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A History of International Communication Studiesfree

A History of International Communication Studiesfree

  • Elizabeth C. HansonElizabeth C. HansonDepartment of Political Science, University of Connecticut


International communication (also referred to as global communication or transnational communication) is the communication practice that occurs across international borders. As a field of study, international communication is a branch of communication studies, concerned with the scope of “government-to-government,” “business-to-business,” and “people-to-people” interactions at a global level. Apart from journalism, international communication also occurs in other areas and the nature of the “information” that is circulated can be classified in a wide variety of categories, such as cultural, scientific, and intelligence. Efficient communication networks had played crucial roles in establishing ancient imperial authority and international trade. The extent of empire could be used as an indication of the efficiency of communication. Ancient empires such as Rome, Persia, and China all utilized writing in collecting information and creating enormous postal and dispatch systems. By the fifteenth-century, news had been disseminated trans-nationally in Europe. During the post-Cold War era, the intense relations of super powers halted with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of the Third World countries meant that the unequally developed communication order can no longer exist. But the moment international communications stepped into the information age, the convergence of telecommunication and computing and the ability to move all types of data—pictures, words, sounds—via the Internet have revolutionized international information exchange.


  • Political Communication

Communication is at the heart of all international interaction and, indeed, all human interaction. Boundaries for the subject matter of international communication are difficult to establish, and the substantive content consists of multiple streams of diverse research. It is, therefore, appropriate to refer to international communication studies in the plural form. A “loose topical confederation” may be a more accurate description than a field or subfield of study. The intellectual impetus for international communication research has come from a variety of disciplines, notably political science, sociology, psychology, social psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and, of course, communication science and international relations. Many scholars who study topics that might well be included have not identified themselves as scholars of international communication. The basic questions that fuel this diverse research concern the intersection of communication and international relations, but how to define and how broadly to construe these two areas of inquiry?

Harold Lasswell, widely acknowledged as a founding father of international communication, described the communication process in terms of the questions: “Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect?” This famous formulation excludes nonverbal forms of communication, as well as other kinds of transactions that have been considered under the rubric of international communication. It does not include the question “Why?”, the purposive element, or the impact of technology, an important topic in recent research. International relations as a discipline has its own definitional and boundary controversies, particularly regarding the role of nonstate actors and the primacy of the nation state. The term “global communication” has often been used as a more inclusive term, as the processes of globalization have accelerated and the significance of nonstate actors has increased. Nevertheless, “international communication” persists as the conventional term to include all types of communication that occur across national boundaries or affect international outcomes.

Although highly diverse in content, international communication scholarship, past and current, falls into distinct research traditions or areas of inquiry. The content and focus of these have changed over time in response to innovations in communication technologies and to the political environment. In retrospect, threads can be discerned, but they are overlapping. Certain threads disappear, only to resurface later under a different label. To convey this complexity, this essay will move chronologically, identifying the major foci of scholarly interest as they emerge in response to technological and political change. How the various topics evolved and became areas of inquiry will be indicated along the way.

The Persuasion Paradigm

The development and spread of radio and film increased public awareness and scholarly interest in the phenomenon of the mass media and in issues regarding the impact on public opinion in the 1920s and 1930s. The extensive use of propaganda as an instrument of policy by all sides in World War I, and the participation of social scientists in the development of this instrument, provided an impetus for the development of both mass communication and international communication studies. There is some variation in the early histories of systematic communication research, but the three scholars who are generally cited and who are also most relevant to international communication are Harold Dwight Lasswell, Paul Felix Lazarsfeld, and Wilbur Lang Schramm (Lerner and Nelson 1977; Rogers 1994).

Lasswell’s five-question encapsulation of the communication process – “Who says what to whom, through what channels, with what effects?” – provided a framework for much future communication research. His scholarship on communication began with his dissertation at the University of Chicago, Propaganda Technique in the World War, which was published in 1927. His advisor, Charles E. Merriam, had worked for the Creel Committee on Public Information, which had designed, organized, and conducted extensive domestic and international propaganda activities during World War I. Lasswell’s dissertation/book analyzed the various propaganda techniques and strategies used by the Germans, British, French, and Americans and indicated factors that affected their impact. He defined propaganda here as “the control of opinion by significant symbols […] by stories, rumors, reports, pictures and other forms of social communication” (Lasswell 1927:9). His focus on the symbols and themes used in the messages foreshadowed his later development of content analysis as a research tool (Lerner and Nelson 1977). His research and teaching on propaganda and public opinion helped to launch the teaching of university courses on this subject and contributed to the growth of scholarly interest during the 1930s. By 1935 there were already 4500 publications listed in an annotated bibliography on the subject by Lasswell and colleagues (Lasswell et al. 1935), which was compiled under the auspices of the Social Science Research Council. Meanwhile, as the decade progressed, the “skillful management of mass attitudes” that contributed to the rise of Fascism in Italy and the National Socialist Movement in Germany intensified scholarly interest in the subject.

Lasswell’s book World Revolutionary Propaganda: A Chicago Study (Lasswell and Blumenstock 1939) was another empirical investigation of symbol manipulation. The book was a case study of communist propaganda among Chicago’s unemployed during the great depression. The findings indicated that, despite some favorable circumstances, communist propaganda was blocked by American nationalism and individualism. Lasswell’s interest in the factors that facilitated and inhibited the communist world’s revolutionary appeal to a particularly vulnerable population demonstrated the interaction of macro and micro factors in politics at the local, national, and international levels (Almond 1996).

The intellectual environment of the University of Chicago played a vital role in the development of Lasswell’s scholarship and in the origins of communication research.

Significant funding for social science research in the 1920s and 1930s from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund and Rockefeller Foundation (which merged in 1932) attracted a highly competent group of scholars from various disciplines and encouraged exchange and collaboration among them. It was at the University of Chicago during those two decades that empirical social science research began to flourish and where cross-disciplinary collaboration established a pattern for future political communication research (Nimmo and Sanders 1981).

The Rockefeller Foundation took a particular interest in communication research and helped to shape its direction in even more direct ways. From 1937 to 1944 it supported the Radio Research Project, directed by Paul F. Lazarsfeld. The impetus for this project came from several directions (Czitrom 1982). Analysis of propaganda and its effects led logically to investigations of public opinions and attitudes: how to explain their origins, persistence, and shifts. George Gallup’s founding of the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935 and his statistical method of survey sampling held out the promise of a new scientific approach to these questions. There was a growing sense that increased literacy and the spread of newspapers, periodicals, motion pictures, and especially the radio had created a new situation that needed investigation. As described in the foreword to the first issue of Public Opinion Quarterly in 1937, “Always the opinions of relatively small publics have been a prime force in political life, but now, for the first time in history we are confronted nearly everywhere by mass opinion as the final determinant of political and economic action” (Czitrom 1982:124). Sociologists and social psychologists had begun to look at the individual and social effects of what later (1940s) came to be known as the mass media. For example, the sociologist Robert Park (1922), at the University of Chicago, had studied the immigrant press in the United States, and the Payne Fund Project (Charters 1933) had conducted an extensive quantitative study on the role of motion pictures in American society, particularly their effect on children. Finally, the rapid diffusion of radio was spurring advances in market research, a measurement challenge for a medium without subscriptions or circulation figures (Czitrom 1982).

The rather vague purpose of the Rockefeller grant for the Radio Research Project, initially located at Princeton, was to study the psychological and social effects of radio. The associate directors were Hadley Cantril, a psychologist at Princeton and a founder of Public Opinion Quarterly, and Frank Stanton, a CBS researcher (later president of the network). Under Lazarsfeld’s direction, the project conducted dozens of studies that analyzed radio content and the demographics of the radio audience, correlating preferences with social stratification (Czitrom 1982). In addition to several project summary publications, Lazarsfeld incorporated some of this research in his book Radio and the Printed Page: An Introduction to the Study of Radio and its Role in the Communication of Ideas (Lazarsfeld 1940), which Czitrom (1982) claims was a key step in the consolidation of the field of communication.

In 1939 Lazarsfeld moved to Columbia University with the Radio Research Project. The project, which had been renamed the Office of Radio Research, became in 1944 the Bureau of Applied Social Research with a much broader focus. The emphasis here, as in the project’s earlier stages, was on the social psychology of short-term effects of the mass media. In the early years commercially sponsored research made up about half of the budget (Rogers 1994). Later, during World War II and for the decade that followed, more than half of the budget came from funding for government projects (Rogers 1994).

Lazarsfeld used a variety of quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, including survey research, laboratory experiments, community studies, content analysis, and a few innovations. He advanced survey research methodology by combining the survey interview with multivariate data analysis. His focused interview was designed to access the individual’s perception of a media message. Focus group interviews and a method for measuring the emotional responses of the audience to radio programming were two of his most important methodological contributions (Rogers 1994). He conducted the first comprehensive studies of radio in the US and was the most important single individual in launching mass communication research (Rogers 1994). Lazarsfeld, even more than Lasswell, helped to shape the early direction of communication research to emphasize mass communication effects (Rogers 1994). Their heavy emphasis on micro-level effects narrowed the focus of communication study to “essentially a process of persuasion” (Czitrom 1982:132) and steered communication scholars away from other topics, notably macro-level issues (Rogers 1994). Strategic considerations prior to and during World War II reinforced the emphasis on this genre of research.

One response to the approaching involvement of the US in World War II was the Rockefeller Foundation’s convening and funding of a communication seminar, which met monthly at its headquarters in New York between 1939 and 1940. The initial purpose of bringing together this diverse group of leading scholars interested in communication (including both Lasswell and Lazarsfeld) was to provide theoretical guidance regarding future communication research (Rogers 1994). Lasswell’s five-question formulation became the basic framework for discussion. Communication was conceptualized as “one-way, and intentional, oriented toward achieving a desired effect” Rogers 1994:223). As the crises mounted in Europe, the discussions began to direct the application of communication research to government policy. When the United States entered the war at the end of 1941, the network of scholars who had participated in the seminar moved almost en masse to Washington, DC to play an important role in conducting applied communication research (Rogers 1994).

World War II became an important catalyst for research in mass communication, increasing its legitimacy and visibility and guaranteeing funding and support, as well as bringing together scholars from around the country interested in studying media and public opinion. Analytical tools of communication research were applied to the tasks of mobilizing domestic public support for the war, understanding enemy propaganda, and developing psychological warfare techniques to influence the morale and opinion of allied and enemy populations (Simpson 1994).

As these tasks required an interdisciplinary approach, a network of relationships developed among the social scientists who were located in numerous agencies and involved in various aspects of the war effort. In the War-Time Communications project for the Library of Congress and the Department of Justice, Lasswell developed a systematic, quantitative content analysis method for monitoring the foreign language press. Along with other social scientists, including Nathan Leites and Edward Shils, Lasswell analyzed the content of Nazi communications for information on internal political and morale conditions in Germany and occupied Europe for the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service of the Federal Communications Commission (Almond 1996). Lazarsfeld and other specialists in survey research and social psychology were also employed by the military services. Survey research and various interviewing methods were used by the military services to address personnel issues such as recruitment and morale, by the Department of Agriculture in its effort to increase food production, by the Treasury Department in its efforts to sell bonds, and by the various intelligence services (Almond 1996).

The Cold War Impact

World War II generated intense scholarly interest in the potential of the mass media for influencing opinions, attitudes, and behavior to meet US strategic needs (Czitrom 1982). As the hot war segued into a cold war, US foreign policy goals continued to shape the direction of much research in international communication. Besides the East–West conflict, two other international developments influenced scholarship: the integration and disintegration of Europe and the rise of new nationalisms in countries that were former European colonies. In this new international context, efforts to conceptualize international communication as a field of study accelerated. A major impetus to the development of the subject as a field was a Ford Foundation four-year grant in 1952 to the Center for International Studies (CIS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a research program in international communication, which became an influential center for research in the field in the 1950s and 1960s.

The approach of the scholars associated with this center was to view international communication as a more complex process than a simple one-way reaction to mass media. The basic orientation of the work emanating from the center was articulated in the report that the Planning Committee, which the center had appointed to advise on the use of the grant, published in condensed form in the journal World Politics (MIT 1954). It defined international communication in very broad terms as “the interchange of words, impressions and ideas which affect the attitudes and behavior of different peoples toward each other” (Mowlana 1996:9). In even more sweeping terms, the report declared: “The study of communication is but one way to study man, and the study of international communication is but another way to study international relations” (MIT 1954:359).

The MIT Planning Committee report referred to the large body of cumulative research and indicated two recurring problem areas: 1) “To what extent do changes in the structure of world politics interact with changes in the structure of world communication?” and 2) “What are the strategy and tactics of communication in achieving the aims of national policy in world affairs?” (MIT 1954:374–375). Although the criteria for selecting areas for future research were both “scientific merit and political significance,” the latter dominated the discussion. Indeed, the report asserted that “there was every reason why a program in communication research should select the great problems of our time.” These were stated in almost apocalyptic terms: 1) “The conflict between the Communist and the free worlds is of decisive importance to the balance of power and the future character of our civilization”; 2) “The future course of Western civilization is dependent upon the result of efforts to find new and stronger forms of economic, political, and military organization in Western Europe”; and 3) “The rise of new nationalisms in Asia and Africa […] may profoundly affect balance of power and the status of Western civilization in the years to come” (MIT 1954:365–366).

The report suggested various research approaches, which would be appropriate for addressing these problems and which also had scientific merit. Stressing the importance of studying the structure of a society in order to understand the communication processes within it, the report identified “elite communication” as an important direction for future research. For example, who are the opinion leaders in a society, what are their characteristics, how are their images formed, what is the relationship between elite and mass opinion, what is the process of mediation between the mass media and the audience, and how do attitudes and behavior change under the impact of communication? The report identified “historical studies, field research, and laboratory experiments” as important types of research and expressed the need for improved methodologies for field research abroad, especially in nonwestern and communist societies. It outlined a sample field study in India as an area in which to study the rise of new nationalisms and the impact of international communication on political decision making in the Third World. Suggested sample projects for studying the East–West conflict were diplomatic negotiations between Soviet and Western powers and non-Western interpretations of news from communist versus Western sources.

Two special issues of Public Opinion Quarterly, Winter 1952–53 and Spring 1956, were devoted entirely to research in international and political communication respectively, in order to demonstrate the large volume of research that was accumulating in the field and to serve as a forum for discussion on the subject. These special issues were a product of a committee for the development of research in the field of communication that was appointed by the parent organization of the journal, the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). Both issues grappled with the difficulties encountered in defining the field, establishing boundaries, and conducting the necessary interdisciplinary research. A section on “problem areas” focused on such methodological issues as how to modify research methods, notably survey research, to populations abroad, especially non-Western and those not accessible for political reasons. The need to develop better concepts, better methods, and more pertinent and far-reaching data was noted repeatedly.

The MIT Planning Committee report and the two issues of Public Opinion Quarterly exemplified scholarly pursuits in international communication that were already under way and foreshadowed much of the research that would be conducted in the late 1950s, 1960s, and beyond. A sample of articles from the journal issues illustrates how the three problem areas outlined in the MIT report provided direction for future research.

The first might be summarized by the title of an article by Peter H. Rossi and Raymond A. Bauer (1952–53), “Some Patterns of Soviet Communications Behavior.” This particular article was concerned with the patterns of exposure to the media among the population in the Soviet Union (radio, foreign radio, newspapers, magazines, books, movies, theater, and lectures) and how that exposure was related to involvement in the system. A variety of indirect approaches were employed by researchers on communication within the Soviet system, and there was considerable discussion within the two Public Opinion Quarterly issues about the validity of these methods. The Bauer and Rossi study involved interviews with Soviet displaced persons in the United States and Europe, and the data pertained to 1940. It was part of a larger study on Soviet communications behavior, which in turn was part of the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System (Bauer et al. 1956). Another study, by Ivor Wayne (1956), explored Soviet and American “themes and values” through a content analysis of popular magazines in both countries.

In order to assess the impact of the Voice of America on the Soviet system, Alex Inkeles (1952–53) analyzed references to the VOA in the Soviet media, because access to the Soviet population as an audience was not possible. This approach represented only the “official reaction” to US broadcasts, but he claimed that it offered some clues about the impact on the system. The study also provided a case study of “the exchange of propaganda between two vast, competing mass communication systems” (Inkeles 1952–53:612). This strain of research obviously represented a further development of the earlier propaganda studies, concerned with the effects of mass media on strategically important populations. This article was part of his work on Soviet society, published in Public Opinion in Soviet Russia: A Study in Mass Persuasion (1958).

The assumption that international broadcasting was playing an increasingly important role in the worldwide tug of war for the minds of men encouraged considerable research that compared the characteristics of international communications from Soviet and non-Soviet sources. Paul Kecskemeti (1956) looked at the “operating principles of Soviet foreign mass propaganda,” Harold Mendelsohn and Werner Cahnman (1952–53) examined communist broadcasts to Italy, and Daniel Lerner (1952–53) discussed the theory of international coalitions and suggested how international communication research could help to identify common interests that would draw “neutralists” into the “American-centered coalition.”

Winning hearts and minds in the “non-industrial countries” – the second problem area – was deemed particularly important among these scholars in the early 1950s. Bruce Smith (1952–53) analyzed the predispositions and “value constellations” of “non-industrial audiences” and suggested lines of communication research in this area. He indicated some significant advantages of Soviet communications and problems that hampered Western efforts, including past behavior that belittled and insulted the cultures of these countries.

Communism’s appeal and the challenge it posed to the West received considerable attention during the 1950s, for example Gabriel Almond, The Appeals of Communism (1954). Although this theme did not disappear, a different approach, as well as terminology, came to dominate both scholarship and policy making regarding “less developed countries” or the “Third World” in the 1960s. The word “propaganda” appears less often because, as Ralph K. White (1952–53:539) pointed out, “The world is more and more tired of propaganda.” A more indirect approach to the Cold War goals of containing the Soviet Union and gaining the allegiance of developing countries would use international communication research as a tool of development and modernization. That development paradigm is discussed later.

The third problem area considered in the international communication research of the 1950s and 1960s was Europe. Some of this research was oriented toward the effectiveness of international broadcasting, as illustrated in Mendelsohn and Werner (1952–53) and Lerner (1952–53), but other research went beyond this dominant “persuasion paradigm” to develop new, less Cold War-oriented topics and substantive areas. Karl Deutsch’s work on nationalism and international integration, which also contributed to the study of international communication, was motivated less by the East–West conflict than by the desire to study the conditions that made peaceful change and collaboration possible (Puchala 1981). His wide-ranging research was particularly concerned with patterns of social communication and their relationship to political organization and integration.

Deutsch’s dissertation, Nationalism and Social Communication (1953), developed a new model of nationalism based on the idea of “a people bound together by habits of, and facilities for, communication” (Merritt and Russett 1981:6). “Membership in a people,” Deutsch argued, “consists in the ability to communicate more effectively, and over a wider range of subjects, with members of one large group than with outsiders” (Deutsch 1953:71). His developmental model of political unification posited first the development of functional linkages and increased flows of transactions between communities that “enmesh people in transcommunity communications networks” (Puchala 1981:156). A high volume of reward-producing transactions generates social-psychological processes that lead to assimilation and integration into larger communities. This model was intended to explain the formation of large-scale political communities, hence integration at the international as well as the national level. At both levels mutual responsiveness and “two-way channels of communications between elites and mass and among non-elites are central to his conception of successful integration” (Merritt and Russett 1981:8). The empirical focus for Deutsch’s investigations into political integration were in Western Europe (Deutsch et al. 1957).

Deutsch was also interested in conditions that lead to political disintegration or dysfunctional integration. Drawing on his study of what he called the work of “communication engineers,” and foreshadowing his later work that more explicitly theorized from the field of cybernetics (1963), he postulated conditions that were likely to destabilize an amalgamated political community. One was an imbalance in the loads on the system from increased transactions and the capabilities to accommodate the increased loads. Inequities in the distribution of burdens and rewards were also a source of hostility that could make integration efforts self-defeating (Deutsch 1954; Merritt and Russett 1981).

Deutsch was convinced not only that measuring the balance of communication flows was both feasible and valuable, but also that “statistics of communications flows constitute essential background data for almost any effective analysis of international communication” (Deutsch 1956:145). He was particularly interested in measuring the balance of communication flows within a system, such as a country, and the flow of messages across its boundaries. “Inside–outside ratios of communication or transaction flows can [also] suggest something about the extent to which some particular human activity, such as science, is ‘international’ or ‘national’ and in what direction it may be changing” (Deutsch 1956:159). His interest in cybernetics and in communication and transaction flows convinced him of the need for quantitative, replicable data, a conviction that contributed to his development as a pioneer in quantitative international relations. The balance of communication flows became a matter of controversy and concern in the 1970s.

Deutsch’s research investigated empirically idealistic assumptions about the relationship between communication flows and international understanding that were prominent in the euphoria of the immediate post–World War II period. When the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was established in 1945, the constitution expressed the belief of the parties to the constitution in the “free exchange of ideas and knowledge” and their determination “to increase the means of communication between their peoples and to employ these means for the purposes of mutual understanding and a truer and more perfect knowledge of each other’s lives.” Soon afterwards, the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press (1946) published a report that advocated the free flow of information across borders as means to a better world (Rogers and Hart 2003). The report argued (Hutchins Commission 1946:14) that what was needed in the field of international communication was “the linking of all the habitable parts of the globe with abundant, cheap, significant, true information about the world from day to day, so that all men increasingly may have the opportunity to learn, know, and understand each other.”

In the decade that followed World War II, UNESCO sponsored the collection and publication of data on the world’s network of mass communication facilities, studies on international news agencies (UNESCO 1953), and the handling of world news in various countries (Kayser 1953). It published or sponsored social scientific studies on the roots of intergroup tension and on nations’ images of one another (for example Klineberg 1950; Buchanan and Cantril 1953). UNESCO also sponsored and assisted with the development of several international professional organizations, such as the International Political Science Association, which were designed to facilitate scientific exchange and communication as well as cross-cultural research.

In the context of the Cold War, however, the ideas of a free flow of information and freedom of information became another tool of US foreign policy to penetrate closed communist societies and to demonstrate the superiority of the US way of life. Siebert et al.’s (1956) Four Theories of the Press: The Authoritarian, Libertarian, Social Responsibility, and Communist Concepts of What the Press Should Be and Do provided a conceptual framework for categorizing media systems that “served primarily to celebrate the Anglo-American models” (Downing 1996:xiii, 191; McDowell 2003). Davison (1965) similarly compared the role of communication in various societies with a view to using communications to advance US foreign policy.

By the middle of the 1950s, a bibliography on International Communication and Political Opinion (Smith and Smith 1956) was published that contained almost 2,600 entries on relevant research since 1945. The categories included political persuasion and propaganda activities, channels of international communication, audience characteristics, and methods of research and intelligence. An article by one of these authors (Smith 1956) for a special issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, which analyzed trends in international communication research over the decade following World War II, indicated that the bulk of attention had been devoted to propaganda and political warfare.

As in the hot war of World War II, government support in the Cold War was a powerful stimulus for research in international communication within the persuasion paradigm. Federal funds sponsored evaluations of various informational and educational programs, such as efforts to measure audiences of the Voice of America, the United States Information Libraries, and even exhibits traveling abroad. Also sponsored were surveys of mass and leadership opinions, which formed the basis for studies of images that audiences had of the US, the USSR, and other countries.

Modernization and the Development Communication Paradigm

As new states began to emerge from colonial empires, communication became an important component of research on development. Indeed, “development communication” (or communication and development) was recognized as a distinct field of research and policy (Stevenson 1994). Two books were particularly important in establishing what remained the dominant paradigm of development for the 1950s and 1960s: Daniel Lerner’s (1958) The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East and Wilbur Schramm’s (1964) Mass Media and National Development. Both emphasized the role of the mass media in guiding and accelerating development. For Lerner, the mass media provided a vicarious contact with the world for those constrained by traditional ways of thinking, enabling them to imagine different ways of doing things and to aspire to a better life. Thus wider exposure to the media in a traditional society helped the process of transition to a “modernized” state; that is, one that followed the Western model of development.

Wilbur Schramm (1964) buttressed Lerner’s view regarding the potential of the mass media to raise the aspirations of people in developing countries and saw the media as a “bridge to the wider world, as the vehicle for transferring new ideas and models from the North to the South and, within the South, from urban to rural areas” (Thussu 2000:57). The mass media were “the great multiplier,” amplifying, spreading, and accelerating the efforts of all the agents of change. Schramm’s (1964) book appeared early in the UN’s designated “Decade of Development,” when its agencies, the US government, universities, and private companies were beginning to provide significant funding for research on how to “modernize” the newly independent countries (Thussu 2000). Schramm’s book, published in conjunction with UNESCO, became “both a technical manual for communication development and a bully pulpit for advocating the use of mass media as a key component of development programs” (Stevenson 1994:234). This paradigm guided both national and international development programs throughout the 1960s. It resurfaced in the 1980s with a focus on telecommunication (Hudson 1984) and again in the 1990s in modified form under the comprehensive label “information and communication technologies for development.”

Critical Perspectives in the 1970s

Development communication began to meet stiff criticism in the 1970s, as the more general modernization paradigm was challenged by an array of scholars, researchers, and Third World political leaders. The optimism of the modernization theorists confronted the reality of many failed projects and a general lack of significant progress toward development. A wave of scholars criticized the focus on the internal causation of underdevelopment and emphasized external constraints, the structural biases in the international economy that put developing countries at a disadvantage, and the vulnerability of dependence. Multiple variations of dependency theory, world systems theory, and an assortment of other related approaches agreed that the modernization model of development served merely to strengthen the dominance of the wealthy, developed countries and maintain the dependence of the countries at the periphery of the global system. They viewed the modernization paradigm as an instrument of neo-imperialism.

One set of variations focused specifically on the role of communication in maintaining structures of economic and political power (Thussu 2000). Galtung (1971), for example, cited “communication imperialism” as one of the five types of imperialism in his now classic article on “structural imperialism.” A critical perspective that is often labeled “cultural imperialism” (Schiller 1976) or “media imperialism” (Mattelart 1979) was concerned about the detrimental effects on developing countries of Western, and particularly American, domination and control of global communications industries. According to this view, Western media hegemony inhibited indigenous industries in Third World countries, reinforced patterns of dependency, and imposed Western cultural values.

These critical perspectives also challenged another paradigm that had reigned since the end of World War II; that is, the free flow of communications, which Schiller (1976) argued actually leads to an asymmetrical flow. UNESCO modified its position from free flow of information to free and balanced flow. Structural inequalities in international communication became a high priority concern among newly assertive developing countries, which called for a New World International and Communication Order (NWICO) linked to their demands for a New International Economic Order. In response, UNESCO appointed the International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, chaired by Sean MacBride. The final report (MacBride 1980) concluded with 82 recommendations all aimed at “eliminating imbalances and disparities in communication and its structures, and particularly information flows” (MacBride 1980:253). Among the specific infrastructural changes recommended was “more equitable sharing of the electro-magnetic spectrum and geostationary orbit.” The discussions of the commission and the final report generated significant political debate, with some Western countries, most notably the US and UK, concerned that efforts to balance the flow of communication and information across national borders could amount to impeding that flow.

International News Flow/Coverage and International Transactions

During the decade of the 1970s and somewhat beyond, voluminous research was conducted more specifically on patterns of international news flow and coverage. Mowlana (1983) estimated in an annotated bibliography that between 1973 and 1983 there were 441 papers, books, articles, reports, and book chapters published on this subject. These included studies that dealt with the volume and direction of news flows among countries and those that analyzed not only the amount but also the type of news disseminated (Hur 1984).

In a summary and critique of 80 major studies of international news flows and coverage, Hur (1984) discussed research trends, categorized the different methodological approaches, and identified their shortcomings. Geographical approaches looked at the international news flow into a specific country, coverage of international news by the media of a specific country, or news flows or coverage across two or more countries. He found that the generality of theories proposed was seriously limited by unevenness and lack of inclusiveness in the geographical focus. Similarly, there was a lack of comparable data in the various media approaches and unevenness in the media selected for study. Most attention was devoted to newspapers, then television. There was a lack of cross-media research to explain variations in international news flow and coverage. Hur also found a general lack of longitudinal studies. Another category included studies focused on specific events or specific periods of time. In these studies Hur (1984) found problems of typology that limited their cumulative effect. He also noted the lack of studies looking at long-term patterns of international news flows and coverage, which was significant because these patterns are subject to change. Hur (1984) concluded that because of these shortcomings in the research, “there are relatively few research findings that can form ‘theories’ of international news flow or coverage” and, although there were well-formulated theoretical propositions in some studies, adequate empirical support was lacking.

Hur (1984) also noted a lack of multivariate research up to that point. This was an important deficiency because so many different independent variables (many never operationalized) were proposed in this literature to explain variations in international news flows and coverage, for example the power hierarchy of nations, cultural affinity, and economic variables such as export and import values. A cross-national study of 29 countries sponsored by UNESCO (Sreberny-Mohammadi 1984; Stevenson and Shaw 1984) found geographical proximity to be a major determinant of news coverage for most countries. In sum, few reliable generalizations resulted from this research because of the difficulty in operationalizing some variables; because findings were divergent; and because comparability in the data across countries, time, and media was lacking.

A cursory examination of the Mowlana (1983) bibliography and the Hur (1984) critique indicates that research on international news flows and coverage during the 1970s was conducted for the most part by scholars in mass communication, with little input from or connection to scholars in international relations or political science. The 1960s and 1970s marked the rise, spread, and institutionalization of communication studies in American universities. Hundreds of university departments were established, some as completely new entities and others arising out of such existing departments as speech and journalism. Communication research as a field gained coherence and other advantages with its separate institutionalized structure; but it “lost some of its strong academic connections to the other social sciences,” which had characterized this research in its beginnings (Rogers and Balle 1985:6). A strong emphasis among the new stream of scholars was on media studies, and, even among those interested in international communication, most became more professionally integrated into communication studies than international relations. From the 1970s onward only a small number of scholars have had a foot in both communication studies and international relations.

One major edited volume, Communication in International Politics (Merritt 1972), attempted to revive the study of international communication in political science and to give it more rigor. The book, which was dedicated to Harold Lasswell, was a product of a set of panels organized at the American Political Science Association under the presidency of Karl Deutsch. It considered international political communication in broad Deutschian terms of transaction flows across national borders, which included student exchanges, tourism, trade, diplomacy, and especially the exchange of ideas. Merritt (1972) delineated three types of communicators relevant for international politics – governmental actors, nongovernmental actors, and cultures – which yielded nine types of communication flows. Merritt defined the communication process as a transmission of values, while Bobrow (1972) in another chapter saw it as the transfer of meaning, and both deplored the lack of conceptual development in international political communication. The book’s stated purpose was to synthesize and integrate existing research beyond isolated empirical findings and to encourage the building of theory. However, most research in international communication for the next two decades took place within communication sciences and journalism. Meanwhile, during those two decades technological and political changes were occurring that would transform the communication environment and inspire a wave of research on new topics.

The Globalization of Communication

Two mutually reinforcing trends in the 1980s and 1990s shifted the discourse on international communication to global communication. The progressive development and diffusion of fiberoptic cables, satellites, and the Internet were eroding the barriers of space and time, increasing the speed, and reducing the cost of transferring all kinds of information. At the same time, a widespread political shift was occurring toward liberalization in international trade, as well as domestic policies regarding telecommunications and broadcasting. These developments spurred the growth of a privatized global media structure and new global networks for communication and information access. They also mobilized scholars from multiple disciplines to study the implications of these developments.

One response was to think more broadly about the impact of new information and communication technologies on power structures and social change. The terms information revolution and information society were invoked to convey the profound impact these new technologies were having on all aspects of society and the international system (Castells 2000) Some saw a significant break from the past; others stressed continuities and pointed to a historical tendency to focus on the novelty of new technologies (Webster 1995).

While not espousing a version of technological determinism, some scholars emphasized the ways in which the specific properties of technologies can shape new ways of thinking and hence social and political structures (Pool 1990; Deibert 1997). Deibert (1997, 2000) drew on a tradition of scholarship known as “medium theory,” while most work that considered the relationship between changing communications technology and society did not make an explicit link to that approach. As with earlier technologies, optimists and pessimists debated the potential for positive versus negative effects. The international dimensions of these debates tended to focus on the impact of the new information and communication technologies (ICTs) on three major issue areas: the global economy, the nation state, and foreign policy. Multiple issues received attention within each of these categories.

The Global Economy

There has been general agreement that the new ICTs not only provide the infrastructure for a global economy, but also facilitate new forms of transnational and global economic organization (McGrew 2005). Considerable attention was given to the ways in which these technologies have improved the capacity of firms to organize at a distance, and have provided the flexibility to disperse aspects of the production and distribution processes across different national locations (Deibert 2000).

These developments stimulated new directions of research from political economy (Comor 1994; Mosco 1996) and other critical perspectives. Major concerns of this literature are the economic, political, cultural, and ideological effects of corporate consolidation in the communication and media industries. As the media are commercialized and centralized they increase their command over information flows, their political influence, and their ability to set the media-political agenda (Herman and McChesney 1997). Information and cultural products “are commodified and are designed to serve market ends, not citizenship needs” (Herman and McChesney 1997). The central question for critical perspectives is “who owns and controls the distribution of communication, and for what purpose and intent” (Mowlana 1993:72). This question is deemed important because control of the communication process and how that control is exercised condition how and what human beings think and therefore how they act (Comor 1994; McPhail 2006).

Other analysts have viewed the new communications environment with a pluralist perspective, emphasizing its complexity and paradoxical tendencies. They acknowledge that the combination of the new expansive technologies and the widespread political shifts toward liberalization facilitate the concentration of economic power in enormous Western, especially American, communications conglomerates. But they emphasize how these same developments have generated new possibilities at the regional, national, local, and individual levels. New channels of communication, production centers, regional networks, and news exchange agencies have multiplied (Gurevitch 1996; Sinclair et al. 1996; Sreberny-Mohammadi 1996; Thussu 2000).

Scholarly interest in the distributional effects of the new international and communication technologies (ICTs) generated a whole new genre of research under the rubric of the “digital divide” (Norris 2001). The term has come to refer to great disparities in access, both within and across countries, to information and communication technologies more generally, not merely the Internet. It served as a focal point of debate about the political, social, and particularly the economic impact of ICTs, especially for developing countries. The research revived some earlier themes in international communication.

The development communication paradigm was given a big boost, updated, and broadened to “ICT for development,” often stated as the acronym ICT4D. This perspective saw the digital revolution as a historic opportunity for developing countries to take a quantum leap forward to develop their productive capacities and to become integrated in the global economy. It assumed that access to ICTs opens the doors to wider economic and social development opportunities and has the potential to address poverty, inequality, and just about every other problem. Most scholars writing from this perspective, while enthusiastic about the possibilities, clearly acknowledged the structural, institutional, and cultural constraints (Wilson 2006) and were more restrained than some of the materials issuing from international and nongovernmental organizations, especially from ICT-related corporations.

The literature on ICTs and development raised broader issues regarding the relationship between technology and inequality. Some questioned whether the digital divide is bridgeable at all (Van Dijk 2005), while others emphasized social variables in determining the benefits of ICTs (Warschauer 2003) and the importance of projects and applications that are relevant to the particular social and cultural context (Keniston and Kumar 2004). Still others applied a critical perspective to the push to bridge the digital divide, arguing that these efforts “will have the effect of locking developing countries into a new form of dependency on the West, trapping them in an increasing complexity of hardware and software that is designed by developed country entities for developed country conditions” (Wade 2002:443). One angle of this argument reflected a view – echoes of earlier critiques of development communication – that digital technologies are simply one more instrument for the powerful to maintain control over the powerless, while misallocating funds that could be used to meet more basic needs of underprivileged populations.

The Nation State

The expansive character of the new ICTs focused attention on their impact on the nation state: its centrality in the international system, its sovereignty, and its relationship to its citizens. Although there was little sign of the state withering away in the international communication literature, there was widespread agreement that much has changed regarding the basis of state power, the context in which states operate, and the ways in which they exercise power. Information technology is now one of the most important power resources; and control over information creation, processing, flows, and use has become the most effective form of power (Braman 2007). States are adopting and must adopt new information and media policies to maintain their sovereignty and to exercise their power effectively (Price 2002; Braman 2007). Controlling the flow of information has become more difficult and costly, however, leading some scholars to consider the potential of the new ICTs to open and undermine closed regimes, even to democratize them (Kalathil and Boas 2003).

From certain critical perspectives, the power of nation states is now subordinate to the power of the transnational corporations in a globalized economy (Tehranian 1999). From a pluralist perspective, an array of nonstate actors has proliferated and gained influence, challenging the exclusive prerogative of the state to act on the world stage (Livingston 2001; Brown 2004). Much attention was given to the new political environment that ICTs have helped to create by empowering nonstate actors to connect, communicate, and mobilize more effectively across national boundaries. One strand of the literature focused on transnational advocacy groups as a manifestation of an emerging civil society, a more inclusive political process (Warkentin 2001). A second strand of this literature pointed to the darker side of these technologies that can be used by anyone for any purpose, including criminal syndicates, drug cartels, and terrorists (Arquilla and Ronfeldt 2001).

The impact of ICTs on the relationship between the state and its citizens was considered in a variety of ways. The ability of governments to provide more direct and efficient services over the Internet and to engage in two-way communication with their citizens (e-government) has the potential both to strengthen the bonds and to enhance their capacity to monitor their citizens. On the other hand, ICTs also enable subnational and transnational ethnic, religious, and cultural groups that are geographically dispersed to connect and to consolidate a sense of common identity, challenging that of the territorially based state. In any case, the Internet changes the way we do and think about politics (Chadwick 2006).

The increased volume, speed, and scope of cultural products across national boundaries from satellite and Internet technologies intensified concerns about threats to the cultural integrity of states that have persisted since the first exports of Hollywood films. Critics stressed the dominant role of Western, especially US, industries in the flow of products and worried not only about the economic impact on indigenous cultural industries, but also about the effect on the society’s cultural values (McPhail 2006). Others pointed to an increasingly complex media environment with the bourgeoning of new production centers, networks, and export markets in some developing countries (Sinclair et al. 1996). To expand market share, the global conglomerates had to collaborate and make some adjustments to local cultures. These local and global collaborations have often resulted in a form of cultural hybridization, as well as the firm establishment of commercial models (Thussu 2000).

Foreign and Security Policy

The advent of live satellite television news coverage in the 1980s generated an upsurge of scholarly interest in the role of the media in foreign policy making. The pioneers of communication research, grounded in social psychology, were interested in the effects of the media on mass audiences or individuals: their attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. Although their research generally found only limited effectiveness in changing attitudes, two mass communication researchers (McCombs and Shaw 1972) later concluded that the mass media did have significant indirect effects by influencing what people think about and thus the “public agenda.” This “agenda-setting” concept generated a whole genre of research in the study of mass communication and in political communication focusing on the US political process. Other research concentrated on the concept of “framing,” finding that the way issues are framed shapes the way the public understand the issues, their causes, and solutions (Iyengar 1991; Wolfsfeld 1997; Entman 2004). Much research on foreign policy making emphasized the inherent advantages of political power, which, combined with journalistic norms, ensured that news content was shaped more by the preferences of political officials than by news media priorities (Sigal 1973; Bennett 1990).

The new media environment of the 1990s led to new investigations regarding the media–foreign policy nexus. Prompted in part by a widespread public perception that the television images of starving children in Somalia had pushed the US to intervene in 1992, while subsequent images of a dead soldier being dragged through the streets had forced the US to withdraw, a body of research developed to study the “CNN effect.” Much attention was given to the ways in which satellite television affected the decision-making process, for example speeding it up and making the actions of leaders more transparent. However, empirical studies of the CNN effect generally failed to find evidence that the news media were seizing the policy initiative away from political officials (Livingston and Eachus 1995; Merman 1999). Gilboa (2005) analyzes this body of work and concludes that there has been a lack of evidence that global television networks are decisive actors affecting foreign policy decision making and international outcomes.

New technological developments brought more changes in the latter part of the 1990s that created an even more challenging media environment for leaders seeking to mobilize support for their policies. The proliferation of news satellite channels, especially Arab language channels, challenged the hegemony of the Western news media and provided alternative, widely distributed interpretations of events (Seib 2005). The spread of the Internet provided even more abundant sources of information and alternative interpretations. These developments stimulated interest in the consequences for diplomacy and foreign policy making of this new competitive environment, where politics has increasingly become a contest for attention and credibility. (See the essay in this compendium on public diplomacy.) Considerable attention was given to the need for public diplomacy geared to a new political environment where nonstate actors are empowered by the new ICTs to participate more assertively in world politics (Livingston 2001; Brown 2004).

Public diplomacy and the management of information were considered particularly important in international conflicts. Some of the literature on the impact of ICTs on the conduct of war echoed themes of the earliest international communication research on propaganda, about shaping the perceptions of allies and neutrals while demoralizing the enemy. An array of security threats posed by the new ICTs and the various forms of conflict that may emerge in cyberspace were analyzed (Libicki 2007). Information warfare was discussed from both offensive and defensive perspectives, demonstrating how information systems can serve as both weapons and targets (Rattray 2001). Another strand of literature focused on the use of ICTs by nonconventional combatants, especially terrorists, and how the Internet, cell phones, and other technologies empower these groups (Arquilla and Ronfelt 2001; Weimann 2006). There was widespread agreement that the new ICTs both enhance the military advantage of great powers and make them more vulnerable, significantly changing the conduct of warfare. The effects of the mass media on terrorism have also been explored (Norris et al. 2003).

Diplomatic communication has received surprisingly little systematic attention in the past, despite its obvious importance. But recently, path-breaking research projects have been conducted using constructivist approaches and linguistic and dialogical analysis to examine how language structures the interactions of leaders and their policies (e.g., Duffy et al. 1998; Goh 2005; Duffy and Goh 2008; Duffy and Frederking 2009). Another notable new approach is David Sylvan and Stephen Majeski’s (2009) cybernetic account of US foreign policy using a theoretical framework based on organizational feedback processes that operate on information from the US foreign policy bureaucracy.

Managing the New Information and Communication Environment

Traditionally, telecommunication services were territorially organized, and radio and television systems developed everywhere as a collection of national systems serving primarily domestic audiences (except for shortwave broadcasting and trade in taped television programs). Policies and most regulation came from national governments, apart from where international agreement was required for optimum operability (as with the telegraph and to prevent interference in radio waves). The emergence of border-crossing communication technologies, particularly satellites and the Internet, raised a host of issues regarding national sovereignty, jurisdiction, surveillance, and personal privacy that directed attention to questions of policy, law, and regulation.

Most controversy focused on the control of the Internet or, as often expressed, Internet governance. In the early days of the Internet there was a widespread assumption that the basic architecture of the Internet ensured that it could not be controlled. Research in the second decade of the Internet has challenged that assumption. One line of argument claimed that national governments retain the power to shape the architecture of the Internet in various ways and to enforce national laws within their territory (Goldsmith and Wu 2006). Part of the explanation is coercion and another part is economic; that is, the need of e-business for government support. Other research deplored a trend toward greater control and less openness to communicate and to innovate (Lessig 1999; Mueller 2004; Zittrain 2008). A model of “multistakeholder governance” was put into practice in the Internet Governance Forum. This approach to Internet policy, which is just beginning to receive attention in the literature, involves bringing together governments, the private sector, and civil society in partnership.

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

There are many other areas of research that might have been included in this historical narrative of a subject with a broad scope and no clear boundaries. Although the subject of international communication encompasses diverse and disparate topics and involves multiple disciplines, certain overlapping themes, strands, or threads can be discerned.

Much of the research on international communication from the beginning has focused in various ways on the impact of communication media. Early propaganda and mass communication researchers were interested in the direct effects of the media on attitudes and opinions and tended to focus on the strategic uses of communication by governments. In the context of the Cold War and an emerging Third World, communication scholars became interested in the capacity of the mass media to change societal attitudes as the essential step to development. Toward the end of the twentieth century, interest in the new information and communication technologies revived this development communication strand of research. As a global communication infrastructure began to emerge, research proliferated regarding other effects of the new technologies, especially satellite television and the Internet, on the global economy, foreign policy decision making, international outcomes, and national sovereignty.

A second strand of research focused on communication flows. In the brief euphoric period after World War II, many assumed that the increased flow of messages across national borders could enhance international understanding. Karl Deutsch was also interested in the relationship between communication flows and political community, but his work investigated the conditions that affected this relationship. In the 1970s an enormous literature, primarily in the communication sciences, examined patterns in the coverage of international news flows. Structural inequalities in communication flows between developed and developing countries also became a focus of attention in the same decade.

A third theme that runs through the literature concerns the relationship between communication and power. There is a long tradition of critical theorists who see the media and communication structures as a force to maintain the hegemony of entrenched economic and political power interests. The cultural imperialism perspective, a critical response to the development communication paradigm, has continued to focus on the deleterious effects of Western media hegemony on developing countries. As Western, especially US, communication industries have become global conglomerates, the issue of corporate ownership and control of the media has gained even more attention. Other strands of the power and communication theme have focused on government controls and the use of the media to advance government policies. The issue of who should control the media and for what purpose, which has long interested scholars, has generated a new line of research, namely Internet governance. Also fitting into this category are the controversies over the impact of the new information and communication technologies on state power and sovereignty and on international hierarchies of power.

The themes indicated above are simply suggestive of ways in which the diverse topics in international communication might be tied together to form coherent research traditions. But in order to increase our cumulative knowledge, future research should attempt to combine some of these topics into new theoretical frameworks and to conduct more studies in which hypotheses are tested.

More interaction with scholars in communication science, political communication, and other relevant disciplines would suggest new approaches, concepts, and areas of inquiry. It was, in fact, interdisciplinary exchange and collaboration that gave rise to the earliest work in international communication, when the Chicago School and World War II physically brought together scholars from multiple disciplines. After the institutionalization of communication studies as a separate discipline, subfields relevant to the study of international communication developed, but they rarely connected with international relations scholarship. Mass communication and intercultural communication are two examples. Political communication managed to connect with both communication science and political science, but the tendency of all three to focus on the individual level (opinions, attitudes, beliefs) may have discouraged more interest on the part of international relations scholars. The micro level may have gained importance in the new media and political environments. If nonstate actors are playing more assertive roles in world politics, then the impact of new communication technologies on individual attitudes has consequences for foreign policy and diplomacy. The systematic analysis of media effects, as well as cultural exchange, may warrant renewed attention.

There are also areas of inquiry in international relations that could be studied more directly as international communication topics, although they are not generally identified as such. Deterrence, negotiation, bargaining, and conflict resolution are a few examples. Cognitively oriented approaches and concepts from the social sciences more generally that relate language, culture, and policy could also be applied to international communication.

Future research must continue to investigate the myriad ways in which new communication technologies are affecting world politics. This task has been a major focus of recent work, but it is a formidable one because of the pace of change and the scope of its impact. The task will require both macro and micro approaches, case studies, and aggregate data analysis; all the research methods that have been used thus far plus new ones. The field is vibrant, dynamic, and wide open for future research.


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Links to Digital Materials

Communication History Interest Group. At, accessed July 22, 2009. A section of the International Communication Association, one of whose three major areas of focus is history of the field of communication.

Centers for research on international/global communication include:

Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. At, accessed July 22, 2009. Organizes conferences, institutes, and summer programs to evaluate critically and discuss comparative, global, and international communications issues. Organizes network of centers for the conduct of joint projects.

University of Washington Center for Information and Society. At http:/, accessed July 22, 2009. Center for research on the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on individuals and communities around the world, focusing on disadvantaged populations and unrepresented populations. Part of a global network of researchers.

Asian Mass Communication Research and Information Centre (AMIC). At http:/, accessed July 22, 2009. Mass communication documentation, research, training, and publishing. Its library contains one of Asia’s largest collections of documents and audiovisual materials in the Asia Pacific region.

Oxford Internet Institute, a department of the University of Oxford. At, accessed July 22, 2009. An academic center for the study of the societal implications of the Internet. Current research is organized around broad themes: areas of everyday life, governance and democracy, science and learning and shaping the Internet.