Introduction to Communication Studies (Second Edition)

John Fiske

Introductory textbooks for any discipline are always open to attack and derisory comments from academics. The common charges are organized around what is missing, what is oversimplified, or what is underrepresented. The reason for these forms of spirited attacks may be some ivory-tower form of territoriality or it could relate to the poor quality of textbook scholarship; but it is probably more precise to say that the textbook attempts to canonize the discipline by determining what are the most significant elements of that discipline. The textbook, in its natural, authoritarian voice, tries to establish what is the indisputable reality.

In the field of communication, the concept of a textbook works to establish the disciplinary turf. Because of communication's interdisciplinary origins and its relatively recent arrival as an acceptable setting for the institutional organization of knowledge, the textbook is both a highly desired commodity and a form that offends in its attempt to define the object of study. Recently, two communication- related textbooks were released which, like others before them, try to traverse these dangerous waters: Introduction to Communication Studies by John Fiske was released in a revised second edition and an altogether new book, More than Meets the Eye: An Introduction to Media studies by Graeme Burton, appeared at about the same time. As their titles suggest, both of these books portend to provide an introduction to the field. Neither (of course) achieves that title of the definitive textbook; nevertheless, both manage to wrestle parts of the discipline into some momentary coherence for the student.

The strength of Fiske's book is his ability to introduce the ideas of meaning creation and meaning construction through the language and terms of semiotic inquiry. After developing other models of communication that have evolved from elaborations of the engineering model, Fiske's book quickly devolves into a discussion of codes, signs and meaning systems. Ultimately, Fiske leads the reader to an interpretation of ideology and connects the concept of ideology to the conventionalization of communication in contemporary culture. However, Fiske's book does construct some meaning construction problems of its own which obstruct the path to this final decoding of the ideological work of mediated forms of communication. His examples, particularly in the introduction of key terms in the early part of the book, are obscure and abstruse. For the first-year student (never mind the professor who is charged with teaching the material) the connection to workable examples is crucial and it is only in the concluding chapters of the textbook that the examples begin to be understandable and thus usable. This clumsy linkage between theory and application is further compounded by a style of prose that is too dry and only occasionally imparts the excitement that is certainly part of the discovery of these various forms of signification and meaning construction. It is obvious that the primary market for this book is the United Kingdom and the Britishness of the examples identifies one of the difficulties for the book's usefulness in Canadian programs. The problem of cultural transferability, however, could have been overcome with the use of more accessible examples. What is surprising is that this second and revised edition was edited inadequately to even update substantial portions of the book. Instead, the book is transformed through a new (and quite useful) chapter on structuralism, an expansion of the chapter on empirical methods of analysis and a more elaborate conclusion. All three of these alterations concern the last three chapters of the book. If a similar effort had been made with the middle chapters, the second edition would have lived up to its billing as being revised. In its present form, it is a useful book for introducing semiotics and cultural theory to undergraduates as long as the instructor/professor is ready and able to fill in the void where theory is linked inadequately to practical examples. Also, in its privileging of contextualized textual analysis of media forms, the work underrepresents discussions of technology, the industrial organization of the media, and information theory. If combined with another text which provides these elements as well as some Canadian and North American sources, Fiske's attempt at an introduction could be useful in the second half of a first-year program or the first half of a second-year program in communication.

Burton's foray into the minefield of textbook writing is ultimately less valuable for the university setting than Fiske's. More than Meets the Eye does solve many of the inadequacies of Fiske's introductory text: it deals with ownership, with audiences and institutions in a straightforward manner. It also covers the areas of messages and meaning construction with examples that are comprehensible and well integrated into the explanatory text. Its principal weakness is that the text has been written for a target audience that is pre-university in Britain. The framing of questions and inquiry tends therefore to be too preliminary (particularly the opening two chapters of the text) for university-level courses. The book therefore misses its mark(et) in Canada both in terms of its more overt focus on British examples and in terms of its overly simple construction of theory and problematics. Indeed, the book becomes quite annoying in its unending simplicity: to maintain the tone, no references are given in the text as to the sources for many of the ideas presented, an approach which is unacceptable for university scholarship. Moreover, it is punctuated with new boldfaced headings virtually after every paragraph; in its style it is implying a reader with an extremely short attention span.

If Burton's book is viewed in terms of its proper upper-levels secondary school market, it is something of a breakthrough. No Canadian school textbook on the media can compare to this comprehensive book. If there is an expansion of media studies/literacy programs in high schools--which seems to be a likely scenario--in the coming decade, Burton's book could serve as a model for the organization of such courses. Due to the need for more Canadian and North American-centred examples, Burton's book, however, would not be appropriate as a textbook. Also, the book suffers from poor editorship; there is an unacceptably large number of grammatical and orthographical errors in the text.

What Burton's book does underline is that there is a developing need for good quality Canadian textbooks on the media for high school courses. Instead of leaving that task entirely to education specialists, there is a need for the involvement of communication academics in the task. And yet another attempt at a communication textbook can be made. Of course, in the right hands (and whose hands would be right is beyond my "area of expertise"), the outcome will be different and the canonization of what constitutes the primary elements of the discipline will be established (for, no doubt, future condemnation).



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