Borderlands in Communication Theory: Crossing The Boundary Between Personal And Mass Communication

Panel Description

As ICA meets in San Diego in 2003, it will be roughly 15 years since a widely cited issue of Human Communication Research discussed the borderlands seperating the study of proximate interaction (e.g. interpersonal communication, small group, organizational, intercultural, health, legal, conflict, Rhetoric, etc) and the study of mass media (Journalism, Broadcasting, Public Relations, etc). Two important articles in this 1988 special issue of Human Communication Research were Reardon and Rogers (Interpersonal versus Mass Communication: A False Dichotomy) and Berger and Chaffee (On Bridging the Communication Gap). While an increasing number of schools and departments of communication encompass both personal and mass communication, the divide remains substantial, and many of these schools and departments continue to treat the personal and mass media contexts as almost unrelated fields of study. Attempts to bridge the divide theoretically remain few. One interesting direction was suggested by Cappella, whose 1992 Communication Theory article suggested media as a bridging construct. Work that explores this boundary using media as an organizing construct includes Ellis' Crafting Society (1999) and Reeves and Nass' Media Equation (1996). This panel reexamines the theoretical divide between personal and mass media, the implications it has had on our research and pedagogy, and several theoretical approaches which are being used to bridge the divide.

75 Word Description for Program

15 years ago a special issue of Human Communication Research described the divide between communication theory and research in interpersonal communication and mass media as a false dichotomy that has had detrimental effects on the field. In this panel, authors of key papers in that widely cited HCR issue reexamine the borderlands of interpersonal and mass communication with communication researchers and theorists who have been working within a variety of theoretical approaches to cross the divide.


  1. The Problem
  2. Possible Approaches
  3. Critique and Prospects
  4. Discussion and Questions


The Problem

Joseph N. Cappella

How discontinuous theory hurts the field: The distinction between mass and interpersonal communication undermines the potential of the communication discipline to conduct high quality research and complicates studying and doing research on problems rather than literatures. Some examples: (1) Persuasion research is often conducted as if media and social problems didn't exist. New on-line sources of persuasion are completely different from those associated with public speaking or mass media. (2) Public opinion processes are often treated as mass persuasion problems. Key interpersonal influences are ignored. (3) Public health concerns are raised and treated through the mass media, ignoring the interpersonal processes that often support or undermine health awareness campaigns. (4) The eroded social trust is treated as a sociological and political problem, ignoring the interpersonal and social relationships that make society and culture possible. Serious research that deals with social problems requires ignoring the boundaries that our journals and departments create and inventing new curricula and research enterprises that ignore old and increasingly irrelevent distinctions.


John Powers

Mapping the Personal and Mass Communication Boundary: A Tier-Based Perspective: The communication discipline has an underlying tier-based conceptual structure that may be used to uncover and display the many points of contact between personal and mass communication theory and research. The purpose of this paper is to use recent developments in Powers' (1995; 2002) tier-based model of the conceptual structure of the discipline as a basis for mapping the the multi-tiered relationships that exist between personal and mass communication theory and practice. The argument in the paper does not seek to make the differences between personal and mass communication disappear; rather, it will illustrate how a fundamental set of concepts that are common to all communication theory have been differently adapted for use in the various personal and mass communication areas of specialization.

Patrick O'Sullivan

Communication Technology and Transcendent Theoretical Frameworks: Innovations in communication technologies have begun to blur and make moot the practical distinctions and traditional definitions of mass and interpersonal communication. "Masspersonal communication," such as personal broadcasting, is such an example. This phenomena intensifies the need for scholars to construct theory that transcends traditional distinctions. The practical and theoretical implications may provide a needed disciplinary cohesion for communication scholars.

Don Ellis

Crafting Society: Creating social systems in the intersection of personal and mass media. Three key issues in communication theory: the growing emphasis of meaning; the importance of a mediated culture; and the links between "micro" communication activities by individuals and "macro" social categories such as ethnicity and social class are affected by the media we use. People use language and communication to construct their worlds - worlds which are not constructed purely but rather are influenced by attitudes, ideologies, and biases. The medium of communication has a significant impact on consciousness and society. Media are responsible for some of the fault lines in society. He also explores principles of medium theory and documents the impact of media on psychological and sociological phenomena.

Michael A. Shapiro

Media as social interaction: From a psychological viewpoint that there is no such thing as mass media. This is true from at least two perspectives. First social judgments dominate our interaction with media, whether it is news, entertainment or advertising. We cannot comprehend any (even the dumbest) of these things without understanding human behavior, motivation, social relationships, etc. Second, much of the time when we are using media there is a social component. We are either explicitly interacting with others (family in front of the TV, the Internet, computer games), anticipate using what we see in social interactions, or are part of an imaginary community of others interested in the same issues or experiencing the same events. Thus at the psychological level understanding media as anything but social interaction misses most of what is going on."

Davis A. Foulger

Personal and Mass Media: Invention, Evolution and Dimensionality. The key to theoretical integration within the field of communication is paradigm shift in our use of the term media, which is most commonly applied with the context of mass communication and "the media". A medium should be viewed as a system and process that enables people to share messages. This generalized notion of medium provides an entry point to a range of perspectives through which personal and mass communication can be viewed as a continuous theoretical space. This paper will summarize two such perspectives. Personal and mass media can be viewed as inventions which emerge and are subsequently evolved in five interdependent spheres of invention: mediators, characteristics, uses, effects, and practices. It is possible to usefully compare a broad range of media, including varied instances of propinquitous interactive, live presentational, telephonic, correspondence, art, publication, broadcast, and other media using three dimensions (time, space, and scale) that consistently emerge amidst hundreds of distinct media characteristics.

Prospects and Critique

Charles R. Berger

On Bridging the Communication Gap Revisited. It appeared, in 1988, that we had allowed the divide between mass media and interpersonal communication to grow to the status of two sovereign nations: sub-fields with different purposes, different boundaries, to some extent different methods, and somewhat different theoretical orientations. This last difference is most problematic, as theory is the only path toward integration of communication study. This paper will consider how the field has changed in the last 15 years relative to this divide, and reconsider whether and how the gap between interpersonal and mass communication theory might be bridged.

Everett M. Rogers

Interpersonal versus Mass Communication: A False Dichotomy Revisited: From he perspective of 1988, it appeared that he historical field of human communication has focused around two different types of communication: interpersonal and mass media. This distinction, as fundamental as it may seem to proponents of theory and research within each perspective, is a reified accident of history and politics that has had detrimental effects on communication theory and research. It seemed, in 1988, that it was time to question the viability and utility of the categories that divide us. This paper will reconsider the state of this divide 15 years later, and reflect on the how well new theoretical perspectives are closing the distinction between interpersonal and mass communication theory and research.

Discussion and Questions


Joseph N. Cappella
Joseph N. Cappella is professor of communication and holds the Gerald R. Miller chair at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. His research has focused on social interaction, interpersonal communication, political communication, nonverbal behavior, media effects, and statistical methods. Book credits include Spiral of Cynicism (Oxford), Multivariate Techniques in Human Communication Research (Academic Press), and Sequence and Pattern in Communicative Behavior (Arnold). He is a Fellow of the International Communications Association, a recipient of the B. Aubrey Fisher Mentorship Award, and a past president of the International Communication Association.
John H. Powers
John H. Powers is an associate professor of Applied Communication Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. His most recent book, Civic Discourse, Civil Society, and Chinese Communities (edited with Randy Kluver) won the the NCA International/Intercultural Division Distinguished Scholarship Award in 2000. His research interests are include basic communication theory and Chinese rhetoric aimed at English-speaking audiences.
Patrick O'Sullivan
Patrick O'Sullivan is a professor at Illinois State University. His research interests are currently focused on the in macro (social) and micro (relational) implications of mediated communication. With expertise in both mass communication and interpersonal communication, he has developed a research program concerned with theory development and practical issues surrounding the use of various communication technologies (new and old).
Don Ellis
Don Ellis is a professor of communication at the University of Hartford. His most recent book, Crafting Society, explores three key issues in communication theory: the growing emphasis of meaning; the importance of a mediated culture; and the links between "micro" communication activities by individuals and "macro" social categories such as ethnicity and social class.
Michael A. Shapiro
Michael A. Shapiro is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Cornell University. His research focuses on the mental processes in processing media messages, including a variety of unconscious and more thoughtful mental processes we use to interpret messages and make decisions. His current research looks at how people make reality decisions as they process narratives, including entertainment, news and advertising. He is a former chair of the Information Systems Division of ICA and a former Head of the Communication Theory and Methodology division of AEJMC.
Davis A. Foulger
Davis A. Foulger is a visiting associate professor at Oswego State University. Over the course of nearly twenty years working in the computer industry, he designed and developed a series of computer mediated human communication systems, including computer conferencing, electronic service and support, web assisted teleconferencing, and other systems, including one of the first billion dollar revenue electronic commerce sites. His current research focus is the processes through which media, broadly defined to include face-to-face and other personal media, are invented and evolved in use.
Charles R. Berger
Charles Berger is a professor at University of California, Davis. He has edited Human Communication Research and more recently Communication Research. He is a Fellow of the International Communication Association and he has served as President of the Association. He is perhaps best known for his pioneering research on uncertainty reduction theory. His current research interests concern how individuals estimates of personal risk change in response to news stories about threatening phenomena. He is also studying the cognitive structures and processes that guide message production.
Everett M. Rogers
Everett M. Rogers is Regents' Professor, Department of Communication and Journalism, University of New Mexico. He has been teaching in universities and conducting scholarly research for the past 45 years. Rogers is particularly known for his book Diffusion of Innovations, one of the most widely-cited publications in the social sciences, according to the Institute for Scientific Information. Other books he has recently authored or co-authored books examine such diverse issues as the history of communication study, technology transfer and the rise of technopolises, organizational aspects of health communication campaigns, media agenda-setting, intercultural communication, the entertainment-education strategy, and the role of the informatization strategy in India's development.