Schramm, Wilbur (1907-1987)

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SCHRAMM, WILBUR (1907-1987)

Wilbur Schramm established the field of communication study by founding the first doctoral-granting programs and the first university-based communication research institutes and by writing the first textbooks for the field. For several decades, he had great influence in shaping the directions of communication research. The academic field has since grown to approximately two thousand university departments that award about fifty thousand bachelor-level degrees per year—5 percent of all the degrees awarded by U.S. universities. In addition, communication study is widely taught in Latin American, European, and Asian universities, where far more students are enrolled than in the United States.

Schramm grew up in the town of Marietta, Ohio, and received his bachelor's degree from Marietta College in 1928. He then earned his master's degree in American civilization at Harvard University in 1930 and his doctoral degree in English literature at the University of Iowa in 1932. After two years as a postdoctoral fellow in experimental psychology, Schramm became a faculty member at the University of Iowa, where he also founded and directed the Iowa Writers' Workshop, a famed graduate-level fiction-writing program. Here, from 1934 to 1941, he worked out the pedagogical principles for the doctoral programs in communication that he was to establish later at the University of Iowa, the University of Illinois, and Stanford University. His approach involved the careful selection of graduate students, small-sized classes and seminars, and a supportive and participatory learning environment.

The turning point in Schramm's career, leading to his founding the new field of communication study, occurred when the United States entered World War II. A patriot, Schramm immediately volunteered for government duty in Washington, D.C., where he directed programs for the Office of Facts and Figures and its follow-on agency, the Office of War Information (which became the U.S. Information Agency). From 1941 to 1943, he worked with the sociologist Paul F. Lazarsfeld, the political scientist Harold Lasswell, the social psychologists Kurt Lewin and Carl Hovland, and other American social scientists who were involved in various wartime duties in Washington. They met regularly to plan communication activities to promote the war effort (such as national campaigns to grow Victory Gardens; conserve gasoline, tires, and certain foods; buy War Bonds; and participate in scrap iron and scrap rubber drives). Schramm and his network of fellow scholars shared an interest in communication research and sought to apply this new scholarly perspective in evaluating military training films, in analyzing Allied and Axis propaganda, and in designing public communication campaigns aimed at the American people. Schramm's vision for the scholarly field of communication study grew out of the multidisciplinary network to which he belonged in Washington. He possessed the can-do spirit needed to launch this vision in the university setting.

In 1943, Schramm left Washington to return to the University of Iowa, where he was appointed director of the School of Journalism. He promptly established the Bureau of Communication Research and offered a doctoral degree in communication. His model for the research institute at Iowa was Paul Lazarsfeld's Office of Radio Research at Columbia University, which Schramm saw as an opportunity to found the new academic field of communication within existing university structures. There were other movements in launching doctoral programs in journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin and at the University of Minnesota at about this same time, championed by Willard Bleyer, a professor of journalism at Wisconsin, and his former students, but Schramm's vision was to have a greater eventual influence.

From 1947 to 1953, Schramm was to implement his vision for communication study on a grander scale at the University of Illinois at Urbana. Here he served as director of the Institute of Communications Research, a research and doctorate-granting unit, and became dean of the newly formed College of Communication. He also was editor of the University of Illinois Press, and in this capacity he published Claude E. Shannon's important book, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (1949). Schramm's University of Illinois Press also published his edited book, The Process and Effects of Mass Communication (1954), a textbook that helped define the new field. Administrative support for Schramm's innovative academic activities at Illinois ended when the university president was fired. Schramm began to look for other opportunities.

In 1953, Schramm went to Stanford University, where he was to spend the next twenty years as director of the Institute for Communication Research, which became the most respected and influential center for communication study. Schramm was also the Janet M. Peck Professor of International Communication, a title that reflected his growing interest in international communication and in the role of communication in the development of the nations of Latin American, Africa, and Asia (his 1959 and 1964 books, respectively, defined these new applications of communication theory and research). Schramm was also influential in directing communication study to the effects of television violence on children (this in his 1961 book with Jack Lyle and Edwin Parker). At Stanford, Schramm trained a cadre of outstanding scholars in communication research and theory.

These new doctorates in communication from Schramm's research institute joined the faculty of existing schools of journalism and departments of speech, gradually converting these units to a dominant concern with communication science. This change, reflected in the increasingly widespread use of the term "communication" in their names, largely occurred in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1973, Schramm retired from Stanford University and then wound down his career at the East-West Communication Institute at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. During this final stage of his career, Schramm served as the Ah Boon Haw Professor of Communication at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1977. More generally, during his fourteen years in Hawaii, Schramm assisted the growth of communication study in Asia. He died in 1987, leaving unfinished a book of his memoirs about the beginnings of communication study. This volume was finally published in 1997.

Unlike such forefathers of the field of communication as Lasswell, Lazarsfeld, Lewin, and Hov-land, who pioneered in conducting research on propaganda, mass communication effects, small-group communication, and persuasion, respectively, Schramm left his original academic field of English literature. He was the first scholar in the world to carry the title of professor of communication. He founded communication research institutes, departments of communication, and a college of communication, and thus his students earned degrees in communication. Then they spread out like scholarly missionaries to implement his vision at various universities in the United States and abroad. His quality as a visionary, institution builder, and trainer of early communication scholars distinguished Schramm from the four forefathers of the field. For this reason, Wilbur Schramm is the founder of the academic field of communication.

See also:Lazarsfeld, Paul F.; Modelsof Communication.


Rogers, Everett M. (1994). A History of Communication Study: A Biographical Approach. New York: Free Press.

Schramm, Wilbur, ed. (1954). The Process and Effects of Mass Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Schramm, Wilbur. (1959). One Day in the World's Press. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Schramm, Wilbur. (1964). Mass Media and National Development. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Schramm, Wilbur. (1997). The Beginnings of Communication Study in America: A Personal Memoir. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Schramm, Wilbur; Lyle, Jack; and Parker, Edwin B. (1961). Television in the Lives of Our Children. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Everett M. Rogers

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Schramm, Wilbur (1907-1987)

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