda-setting research to the role of information in health care to conversation analysis to an ethnographic account of an "empowering organization" (W. L. Gore & Associates) and more. Add a total of 20 commentaries. No one can fault this volume for not being eclectic.

One place the format works commences with an article by Caren J. Deming followed by two commentaries, one by Robert C. Allen, the other by Eileen R. Meehan. Deming argues that television scholars have something to learn from feminist critics. Briefly, she sees the products of women being devalued by the hegemony of men. Women's works were and are judged inferior. What feminism over several decades has accomplished is to examine and expose that hegemony, thereby turning devaluation into a source of strength. She sees a parallel where critics of television are seen as working on an inferior form. We should reject the subordination of television criticism to literary and film criticism. Deming wants to "liberate television criticism."

Allen in an incisive commentary says hold on. Deming's conclusion is right, but film-trained scholars are doing with television what she wants already. Scholars coming from film backgrounds have had two advantages, Allen thinks. They rejected the assumptions of elitist literary analyses long ago and film criticism never fell into the trap of North American empiricism.

Meehan's commentary is useful but she shares a strategy with other commentators in this volume that I found less successful than the Allen approach. She takes a sub-theme from Deming and develops a short article of her own on network constraints on television. Nevertheless, this section as a whole works. Deming says here's a model for the reformulation of television criticism. Allen says yes that's true but some people are already working on the reformulation. Meehan says yes, feminists' analyses are useful but analyses of corporate and economic structures are crucial.

Sometimes, things don't work as well. For example, in a section on the mass media audience (perceptive, interpretive or not) Barrie Gunter argues that audiences are not passively cultivated but are active interpreters of content. This means that traditional content analysis is suspect, a not-altogether novel conclusion these days. While Gunter doesn't wholly reject content analysis, he thinks categories must reflect the interpretations and affective evaluations of audiences. A second article by Frank A. Biocca examines what various researchers have meant by an active audience and Thomas R. Lindhof argues we should view mass audiences as interpretative communities. Three differing views of the audience have been presented. Unfortunately, in my view, these three articles are followed by three commentaries, one each by Gunter, Biocca and Lindhof. They cover much the same ground again. A commentary or two by different scholars to explore where the three disagree, where they overlap and how issues can be resolved might have worked better.

Perhaps the single best use of this format begins with an article by George Cheney and Phillip K. Tompkins. They supply a brief but serviceable summary of approaches to text and then proceed to an elucidation of Kenneth Burke's theory of the index. They then use Burkean procedures to analyze a 1983 pastoral letter of the American Catholic Bishops. Robert D. McPhee supplies a fine commentary, approving of the method but identifying some potential pitfalls. For instance, McPhee points out that a document is not just a pattern of ink and symbols on a page, it is an object distributed and sold around the world. In short, any important document has dual status. Mary S. Strine follows with an equally sensible commentary wherein she argues that the problem of the intertwining of textual production and textual interpretation is more serious than Cheney and Tompkins admit. Given the three contributions together consume fewer than 50 pages, it's quite remarkable what the authors have accomplished together.

Thirteen articles and 20 commentaries. A review of necessity leaves much unmentioned. Some will see this volume's eclecticism as a vice, others as a virtue. Given the generally high level of contribution, I see virtue. As for the format, it seems to work best when one article with a strong thesis is followed by two commentaries. Overall, Editor James A. Anderson must be well satisfied with the fruits of his and his contributors' labours. On the evidence of this outing, the format is clearly superior to the summaries of research that are often contained in collections of this kind.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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