COMMUNICATION STUDIES AND THEIR ROLE IN A CHANGING RUSSIA
Proceedings of the Russian Communication Association International Conference, "Communicating Across Differences," Volume 2, 171-174. Pyatigorsk, Russia.
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that despite the fact that Communication Studies and communication education have not been a substantial part of the Russian academic tradition (in the same sense as they have been in the West), there is a strongly growing need for both of them in that society considering its current social, economic, and political developments. This brief cultural overview does not intend to oppose the Russian culture to the Western culture, nor to demonstrate "superiority" of one tradition over the other. Rather, on the one hand, the intention is to reflect on some socio-cultural and educational tendencies that might help Westerners to understand the difference of the Russian intellectual and academic tradition within its own context as well as to appreciate that difference. On the other hand, my intention is intracultural. Through these brief reflections of where we have been and where we are going, I aim to suggest a rationale for Russian scholars, educational professionals, and policy makers for uniting their efforts around what, I believe, becomes a necessity of the present: introducing and developing different areas of Communication Studies, institutionalizing it as a discipline, and integrating it as a standard component into the Russian curriculum.
Following are some of the factors that, in my view, account for why Communication Studies and communication education in Russia cannot be viewed as a distinct and integral component of the academic and educational tradition or, in other words, why it does not have an analogue to the Western tradition. Among those factors are:
1. A Russian cultural intellectual tradition emphasizing conceptualization and broad philosophical understanding versus a pragmatic approach.
From a cross-cultural perspective, some characteristics of "the Russian national mentality" or "national character" can be seen as opposite to those in the US. Historically the US culture has valued what can be called practical or pragmatic qualities, such as practicality, effectiveness, and measurability of results (implementing principles of behavioral sciences) among others. In US social science, there has been a strong tradition of applied research, focusing on a particular problem in a particular context. US education can be described to a great degree as skill or technique-oriented. Communication Studies, being an applied discipline, fits well into this cultural tradition. In contrast, the Russian intellectual and educational tradition (including art and literature) has historically valued a broad and comprehensive understanding of issues, a broad philosophical worldview (Weltanschauung). The Soviet Russian system of education viewed the intellectual development of a person (among other areas of a well-rounded personality) as a primary educational aim and placed an emphasis on developing general conceptual abilities and analytical skills. In that light, communication studies with their focus on practical skills and pragmatic values did not seem to have a direct place in that intellectual paradigm.
2. An economic structure and principles, which created little incentive for developing customer-oriented communication skills.
The Soviet Russian economy - based on the principles of centralized planning, funded by the government, and driven for the most part by the "production" requirements, rather than consumers' needs - had ironically little concern for needs and interests of a "real live customer." Since all the structures of public and social services (retailers, banking, post offices, healthcare) were run by the government, there was no economic incentive to "do a better job to serve a customer." The slogan "the customer is always right," which could often be seen on the walls of establishments, has turned into an ironic paradox and served as a source of various jokes among the Russian consumers. In that economic system, there was no economic basis or stimulus for training service professionals in their interpersonal and business communication skills and competencies.
3. A different ideological and philosophical tradition.
Among the traditions that constitute a conceptual and philosophical framework for Communication Studies in the West are a social constructionist and interpretivist tradition, viewing the social world as an infinite variation of subjective realities, co-constructed by people through their symbolic (language) interactions (e.g., see Craig, 1999; Leeds-Hurwitz, 1995). In that tradition, the language-in-use or communication process is viewed as a primary informing and transforming force, which creates and makes sense of those realities. The focus of communication study is on personal meanings and understanding, on contexts and cultures. Communication is viewed as an on-going process in which people employ symbols to create and coordinate meanings in their contexts or environments.
In contrast, the "methodological foundation" of the social studies in Soviet Russia was traditionally and prevalently Marxist philosophy. That philosophical and ideological paradigm was based on the principle of economic determinism, that is, the driving force of material, over "spiritual," production. Language-in-use or communication was not viewed in it as a primary source or force of social formation.
4. A different public speaking tradition: speaker-centered versus audience-centered.
While the Western tradition of public speaking can be characterized as traditionally audience-centered, the Soviet Russian tradition of public speaking can be characterized as speaker-centered, in that, a public speaker by the mere function of delivering some kind of knowledge or information was viewed in a position of authority. It was the responsibility of the audience to comprehend, engage, and benefit from what the speaker had to say. It was commonplace to deliver a formal speech without "embellishments" simply by reading the text, using dry and formal cliches, special terminology, or jargon. If the audience missed relating to the information delivered, it could be readily claimed to be its own fault: the audience lacked understanding or the ability to comprehend what the speaker had to say. With the prevalence of such an approach, strong public speaking skills centered around the ability to engage the audience were not a concern.
5. A cultural and educational tradition of text analysis versus speech interaction or language-in-use analysis.
Traditionally, the structures of most Russian universities and humanities-oriented institutions (e.g., pedagogical institutes) has included a set of programs and departments with the concentration on language studies: Russian Language and Literature, General Language Studies (Yazikoznanie), Linguistics, and Roman-Germanic Philology. Each of those programs emphasized written text analysis (literary analysis, stylistic analysis, critical analysis, translation) as an essential part of professional training. While those traditions have been broadly accepted and reinforced, the study of pragmatics, language in action or use, as well as the study of "lived meanings" have not been common.
This brief overview accounts for and illustrates some of the ways in which Communication Studies were not a part of the socio-cultural tradition and communication education was not in demand as a standardized component of the curriculum in Russia. Today, however, the situation looks different and requires new approaches. In the context of current socio-economic changes that are taking place in Russia (decentralization, new non-governmental types of property, and the development of democratic practices and institutions) language and communication are becoming a primary force of creating, making sense, and legitimizing new practices and realities. Communication competence of professionals and, consequently, communication education and training - focusing on what we can do with and by words, what may be the consequences of our speech actions, and what specific communication techniques can be used in achieving specific goals - are becoming a necessity:
· In the area of businesses and services (financial, merchandising, healthcare, travel). Working with the customer, satisfying the customer, becomes imperative for economic growth and success. Interpersonal communication skills in organizational and professional environments already are, and will continue to be, a growing demand.
· In political communication and public relations. With multiple parties and movements coming into existence, public political discourse changes as well. Stronger persuasion skills and the ability to give a speech by using real-life, factual, rather than highly formalized and alienating language, are becoming a must in delivering the message and "winning the audience."
· In international and intercultural relations. With Russia interested in being further integrated in the world community, intercultural communication skills and awareness have become another requirement of the present social dynamics. Already the programs of foreign language studies have become more practical and beneficial, introducing students not just to a different language system, but into a new culture as well.
These tendencies indicate that communication skills and awareness are becoming, more than ever before, an essential part of social competence. As such it should be part of a standard Russian education, and Russian scholars and educators should concentrate their efforts on developing and integrating it in the existing curriculum. I believe that our professional association can and should play a leading role in this process.
- Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication Theory as a Field. Communication Theory, 9, 119-161.
- Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (Ed.). (1995). Social Approaches to Communication. New York: The Guilford Press.
Text in Word
Olga Matyash, Ph.D.,
President, Russian Communication Association
Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis, USA
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