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Dilemmas of communication

The field of study expands debate on its object and scientific status

ReproductionTo be or not to be a science seems to be, if not the question, at least a crucial issue for the field of studies in communication in Brazil today. Around it, new theoretical and institutional problems are being created, special interest groups formed, and diverging positions become consolidated. If talking about a schism in the small and embattled scientific community connected with this field might sound like an inappropriate hyperbole, there is clearly a dispute under way among researchers as to the status of communication. The result of this may even be a redefinition of its space within the human and social sciences in the country – with all the consequences that are foreseeable in these cases, in academic and politico-institutional terms, and, of course, in terms of the availability of funds for research.

In this regard it was indeed a very elucidative sample that the researchers offered at the Epistemology of Communication seminar, jointly promoted by the National Association for Postgraduate Programs in Communication (Compós) and the Communications and Arts School of the University of São Paulo (ECA-USP), on November 7th and 8th. Taking up their stances, on the one hand, were those who want to lead communication towards the strict status of a science, with its object rigorously defined and research methods spelled out, to the point of making it possible to confirm or to refute experiments carried out – or even announced discoveries.

On the other hand, there were the ranks of scholars who prefer to keep communication as an open field of studies, multidisciplinary, among which the media is the most apparent object, but is far from being an exclusive theme. And who also understand that the hurry and the anxiousness to qualify communication as a science stricto sensu, for reasons that are more institutional than otherwise, kill a fertile scientific debate, which is indeed international, that is still at the stage of expounding differences, without the maturity that is indispensable to consensus.

Between one extreme and the other – something else that could be confirmed at the Epistemology Seminar – there is room for more subtle visions, like Muniz Sodré’s, the coordinator of postgraduate studies at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). He proposes to regard communication as a science, indeed, but not in the manner of the exact or biological sciences, as exact and universal knowledge, “but in the sense of a well structured discourse, with a well made language, and capable of being so recognized by the community, rescued from Kant and the sensualist philosophers of the 18th century”.

Collective intellectuals
The differences, nevertheless, go beyond the particular version of Hamlet’s dilemma that the communicologists have created for themselves. They also touch on, as points out the coordinator of postgraduate studies at ECA-USP, Maria Immacolata Lopes, another crucial query, namely, what is, after all, the object of communication studies, whether or not they configure a science? The question, which seems to rearrange the groups in a different way from that resulting from the disputes about the scientific status of communication, is getting different answers in both content and tone, varying from a visible hesitation to a deep-rooted conviction: could it be the media, could it the social linkage, could it be all the relationships of human communication, including the interpersonal ones, the sense of presentness, of the present continuous, which the mass means of communication carry and broadcast, etc., etc.

In this hotchpotch of visions and discourses, 76-year old Professor Octavio Ianni, the respected dean of Brazilian sociology and nowadays connected with postgraduate studies in communication at ECA-USP, felt at ease to complain of the absence that he had felt at the seminar of a fundamental personage for that debate: “The media corporations and conglomerates, the powerful and extremely sophisticated collective intellectuals”. He made the complaint at the special round table on “the future of the communication field”‘, which wrapped up the seminar, after questioning the audience about what was really being talked about there, when one talked about communication.

This was after didactically recalling that “in its most widespread acceptation, communication is both constituted by society and constitutes it, and all social relationships involve or are involved in communication”. Having established this, he observed that there are particular forms in this universal phenomenon of communication, which acquire relevance in politics, in the economy, in culture, etc. “And there is a special form, the media’s, which concerns the media and the companies, the corporations and conglomerates that are an intrinsic part of the process of globalization. It involves intellectuals, artists and technicians, making up a vast collective intellectual that shapes people’s social conscience”.

In actual fact, Immacolata had already pointed out the concern with the practices that cross “willy-nilly” the field of communication. “But what about the theory?” she questions. In this area in which the reflections continue to avail themselves, basically, of updates of Adorno and other thinkers from the Frankfurt School, of the structuralists and of cultural studies, there is still a lack of consistent theoretical points of reference produced in Brazil itself. “We do not yet have in Brazil a serious, academic criticism of the media, the television and of the press”.

Growth crisis
A possible feeling for one observing from the edges the debate under way on communication, after coming through the dense rhetorical forest, is that one is facing, more than anything else, a crisis of accelerated growth, with its typical conflicts of identity. So it is not gratuitous, then, that the words legitimacy and autonomy frequently appear in the discussion of the researchers from the area, as a clear expression of the desire to make communication pass from the condition of a lower field in the ambit of the Humanities, sheltered in a way under the broad wings of sociology, linguistics or philosophy, to the situation of a respected autonomous scientific field.

It is undeniable that there is rapid growth. This is what is seen when, for example, the figures are examined referring to the postgraduate programs in communication that there are in the country, registered with the Coordination for the Perfection of Higher Level Personnel (Capes). Up to 1997, there were seven programs with didactic content under way, and as soon as 1999 they had gone up to 13, according to the volume entitled Theses and Dissertations in Communication in Brazil (1997-1999): Abstracts, organized by Ida Regina Stumpf and Sérgio Capparelli, both from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), and published in 2001 by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), with the support of Capes.

Today, there are now 18 programs, and the creation of a few others is being proposed to Capes. It is obvious that, compared with the social sciences, which has a much greater tradition and is more consolidated in the national scientific panorama, this is still a modest figure. The National Association for Postgraduate Studies and Research in Social Sciences (Anpocs) records no less than 65 postgraduate programs in this scientific area.

Sufficient doctors
In number of works, that is, dissertations for a master’s degree and theses for a doctorate in communication, the Rio Grande do Sul researchers mentioned above show that from 1992 to 1996, in five years, then, 754 papers were produced, while there were 835 produced in the following three years. In terms of averages, a rise in annual production from 151 to 278 works can be seen, that is, a considerable percentage increase of a little over 84%. And if, from curiosity, we take the total number of dissertations and theses produced from 1972 to 1996 – 1,895 works, according to the table published in Brazilian Scientific Production in the Decade of the 1980’s: Analysis, Trends, Prospects, coordinated by Margarida Maria Krohling Kunsch and Ada de Freitas Maneti Dencker, both from ECA-USP -, we arrive at an average annual production of 79 works for this long period, against the 278 for the period from 1997 to 1999.

The field of communication studies in the country has thus produced, since its origins up to 1999, about 2,730 works, of which nearly 640 are theses for a doctorate (there are some inaccuracies in the table presented in the work of Margarida Kunsch and Ada Dencker that prevents one from taking the figures with absolute certainty). Put another way, over 600 doctors in communication have been formed in the course of time that this field has been institutionalized, and even though a good part of them is outside the academic area, the production resulting from this process of formation is far from being negligible. The current battle for legitimacy and for room for researchers in communication in the national scientific community therefore seems natural.

Excellence under discussion
It remains to be seen if there is a growing quality in the scientific production, matching the quantitative expansion. Should one take into consideration the most recent grades attributed by Capes to the postgraduate programs in communication, things are not so simple. The program at ECA-USP, for example, fell from 5 to a modest 3. Let it be recorded that it started in 1972 with studies for a master’s degree, and the doctorate, implanted in 1980, has at this stage already formed some 400 doctors.

At the moment, the program has 670 postgraduate students and 110 doctors lecturing on its faculty. Other programs with a lot of tradition, like the one at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP) and the Methodist University of São Paulo (UMESP) were given 4. In the meantime, far newer programs were awarded a 5, the highest mark attributed to the area, namely the programs at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), the Fluminense Federal University (UFF), the UFRGS and the University of the Rio dos Sinos Valley (Unisinos). For the record, six and 7 are grades ks attributed only to programs with excellence in the international context, which is not the case of any in communication.

The ranking, of course, yielded feisty controversy over the criteria for the attribution of grades, which cover the productivity of the teaching staff, the productivity of the students, the time spent on the formation, and the proportion of, the referential teachers who work dedicated full time to the program. At ECA-USP, for example, which regarded itself as a blatant victim of injustice, many researchers were forced to conclude that the institution was being jeopardized for its stock of retired professors, of the highest quality, in activity on the program (like Octavio Ianni).

Evidently, they do not have the same productivity, from the merely quantitative point of view, as a young doctor. “The retired staff constitute a group of excellence that the program incorporates free of charge, at no cost. Accordingly, any contribution from them, one, two theses that they give guidance on at a time, a few lectures given, is all profit. But with the system’s current logic, it is better to have just five young doctors than these and another five great professors that are now formally retired”, is the complaint, for example, of Professor Ismail Xavier, 55 years old, the incumbent for the Theory and History of the Cinema and the coordinator of the area that concentrates on the cinema in ECA-USP’s program.

In a way, these polemics that seem to be bureaucratic are just one of the facets shown in the much wider debate, which goes as far as radical questioning about the status of communication and about its object. Because here, those who head up the position in defense of communication as a science stricto sensu, usually also fight for its rigorous inclusion in the rules of the agencies that foster research.

“My effort is for the elimination of the self-complacency that until a short while ago governed the relationship between the scientific community and the communication area. We need qualification for the teaching staff, we need consistency in the lines of research, which have to be understood as places where specialties are formed, and not just trade names”, says Wilson Gomes, aged 39, the professor of the Theory of Communication at UFBA. In the role of representative of the postgraduate programs in the area of information and communication sciences and of the area of applied social sciences on Capes’s Technical-Scientific Committee (CTC), Gomes insists that “the communication area needs to work, it needs to resolve its craze for putting its production outside its own area.

Society knows that it is mass communication that we are talking about, and, accordingly, anyone who wants to produce a thesis on dancing, on ergonomy or on interpersonal communication ought to look for other programs”. He sees in the formation of Compós, in 1992, a fundamental factor for encouraging growth in the communication area, and he believes that it really is expanding rapidly in volume and consistency.

He explains that his discourse to within the community of communicologists has been very tough, “because there are historical founding defects in the field of communication that have to be overcome”. But at Capes, he avows, his position is one of intransigent defense of the virtue of the field, “which cannot be led by someone who does not like science and its methodological demands”. Unless it gets increasingly closer to a proper scientific mentality, he adds, the risk is that communication will be swept outside the system that fosters research.

The quarrel at home
The ironic, curious touch of this debate is that it took on a very concrete form at UFBA, the university where Gomes works. “We proposed the creation of a multidisciplinary group, within the program for Communication and Contemporary Cultures, to research contemporary spectacles. The group was not accepted, due to this new, narrow, understanding of communication that has been spread , and then we set up a new postgraduate program connected with the Communication College (Facom), the Multidisciplinary Program of Culture and Society”, tells Albino Rubim, aged 50, a director of Facom and the former coordinator of the school ‘s first postgraduate program. The new program is with Capes, to be approved by the Multidisciplinary Committee.

Although he has a doctorate in sociology from USP, Rubim has been a respected researcher in the communication area, connected with Facom-UFBA, where he graduated, since the 70’s. He avows that no group has any interest in maintaining a belligerent attitude, and sets out with tranquility his conceptual difference with Gomes. “Personally, I do not believe that there is a science of communication, which I see as an interdisciplinary area, of which one works with turning simultaneously to economics, sociology, anthropology and the theories of communication” He agrees that not everything should fit inside the communication area, which ought to carry out a clean-up of the “garbage”, as Gomes says, but “to close the area and define that everything that is not a study of the media has to remain outside is to narrow the field too much”, to his reckoning.

He gives a practical example: “In which area should one study and seek to understand a phenomenon like the one that occurs in Bahia, of music that has not been recorded, is not being played in any mass communication media, and is suddenly being sung by the entire population?” There are, then, in his understanding, other ways of communication that do not go through the media and which are legitimate objects for the field for communication studies. Rubim even points out that the tie between communication and culture could mean a great impulse for the scientific reach of the communication area. “Traditionally, culture has not had an owner in Brazilian universities. It has been linked to the law schools , to the social sciences, and, more recently, to communication, and from the point of view of the production of knowledge, this can be very fertile”, he says.

New dimensions to the debate are given by the voice of Muniz Sodré, aged 60, one of the most respected thinkers on communication in the country, with his original theories, like the one that establishes that we live today in a bios, or in a mass media life. “I see the science of communication as a reflexive discourse that should incorporate the sense of the professional of the media, of the logotechnical elites”.

This is the discourse of a praxis, simultaneously reflexive and technical, which has the ambition of reorienting ethically and politically the media themselves and the users of the media. Muniz recalls that it is the professionals from the media whoare continuously creating an imaginary universe and a real one where people are going to live. He recalls that there is a virtual way of life continuously made by people who are aware of this act.

“And that is why this discourse of the media has to be recognized by the scientific community, not as its own discourse, but as one that it has to go to, to go back to the academic world to construct the discourse of science, which is reflexive, and then go back again to the technical discourse of the media, with the ambition of an ethical reorientation”, he says. And on this point, in his vision, communication is no different from other social sciences, which historically have grown up meeting demands to raise the power of given social players, like the State, the trade unions, etc.

And if still more elements can be added to the discussion of the epistemology of communication, it is worth noting that researchers from a field traditionally comprised by communication, such as the cinema, do not intend to renounce, amongst other things, a dimension that they regard as essential for their reflections: the aesthetic one. “Those who focus on critical analysis of the cinema cannot do without the instruments offered by literary theory, by the history of art and by the theater. The mass phenomenon of the cinema is strongly anchored on dramatic narrative, and the theories of communication do not take this into account. The theories originating from the Frankfurt school or from Cultural Studies, in Birmingham, kill esthetics, a value that for us lies at the center of our reflections”, says Ismail Xavier. That is why he sees problems ahead with the categorization to which the postgraduate programs in communication have been submitted.

Identity problems
Categorization is something that would be unnecessary if the new generation of communication researchers did not have identity problems with the field in which they are working, in the vision of Professor José Marques de Mello, one of the first communication researchers in the country and a retired full professor from ECA-USP and the current coordinator of the Methodist College’s postgraduate program. “We are talking of a history of the communication area in Brazil and of postgraduate studies, from 1972 onwards, but for us to be rigorous, one has to recall that this field begins at the beginning of the 60’s, with Darcy Ribeiro, in the University of Brasilia”, says Marques.

“Darcy called Pompeu de Souza, whom he regarded as the most competent Brazilian journalist”, and charged him with setting up the communication area of the new university. Based on the model of Stanford University, a communication school was set up, with a school of journalism, a school of cinema, a radio and TV school and a publicity and advertising school, all very much related to the real universe of communication. At the same moment, postgraduate studies were started at the UnB, the students of which were the teachers of undergraduates, taken on with a 40 hour a week workload. “There were both very experienced people, like Luís Beltrão and Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes, and talented youngsters like Jean Claude Bernardet”, says Marques.

The military dictatorship installed in the country after 1964 dismantled the Brasilia experience, but even so it served as a basis for the formation of ECA-USP in 1966, with the organization of undergraduate studies and a program for doctorates which took advantage of the experience that some of them brought from the UnB. “The first group of doctors handed in their theses in 1972 and made their defenses of them in early 1973”, says Marques. It so happens that the reform of higher education put into effect in the country between 1967 and 1969 did away with direct doctorates, and ECA-USP had to organize postgraduate studies on the new foundations, with the installation of a course for master’s degrees in 1972. The doctorates in conformity with the new model were only to come eight years later.

There is thus the “interregnum of the dictatorship”, a political interruption that since the beginning has been perturbing the unfolding of this the newest of fields that was communication, and, further on, a phenomenon of early retirements at the university, from the end of the 80’s, which also works as a perturbing element for the system. And which now, many years later, finds itself grappling with the call for a profound reflection in its own regard.