Humanities or Social Science?

Woolbert“For three years,” Charles Woolbert wrote in 1916, “I have been facing the question: Should speech matters be taught in the department of English or in a separate department?” (Quarterly Journal of Public Speaking, Vol. 2, 1916). Woolbert was responding to a question from University of Illinois president Edmund James who sought Woolbert’s counsel regarding the formation of a separate department of “speech studies and arts.” Like so many of the founders of what is now NCA, Woolbert struggled to define and delimit the very nature of the new discipline that they created: How would this discipline carry out its research? Where would this discipline fit within the higher education structures of the time?

Woolbert concluded that “speech studies and arts” drew its methods and objects of study and teaching from so many disciplines that it really should occupy its own space in the university structure, that it merited its separate departmental home. Despite the good work of Woolbert and the thousands of teacher/scholars in communication who followed him in establishing, growing, and operating departments of speech (then speech communication, then communication) across the nation and around the world, we still wrestle with the same questions one hundred years later: How should communication scholars carry out their research? Where does the discipline of communication “fit” within college and university structures and in the larger systems of higher education?

HumanitiesNCA is defined as the association that “advances communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific and aesthetic inquiry.” Consistent with our history, NCA participates in and encourages all of the many ways that our members practice, study, and teach the communication arts and sciences. NCA members and staff participate in programs sponsored by the National Humanities Alliance and the American Council of Learned Societies as well as the Consortium of Social Science Associations and the NSF. NCA members receive external funding from the NEH and the NIH. Indeed, in many ways NCA and its members constantly negotiate the duality of communication as both a social science and a humanities discipline.

One initiative that NCA has participated in recently is the Humanities Indicators project–an effort sponsored by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences to collect and disseminate “reliable, comprehensive, and consistently updated statistical data necessary to chart trends and draw conclusions” about the humanities. A key part of the data collection for the Humanities Indicators is a departmental survey, and NCA worked hard to assure that Communication departments were included in the second round of surveys. We’ve recently received an interim report on response rates for the survey and that report isolates Communication as among the disciplines with the lowest response rates–the report notes that “Most of the communications departments who wrote declining to participate indicated that their department focused more on the social science facet of communication and did not believe they should be included in a humanities study.”

Social Science This report speaks to a disturbing tendency to classify and categorize in limited rather than expansive ways the teaching and research underway in the discipline. Even the most casual glance at communication departments reveals that virtually every program includes courses in the humanities and the social sciences, faculty members that conduct research both critically and social scientifically, and students that want to study communication as both a humanities and a social science. Perhaps it is university structures or hierarchies, or maybe it’s simply a process of finding the most pristine mode of self-definition, but some (many?) communication departments, like the ones that refused to complete the Humanities Indicators survey, still choose to define themselves as either a humanities or a social science rather than both/and.

Charles Woolbert and his colleagues almost a century ago spent considerable time and energy figuring out how “speech” fit–where did “speech” belong in the higher education landscape of the early twentieth century. We continue those discussions today. How does communication fit in the ever-changing higher education landscape of the early twenty-first century? Is communication a humanities? A social science? Both? Neither?


  1. Igor Ristić says:

    It seems to be there is still a lack of agreement on what we are. Personally, I like what Hawaii at Manoa has done, calling themselves the Department of Communicology after having been a Speech Department for a while. A few of us on Twitter discussed the idea of advocating for this to be adopted at other universities again. Who says we can’t redefine ourselves again? I’ve shared the link where UH shares their reasoning behind the name change.

  2. Igor Ristić says:

    Excuse the typos above. be = me, again = also

  3. I agree with you Igor. If you allow me folks I would like to share with everyone this link . I found it helpful myself. I have been asking myself, my professors the same question over and over who we are as a discipline and as graduates of communicaiton. I have been reading a lot about this topic untill I landed to this website where I think I found the answer or at least the best answer yet.

    To end, I say to everyone who have studied communication and found it hard to define him/ herself..proudly say: I have been studying communicology, trained to use communicological methods to become a communicologist ; )

  4. Igor Ristić says:

    Aziz, thanks for sharing that link, so cool! I am interested in forming a panel on this topic at convention in the U.S. (NCA or CSCA), I really think this should be discussed further!

  5. You are welcome Igor. I think you should go for it. Good luck.

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