On the 30th Anniversary of the UCSD Communication Department

For the last few years, I have jokingly referred to a “La Jolla School” of Communication. This invisible college has grown up around the Communication Department at the University of California, San Diego. And as a school of thought it is represented by the current faculty, of course, and the Ph.D. alumni who are also emerging as intellectual leaders of the field in their own right.


But unlike the other place-based schools of thought, there is no single topical or methodological link that the whole community abides by or protects. The Montreal School has had an important influence on organizational communication, the Frankfurt School had impressive epistemological unity, and the Toronto School is known for its historical perspective and media personalities. There are also many fine departments and schools of communication across the United States, but I would argue none of these have yet to cohere into anything near a school of thought. The “La Jolla School” is the most identifiable department-centered school of thought in contemporary communication research in the United States.

Membership in the La Jolla School is defined through a way of knowing that produces richly textured, deeply analytical work on the cultures, infrastructures, and social implications of media and communication across behavioral, social scientific and humanistic approaches. Now, for the 30th Anniversary of the founding of the UCSD Communication Department, it is time to reflect on the project and what has been accomplished so far.

In an era when digital media require new ways of asking questions about the relationship between mass media and human communication, UCSD paved the way. What UCSD figured out –well before the rest of the field did– is that we can’t separate the medium from the interaction from the implications (social, cultural, or economic). What has been built over the last 30 years by the La Jolla School is based in a deep belief that intellectual conversation must happen across the perspectives on human interaction, media production, culture studies, and political economy.

Of course, the ideas were and are always first in La Jolla. One of the particular quirks of UCSD is its dogged refusal to identify or police professional or disciplinary boundaries, and yet the work of La Jolla School has begun constitute an approach to being within the discipline.  In La Jolla, interesting ideas always win out over pedigrees, and they usually won out over extended discussion during (sometimes seemingly endless) “Course Group” meetings. Oh, how I cursed those meetings when I was a first-year professor there, and how I long for them now. For it was there and then that these negotiations among perspectives were hammered out. The conversations about teaching and hiring that every department does were different in the La Jolla approach because of a deep commitment to intellectual engagement across these boundaries and a spirit of radical democracy that informed them. These conversations and people’s commitment to them, constituted a process of democratic sense-making among the core and periphery of the school of thought, allowing diverse voices, cross-fertilization across specialties, and new ideas to emerge. It might be difficult to articulate exactly what topically makes La Jolla style research, but people came to recognize it when they saw it in the work of others.


What then does make a work or a person part of this school? I’d argue that it is three main premises define it.

  1. A strong program for the study of communication cultures. Jeffery Alexander famously argued for a robust strong program of cultural sociology. Without re-hashing that debate, it is useful to pull in this idea of a strong program of culture to describe work that is inherently cultural and communicative. A defining tenant of the La Jolla school marries symbolic and structural approaches to understanding communication as meaning, process, and artifact. The La Jolla School does not reject textual approaches to understanding, but rather often uses them with historical, political, behavioral and social ones. Similarly, working in La Jolla school scholarship means being unafraid to directly investigate culture, rather than treating it as an aside, addition, or error term, regardless of one’s epistemological starting point.
  2. A firm belief in multiple levels of analysis of communication. While not all members of the La Jolla school do all things, there is a shared recognition that the valid levels of analysis for the study of communication include society, culture, economy, group, and individual. The ability to translate work across these levels is a defining marker of the La Jolla style of research. These levels of analysis are built into the 30-year old structure of the UCSD department that combines mass media, culture studies, human cognition and media production, making the founding vision for the La Jolla School seem prescient for the internet era.
  3. Deep dives. To say the dissertation projects of UCSD graduate students are ambitious is an understatement. The work of the La Jolla School is bookish, book-quality, and deep. Regardless of the particular methodological or theoretical anchors such as ethnography, history, or cognitive behavior, the tendency for La Jolla School work is to delve deep into a particular topic, even by scholarly standards.

My own time in La Jolla was brief. I worked there as an assistant professor for only one year before family reasons took me to my present job. Because I was trained as a sociologist, UCSD was my gateway drug for communication scholarship, and in that way my time there functioned for me like a postdoc for ways of thinking through, around, and about the field of communication. I was very lucky to be mentored there by incredible senior and junior colleagues–in particular, Mike Cole, Gary Fields, Dan Hallin, Robert Horwitz, Chandra Mukerji, Michael Schudson, and David Serlin. I find it ironic now that my professionalization into the communication field is due in large part to time spent at a program that purports to have little concern for the problems of the profession, disciplines, or careers. The program’s founding faculty were and are strongly associated with social and behavioral sciences and humanities disciplines outside the field of communication. What I didn’t understand at the time was how carefully UCSD cultivated this outsider status. But without that group of my first professional colleagues who cared deeply about a sociologically and politically informed study of culture, I doubt my transition into the communication field would have been as smooth as it was.

For a program purports not to care about the profession, it is having quite an impact on communication.  Three of the last eight ICA Outstanding Book Awards have been for “La Jolla School” books, this year for Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Authentic and recently for Tarleton Gillespie’s Wired Shut and Dan Hallin and Paolo Mancini’s influential Comparing Media Systems. Just thinking through my colleagues from the subfield of communication technology, prominent La Jolla School members include Kirsten Foot, Steve Jackson, Matt Ratto, and Fred Turner. My own research within industry now brings me into rich conversation with alumni Suzanne Thomas at Intel and Mary Gray at Microsoft Research. The first generation of alumni are just now beginning to reach the ranks of full professor and other leadership positions that allow them to reach the full power of their influence such as Vicki Mayer at Tulane and Rick Bonus at UW. There are many more I could name, but these examples show the expansive reach within the area of communication and technology of a small and relatively young program.

It is the La Jolla School spirit of recognizing exciting ideas that makes me deeply honored to have been, if only briefly formally, part of this mission. There are likely many more people who would recognize themselves informally as members of the La Jolla School by sharing in the spirit of its intellectual project and in working to help it flourish.