Conference Analyzes Future of Communication Science

What will communication research look like in 10 years? 20 years? How will artificial intelligence, neuroscience, computational science and other cutting-edge methods continue to evolve? These were among the questions discussed during the recent Communication Science Futures conference hosted by the Department of Communication at Michigan State University. 

The event held May 30 – June 1 in the WKAR studios drew researchers from across the country who are at the forefront of a number of communication-related disciplines.  Organizers called it an “unconference,” in that it was intended to be less lecture-oriented and offer more hands-on collaboration. The venue was a natural choice. Michigan State University established the first communication science department in the U.S. in 1955.  

“We wanted to provide a venue for communication researchers to discuss pressing issues and opportunities in the field,” said assistant professor Jacob Fisher, Ph.D., who helped organize the event. “Our goal was to give researchers from different sub-disciplines a space to interact with one another and potentially spin up collaborative research projects that would never have existed were it not for the conference.” 

The keynote speaker was Dr. Byron Reeves, a nationally renowned communication scientist at Stanford University. He challenged the participants to throw away a few basic assumptions about how they conduct research. For example, Reeves spoke of using less generalizable samples with large numbers of people, instead focusing on learning more about a few individuals.   

That idea resonated with Department of Communication chair Monique Turner, Ph.D.  

“Maybe we need to be approaching science completely differently,” Turner said. “Maybe we’ve limited ourselves by forcing these structures; (instead of) allowing us to learn everything about one human, but rather, understanding a couple of things about 100,000 humans. Maybe we need to do both. I walked away thinking, am I approaching science completely incorrectly? It made me rethink how we want to do things.” 

The conference focused on three sessions: theory, research and methods.   

The breakout discussions regarding theory studied issues such as the role of neurocognitive factors in communication, balancing precision and generality in complex phenomena and taking a systems perspective to better understand communication processes and effects. 

The research session featured topics such as non-representatives in social media data, generative AI in online political communication and the ethical implications of AI for relationships.  

Attendees also studied such issues as merging diverse methods, measures and models in theory testing and opportunities and challenges of AI-aided content analysis. 

One attendee was Dr. Richard Huskey, the principal investigator of the Cognitive Communication Science Lab in the Department of Communication at the University of California-Davis.   

“We are a computational neuroscience lab that studies how motivation influences people’s attitudes and behavior,” Huskey said. “It was exciting to hear about cutting-edge scholarship from early career researchers. For me, the most inspiring talks were the ones discussing longitudinal data collection, be it within one individual, interacting partners or groups of people over time. I think these context and location -aware approaches will be an important future for the field.” 

As digital technology continues to emerge, communication scientists must also adopt new research methods.   

“The future of communication research is going to look a lot different from the past,” said Fisher. “The topics that we study as a field and the methods that we use to study those topics are just advancing at an extremely rapid pace. This is coupled with increasing interest from other disciplines in topics that have historically been mainly researched in communication.” Fisher said this includes things like interpersonal conversation dynamics, message and media effects, persuasion and many others. “So, we are sitting at a bunch of different intersections regarding how the field is going to look in 10 or 20 years.” 

By all accounts, the conference was well-received. Fisher said plans are in the works for MSU to host the same event in future years. Department of Communication Chairperson Monique Turner is already seeing encouraging feedback. 

“People are filling out post-questionnaires and sending me emails and messages telling me this was the best conference they’d been to in years,” Turner said. “They’re leaving the conference with new ideas and new thoughts, questioning what they’ve done in the past.  So, I think by all metrics we’ve done what we intended to do.”