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A Brief History of Communication And Contribution of Wilbur Schramm

Updated on June 18, 2014


Communication is a fact in the world of living beings, say human beings, animals and plants and is an ever continuing process going on all the time. It is a necessity for the life to exist. If communication is halted, the life processes would wither and die. The need for communication is as basic as the hunger for food and drink, perhaps even more so. Communication is the name we give to the countless ways that humans have of keeping in touch – not just words and music, pictures and print; to every move that catches someone’s eye and every sound that resonates upon another’s ear. It is both a natural individual demand and a requirement of social existence to use communication resources in order to engage in the sharing of experiences ,through symbol mediated interaction. In its simplest sense ,it’s a relationship involving two or more persons who come together to share, dialogue and to commune. Communication is thus not an act or a process but rather social and cultural togetherness. The word communication is derived from the Latin noun communis and the Latin verb communicare which means to make common.

Communication is, perhaps, one of the most commonly used word in the contemporary world. It encompasses a multitude of experiences, actions and events, as well as a whole variety of happenings, meanings and technologies.


A Brief History of Communication as a Discipline

When we consider communication as a discipline, it can be understood that it is one of the newest or youngest disciplines. As a discipline, it evolved just before the second world war.

To begin with, communication studies was based in university departments of sociology, psychology or political science during its initial years. As a developing field of social science it borrowed heavily from much older disciplines such as sociology, psychology, biology, economics and political science. Communication studies have led to a re-orientation of these disciplines. Studies of propaganda by social scientists resulted in greater interest among governments and academicians in the power of communication strategies.

The field of communication owes its origins to the United States of the 1930’s, a time when Nazi propaganda was a source of major concern; the U.S government established an Institute of Propaganda Research to develop techniques for influencing public opinion. In Britain and France, the discipline had its roots in literary and linguistic studies, while in Germany the origins are traceable to the Institute of Social Research (the Frankfurt School) and to Freudian Psychoanalysis. During the second world war, the U.S was conducting different kinds of researches to help in better propaganda to influence public opinion. Most of the forerunners of the discipline like Wilbur Schramm, Lazarsfeld and Harold Lasswell were indulged in these researches during the wartime. At a simultaneous point of time, different universities in the U.S supported the growth of the discipline by allowing separate departments for communication.

The Chicago School, The School of Journalism and Mass-Communication at the University of Iowa, Department of Sociology at Columbia University where Lazarsfeld worked were a few among the organizations and departments that have contributed to the development of tools and research methodologies in the discipline of Communication.

Wilbur Schramm

Wilbur Schramm’s life was a “ gold mine of human interest material”. He was good at almost everything he did. The founder of the discipline of communication study, Schramm organized the first PhD programme in Mass Communication in the world from The University of Iowa. Born on 1907, Wilbur Schramm graduated in history and political science and had a Masters degree in American Civilization from Harvard University. He earned his PhD in English Literature from University of Iowa from where he later shaped the field of communication to its present form. Schramm had stuttering problem since the age of five which, perhaps, triggered his interest in communication later.

His Contribution

Schramm laid the foundation stone for the academic discipline of communication research. He implemented his vision of communication, which he developed during his wartime duties in OFF and OWI, to the field that broadened the scope of communication research ( that was restricted to journalism) encompassing the disciplines like sociology, psychology, political science. Launch of doctoral curriculum of the new discipline of communication in the school of Journalism in the University of Iowa also led to the division of communication field into two sub disciplines ─ Mass communication and Interpersonal communication.

Schramm also contributed in development of the academic research of communication in various other research institutes and universities. He established the Institute of Communication Research at the University of Illinois in 1947 and directed the Institute of Communication Research at Stanford University after 1957.

Wilbur Schramm introduced social scientific, empirical methodology in communication research. He led the development of journalism research from almost exclusive preoccupation with methods and view-points of humanities to a concern with methods and processes of behavioural sciences.

Schramm was a forefather in the development of a basic model of communication. His model is a derivation of Shannon-Weaver transmission model of communication with certain modifications. The Shannon-Weaver model is more mathematical and technological with six proposed elements of communication :

  • source
  • encoder
  • message
  • channel
  • decoder
  • receiver

Diagram of Schramm’s feedback loop

Schramm envisioned the process as a two-way communication between the sender and the receiver and included two more concepts in addition to the above six elements.

  • Feedback - information that comes back from the receiver to the sender and tells him how well the message has been perceived.
  • Field of Experience - an individual's beliefs, values, experiences and learned meanings both as an individual or part of a group.

Ideally, the source encodes a message and transmits it to its destination via some channel, where the message is received and decoded. Schramm pointed out that for understanding to take place between the sender and receiver they must have something in common i.e. their field of experience should overlap to make communication effective. Thus he incorporated the study of human behaviour in the communication process.

Diagram of Schramm’s field of experience model of communication

Schramm suggested that a message can be complicated by different meanings perceived by different people. Meanings can be denotative or connotative. Denotative meanings are the common or dictionary meanings and they are roughly the same for most people. Connotative meanings are emotional and evaluative and are based on personal experience. Schramm's model of communication allows for the process of interpreting the message which is influenced by the presence of both physical (telephone, TV, sirens, etc.) and semantic (distractions, age, attitudes, etc.) noise. His model of communication provides the rationale to solve some problems of communication.


During his war time duties, Wilbur Schramm got influenced by Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Carl I. Hovland who were positivist in their research methodology. Schramm also dragged the discipline in the same direction and emphasized on quantitative research.

Being the founder of communication study, his emphasis on administrative methods did not leave much scope for the development of critical communication pedagogy. His paper “ Mass media as the sources of Public Affairs, Sciences, and Health Knowledge” to study the effect of media was mainly based on numerical data and comparison through graphs. He formed his vision of communication study during his wartime duties in Washington, D.C. where communication was used for informing the American public about the nation’s war-time goals and to gain support for the war efforts. Thus communication research was initially focused on studying the effects of communication.

Wilbur Schramm incorporated a social aspect in the study of communication and broadened the scope of the field. Although he was a pioneer of the scholarship called communication and development, there was a certain negligence towards the participatory or bottom-up aspects.

Hence, Wilbur Schramm’s contributions benefited the field of communication immensely but it led the field to slant in a certain direction which became the dominant paradigm.


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