Innis, Harold Adams (1894-1952)

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Harold Adams Innis was a Canadian political economist who turned to the study of communication in the last years of his career and life, publishing two important works on the media, Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951). These two difficult and expansive scholarly books have provided a foundation for Canadian political economy of communication studies since their publication, but in the United States and elsewhere, Innis's legacy primarily has been the influence his work had on Marshall McLuhan, who was a controversial colleague at the University of Toronto from the late 1940s until Innis's death and who became a well-known media theorist in the 1960s. Before he died, Innis was a professor and head of the Department of Political Economy and dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the University of Toronto. Innis College is now named after him.

Considered by Canadian cultural theorists to be one of a triumvirate that also includes McLuhan and George Grant, Innis presented in Empire and Communications an encyclopedic interpretation of the influence of communication on Western civilization as he pursued the thesis that communication occupies a crucial position in the political organization of empires, suggestive of the general role of communication in historical change. His studies of each civilization and its dominant media center on concepts of time and space. Durable media such as stone, parchment, and clay emphasize time and favor decentralized and hierarchical institutions. Light media such as papyrus and paper emphasize space and favor centralization and less hierarchy. Empires survive by managing the bias of dominant media toward either time or space and by balancing media with different biases. Innis also divides history into writing and printing periods, noting the influence of clay, papyrus, parchment, and paper on the writing period, as well as the influence of machinery and wood pulp on the printing period. In a caveat, Innis is careful to guard against suggesting that writing or printing has determined the course of civilization, and also warns against overlooking the importance of the oral period, which has left little record. Reflected in the literature of Greece, in the sagas of northern Europe, as well as in music and poetry, the oral tradition can be too easily forgotten. In many essays included in The Bias of Communication, Innis pleads for a return to the balance of eye and ear and the balance of writing and speech, all of which were hallmarks of Greece at its best and of the oral tradition.

In both of his major works, Innis turned from his economic studies of cod fisheries, the fur trade, and railways in Canada to communication as a central productive force in history. As an economics historian, Innis brought to communication studies a focus on the rise and fall of civilizations and the dialectical relationships between metropolitan centers and peripheral margins. Primarily studying ancient civilizations, but writing with a grand historical sweep that included comments up to the mid-twentieth century as well, Innis developed the idea that the dominant form of communication, whether it was time-biased or space-biased, fostered different types of social power and control in creating a monopoly on the knowledge of a society. As new forms of communication appeared on the horizon and were developed by competing power groups, those emerging monopolies of knowledge, under the right social conditions, could present powerful forces of change leading to the fall of previous civilizations and the rise of new ones. For example, the use of stone and hieroglyphics in Egypt tended toward a time-biased empire of divine kingship that sustained itself over time with the elite's access to a secret script. When papyrus came along, it enabled Egypt to expand its control over space but it also required the priestly class to share power with an emerging administrative bureaucracy.

Often interpreted as a soft technological determinism within a critical framework similar to or a variant of Marxist analysis, Innis's writing on communication exhibited a strongly stated preference for civilization based on oral communication as existed in ancient Greece at the time of the advent of the phonetic alphabet. Innis traced the shift from the time-biased nature of oral culture, which was adept at creating a rich culture over long periods of time but not over wide expanses of space. Oral societies were more democratic because of the dialogic and conversational character of orality. The spread of writing systems and the introduction of the printing press and movable type in Europe in the mid-1400s gave rise to increasingly dominating forms of empire. The social and institutional organization made possible by writing and printing were space-biased, which are good at extending power and control over space, but more vulnerable to disintegrating in a shorter period of time.

Although the monopolies of knowledge fostered by print technology cultures were threatened, or checked, as Innis often wrote, by the emergence of the electronic media of radio and film, Innis argued that these new media intensified rather than challenged the reach of modern empires to a global scale. The inherent attack against the democratic spirit of oral cultures is amplified by electronic media monopolies of knowledge, Innis argued, in contrast to McLuhan's central argument that electronic media were inherently more decentralizing and democratizing because they represented a return to orality.

Innis's death in 1952 prevented his historical analysis of communication from including the effect of the widespread penetration of television throughout the world, not to mention the proliferation of computer and satellite technology that has occurred since his death. However, given the range of his study of communication media (from stone tablets to the printing press to electronic media) and the media's effect on the rise and fall of the empires of Egypt, Rome, Greece, Babylon, Europe, and America, among others, his legacy provides such a pervasive theory of the relationship between communication media and social organizations that his work can be predictive of many future changes in communication. David Godfrey, for example, in his introduction to the 1986 edition of Empire and Communications, ponders Innis's reaction to word processors, which Innis would have regarded as being similar to paper mills, printing presses, and the written alphabet. All are a threat to the oral tradition of human conversation based on speech, hearing, and direct experience in a democratic exchange. Also, as James Carey (1989) predicts, based on Innis's work, the proliferation of new technologies will intensify the speed and spread of empire over both space and time.

Innis's work has appeared in the shadow of McLuhan outside of Canada; however, while Innis has been identified as a member of the Toronto school of communication theorists, the turn of his work toward culture and critical theory makes his scholarship of increasing interest in contemporary American research, which is more open to humanistic and interdisciplinary media studies than in the past ascendancy of media-effects research. Recognized as a founding figure of technology and culture studies, Innis is included, with Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, as one of the key figures in the media ecology approach developed at New York University by Neil Postman and his colleagues. The attention of cultural studies thinker and prominent media researcher Carey also has kept Innis's work from receding. Canadian research continues to be receptive to Innis's work through such contemporary scholars as political scientist Judith Stamps and cultural theorist Jody Berland, as well as through the earlier work of Arthur Kroker.

See also:Cultural Studies; Language and Communication; McLuhan, Herbert Marshall; Models of Communication; Technology, Adoption and Diffusion of; Technology, Philosophy of.


Babe, Robert E. (2000). Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Carey, James. (1968). "Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan." In McLuhan: Pro and Con, ed. Raymond Rosenthal. Baltimore, MD: Penguin.

Carey, James. (1989). Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Crowley, David, and Heyer, Paul. (1999). Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society, 3rd edition. New York: Longman.

Czitrom, Daniel J. (1982). Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Innis, Harold A. ([1950] 1986). Empire and Communications, ed. David Godfrey. Victoria, BC: Press Porcepic.

Innis, Harold A. ([1951] 1991). The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Kroker, Arthur. (1984). Technology and the Canadian Mind: Innis/McLuhan/Grant. Montreal: New World Perspectives.

Rosenthal, Raymond, ed. (1968). McLuhan: Pro and Con. Baltimore, MD: Penguin.

Stamps, Judith. (1995). Unthinking Modernity: Innis, McLuhan, and the Frankfurt School. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Stevenson, Nick. (1995). Understanding Media Cultures: Social Theory and Mass Communication. London, Eng.: Sage Publications.

Paul Grosswiler