Saturday, December 30, 2006

Communication Profoundly Affects Society

I study human communication. Specifically, I study the cognitive processing of mediated messages.

I do not try to cure cancer. But I think that my research matters anyway.

Two of my friends seem to suffer from mild inferiority complexes about what we do. They tend to lament that we're not curing cancer.

Early in my career, I had similar reservations. I considered pursuing a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology because I did not want to dedicate my life to "helping people figure out how to sell cheese."

One day I was discussing this with Kansas State psychologist Richard Jackson Harris. He told me that I had it wrong. Instead, he said, the media shape the way people view the world, and that impact cannot be underestimated.

It was what I needed to hear, and it stayed with me.

Here at Texas Tech, we have the new Institute for Hispanic and International Communications. One of the overarching interests in the institute is the delivery of health care information to rural Hispanics.

Although this is an interesting topic, it did not seem especially related to my own research interests.

Until Thursday.

We were driving south on I-10 on the way to El Paso, and I turned off onto N.M. highway 404, affectionately known as the "Anthony Gap."

As I began to head east, I remembered something that happened almost a decade ago.

In fall 1997, I was the education and health care reporter for the Las Cruces Sun-News. One day I was travelling that same highway to cover a story in Chaparral, N.M. I was going to write about Las Cruces-based Memorial Medical Center's mobile health care unit.

I spent part of this afternoon looking through my clips (cut out articles I wrote) for this story, but it appears as if it never got clipped. Therefore, I cannot tell you much about the story I ultimately wrote. However, it dealt with bringing medical services to the rural and largely Hispanic population of Chaparral (64.5% Hispanic by one estimate I found online).

Reading that story in the Sun-News may have been all that some readers ever learn about delivery of health care to rural Hispanics. More importantly, that article barely touched upon the delivery of health care information to rural Hispanics. For those who showed up to the mobile health care center that day, how did they decide to go there? More importantly, why did those who never showed fail to do so? How can we get them there?

I'm not curing cancer. But our research may lead to more effective communications, which will get patients to go see the physicians, who can cure their cancer. And that is important.

It's a lot easier to go to work each day when you believe in what you do.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice story, Sam. I don't think there's anything wrong with "selling" though. We live in a Capitalistic society and no profession can claim to be better than the other. All professions are working toward the same goal. I mean an anthropologist--on a Ford Foundation grant--studying some remote culture so some MNC (usually, an oil company) can ultimately benefit from that knowledge is no better than an advertiser selling cheese here. Even the cancer researcher when she finds a cure will sell that information to the highest bidder (usually, some evil drug company) who'll totally "capitalize" on that. And advertising, being the very face of capitalism, takes the brunt of all this. So, unless one's a communist one can't find fault with selling. Everybody is selling in a capitalistic society. If one has a problem with selling one has a problem with capitalism. Peace.


7:25 PM  
Anonymous Sam said...

I don't allege a problem. Heck, I think prostitution should be legal.

But that does not make it noble!

The idea is, I guess, that if you choose a life in academics, you are giving up some money for certain perks. That is, most people with nine years of higher education could make more money outside of academe.

Therefore, if I wanted my life to be about selling, I would go sell. Or at least work on Madison Avenue. Instead I trade that for -- at least -- the illusion of doing something "important."

11:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Even in writing about not selling "communication" and related studies short, you're selling them short. I guess I feel like you're categorizing "selling cheese" as simply selling.

I believe, and I think you'd agree with me, that selling anything, from a communication prospective, is about connecting people with brands. While it may not be curing cancer, it may be just as important. Connecting people to certain brands can actually improve lives, just as curing cancer can.

I honestly believe this, and that's why I can go to work each day feeling good about what I do.

For the most part though, great blog post. I just wanted to give my 2 cents from Ohio.

11:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who says you have to give up income for perks in academia? Perhaps that is true at Texas Tech. But that's not my experience. If you are at the right place (such as I am, in a great communication program), you can make tons of money as an academic and still have all the perks.

I think you are also forgetting the potential impact you can have in the classroom. The greatest minds in history were influenced by someone. For all you know, you could be lecturing to the next Einstein, who gets inspired by you to become great.

7:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous is right. If not an Einstein, our purpose is still "noble" if we could help them find a job and move out of this hell hole :)

Most West Texas kids grow up in poverty and are shipped off to Iraq to fight Haliburton's war. In that sense, we have a very noble and responsible job. And it's really a small sacrifice in terms of money...besides, money never really motivated us, did it?


12:04 PM  

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