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Communication and Communication Arts: Anthropology and Communication

by Solon T. Kimball - 1955

We must understand that however important instruments and content of communication may be, they are powerless to bring change in values or promote action unless the human situation provides a favorable environment. Anthropology offers evidence that cultural and social systems constitute the ultimate components of the communication process. The anthropologist would conclude, and the illustrations presented here have been for the purpose of providing substantiation, that the practitioner of communication arts must also learn to understand and operate within these systems.

THERE are three areas of anthropological endeavor which are related to the subject of communication. The first and at present most fully developed aspect has been concerned with the relatively narrow field of linguistics. The need to learn and record native languages posed a practical problem for anthropologists which they had to surmount in order to study the culture of native peoples. Boas and his student Sapir are recognized for their accomplishments in this early period. Subsequent scholars have refined and advanced the techniques until today linguistic analysis is on a scientific basis. The concern with language as a function of culture is a second major area. Its genesis may be correlated with the rise in emphasis upon functional analysis as a method of cultural interpretation. Relationships were sought between the structure and meaning of language and other aspects of cultural behavior. Some of the descriptions of kinship systems illustrated vividly the interconnections. But understanding was also sought of the relation of language to modes of action, systems of logic, values, and world view. Malinowski, Whorf, and Hoijer are representative of interest in this area. Their analyses have shown the relationships between language structure and thought processes and ultimately the connection with cultural forms. My own experience among Navaho Indians may serve as an example.

The structure of Navaho language expresses a basic philosophical view of the world. Thus a Navaho does not say, "I am sick" or "I am hungry." Such concepts indicate an active state of feeling or of being, and are related to a perception of the individual and his relation to external forces characteristic of Western civilization. Our language gives expression to the implied control which the individual may exercise over aspects of the external world. The Navaho, in contradistinction, when he is talking about sickness or hunger says, "Sickness enters (or dwells) within me" or "Hunger is within me." The Navaho views himself as a responsive item within a world of forces. In fact, Navaho mythology explains that when the world was being readied for man's habitation, the spirits of Sickness, Hunger, and Poverty were permitted to remain abroad that man in experiencing them would understand Health, Repletion, and Wealth.

The third area with which the anthropologist is concerned is that of the relationship between cultural and social systems and communication. This interest is particularly strong among those who have studied contemporary institutions and communities. The transfer of anthropological methodology to complex civilizations has produced some distinctive results and met with some new problems. When anthropologists studied a people with a simple culture and limited population it was possible to grasp the whole of the culture. But field work in a tribe of three or four hundred people in South America or New Guinea is vastly simpler than in an American city. The emphasis upon wholes, however, represents a distinct contribution.

Inevitably, the anthropologist has also brought with him other perceptions which had been developed in the study of simpler peoples. Primarily, these perceptions pertained to notions of structure in the relations between persons, and differentiation of groups based upon similarities in behavior or characteristics. It should be emphasized that these two types of social structure are quite different. Groups based upon similarities in behavior are exemplified by age classes, sex groups, or any other category which permits lumping people together in terms of their external characteristics. There is no necessary implication that those within the category relate themselves to each other. A contrasting group is exemplified by the family, in which interaction provides the basis of cohesion. Obviously, the anthropologist is also concerned with such symbols of group behavior as language, aesthetics, tools, and values.

American society distributes these symbols differentially among occupational and socioeconomic groups which we call social classes. One should understand that social class definition is basically an attempt to describe the distribution of characteristics. As a specific example, members of one social level will possess a distinctive accent and vocabulary, and will respond to words differently from those at another social level. Material items such as houses, rugs, and refrigerators are viewed differently by members of the various social classes.

The contrasting type of social group is one based upon a stabilized system of social relationships. The family represents such a social grouping and is different in kind from the type labeled social class. It must be examined by techniques which are quite distinct. The goal is to examine the dynamics of human beings in interaction, living within a habitat or given type of environment. The habitat includes not only the physical items of that environment but also other persons and the prevailing moral and ethical codes. When we isolate the habitat in this manner it is quite possible to view any community as if it were a separate group for which the surrounding world constitutes a portion of the setting. In addition, communities and their constituent groups possess a past, are repetitive in their organization and activities, exhibit an internal equilibrium, and thus yield to methods of systematic analysis. The methods of science are applicable to the extent to which we are able to isolate the components of the social systems and to observe the effect which a change in one of these components has upon its particular system.


The foregoing remarks provide the background generalities against which it is my purpose to examine a specific community in terms of the communication process. This community, Talladega, is found in the Piedmont area of east-central Alabama. It is a county-seat town of 13,000, with a diversity of industries, but primarily textile mills and iron foundries. Beginning in the spring of 1951 a research team from the University of Alabama formed a cooperative arrangement with citizens to observe the process by which a community organized and carried through a self survey in the area of health. The goal was to describe the processes of community action in which individuals and groups work together.12 A brief description of the setting will aid later analysis.

Talladega had recently experienced changes characteristic of many Southern communities that had felt industrialization. In 1890 there were about 2,000 inhabitants, half of whom were Negroes. At that time the town was a distributing and collecting center for the surrounding area. As county seat, it was also a center of government. The earliest industry was textile manufacturing, established at the end of the century. Workers were recruited from the surrounding countryside, where small farmers with large families were no longer able to care for the excess population by dividing their land or sending their members to the frontier. Jobs and company-built houses provided them with a living and residence in the newly built mill villages. In subsequent years there was a gradual accretion of new industries, but it was not until World War I that town growth through industry was accelerated. World War II stimulated further development, and by 1950 the population had jumped to over 13,000, of which approximately one-third were Negroes and two-thirds were white people.

The South has frequently been described in terms of the differences between white people and Negroes and the relations between the two. The class divisions within each of the color castes have also been described. Talladega resembles other Southern towns in the separation of the races. Observation readily verified social divisions based on race. What had not been previously described, however, was the sharpness of the division of the white population into two classes of approximately equal numbers, a fact of immense significance in the organization of the town and of the events we observed. Each of the white groups could be identified by differences in lineage, background, occupation, residential area, religion and other factors. The relations between them showed some similarities to those which characterized the color castes.

The subordinate white group was composed of industrial laborers and mill workers. In the main, they were recent arrivals from the surrounding countryside. The urban modification of their outlook and customs was only beginning and they retained identification with their place of birth. Although their jobs and homes were within the boundaries of the town and their children attended the public schools, they were strangers to town life in spirit and separated from the main flow of community action.

The socially and economically favored white group presented a contrast in behavior and characteristics. There were many families which could trace their lineage to the founding of the town. Although wealth and occupation showed great diversities, there was a common pattern of manners and viewpoint which gave the whole an internal cohesion of great importance. Those who were active in the affairs of the town were of this class. They exercised their responsibilities for the functioning of the institutional arrangements which met the civic, educational, economic, religious, and social needs. Thus, it is no surprise that the Initiators of the Health Inventory, the activity we observed, were members of this group.

We discovered that the nature of the internal social divisions set the framework within which community action moved. Similarly, communication within or between these groups was aided or impeded depending upon the nature of the traditional relationships which bound or separated them. In summary, the town was composed of three major segments, Negroes, white laborers, and the "community." Members of the third group provided leadership in this as in previous community enterprises. This discussion is concerned with the nature of communication within each of these groups and between them. Let us now turn to the first organizational steps and examine the nature of the communicative process.


There is a logical but incorrect assumption that an activity which is community-wide would need community-wide approval. The experience in Talladega showed that a mere handful could make decisions which bound the community to a course of action. Thus, the initial hurdle faced by the sponsors of the Health Inventory was to secure a favorable response from those whose influence and position placed them in the forefront of leadership. An obvious first step could have been a public meeting to sample opinion, but as is true of so many obvious actions this procedure would have been contrary to the traditional way in which effective communication occurs. In fact, during the first several weeks the word was passed in the casual and informal gatherings of persons as they moved in the workaday world. Eventually, there was an ad hoc gathering of some twenty persons whose approval helped to convince the executive committee of the Chamber of Commerce that it should sponsor the initiation of the study. The publicly announced sanction of an established town organization provided the necessary legitimacy to seek support on a wider base. It was only then that the sponsors decided to hold an organizing meeting to which representatives from all religious, civic, social, and economic groups would be invited.

This first public meeting, held in the county courthouse on a hot June night, offered the opportunity for insight into several aspects of the communication process. The events reaffirmed that communication, to be effective, must flow through already established channels in culturally understood fashion. The meeting, although public, was also an invitational affair. The nearly one hundred persons who attended represented the majority of organized groups invited. Among these were a few from organized labor. They are specifically mentioned because this was the first and last time that such representatives attended public meetings. There were no Negroes in attendance. It is true that Negro groups had not been formally invited, since it had been planned that in keeping with the tradition of racial separation they would have a separate organization. Nevertheless, theoretically they could have attended. The failure of Negroes or white laborers to attend was further evidence of the three-way division of the town's population and posed problems as to how the communication process varied within and between each group. What were the cultural devices traditional to each group? In order to answer these questions we shall examine the customary ways in which these groups were related.


Let us look first at the traditional way in which white people and Negroes communicate with each other. There are two main types of race relations: the older paternalistic pattern, which is diminishing in extent, and the emerging pattern, which is less personal, and likely to be expressed within formal institutional arrangements. In the former, personal relationship is oftentimes established between white and Negro families where a Negro woman or man performs domestic duties for the white family. The relationship is one of mutual help in times of crisis. The events of life are shared, although each knows and enforces proper behavior upon the other. There is common respect and oftentimes deep affection within these bonds.

The second type of relationship is supplanting the paternalistic one, with the shift from agrarian to industrial economy, the rise of cities, and the appearance of a Negro middle class. In Talladega, it found expression in all institutional arrangements, except the family, where the relationship remained paternalistic. An interracial ministerial council gave some unity to church groups. In industry, government, and education the arrangement is one in which the Negro occupies a subordinate position within a formal structure. All of these systems provide channels through which relationships are maintained and communication occurs. It should be no surprise, then, that the chairman of the Health Inventory, in order to involve the Negroes in its activities moved through the white superintendent of county schools to his supervisor of Negro schools, who was requested (a request she could hardly refuse) to initiate the organization of a survey group among the Negroes. Eventually, a Negro committee was established and in conjunction with the white community completed a survey of health conditions.

The attempt to establish working relations between the leadership of white and Negro committees met some difficulties. The cultural framework within which Negro-white relations had operated formerly did not provide a clear pattern. A civic enterprise of this type fitted neither the paternalistic nor the institutional pattern, and the prevailing beliefs around race did not permit an equalitarian biracial effort. There were a few white people who could have worked within a biracial organization, but there were many more who would have had no part in such an arrangement. There were a few Negroes who objected to the segregated program, but there were others willing to work within the traditional arrangement and many who would have had great difficulties in adjusting to any deviation from it.

These uncertainties in the relations between the two groups made communication erratic and difficult and undoubtedly hampered the efforts of the Negro committee. Time and again the problem of coordination between the two groups arose. The need occasionally led to a meeting of small biracial groups in the Chamber of Commerce offices, but free discussion was difficult. The culturally defined dominant position of the white group, the old habits of deference, the surroundings, unfamiliar and traditionally taboo to Negroes, militated against free discourse. Polite words were spoken, but there was no communication in the real sense of the word. Perhaps if some of the conditions could have been changed a real community of interest would have arisen, but it would have had to survive in a generally unfavorable environment of cultural segmentation.


The participation of white laborers in the Health Inventory provides us with a contrast to that of the Negroes. It should be remembered that this group constituted approximately half the white population but that its members possessed many characteristics which set it apart from the dominant middle class which controlled town life. Traditionally, the laborer participated in civic affairs no more frequently than the Negro, although theoretically his skin color gave him free access. This difference was reflected in an early policy decision that the two races should organize their separate committees. The decision regarding laborers was quite another one. In this instance the attempt was made to include the laborers through election of a labor union official to the executive committee. The individual who was elected failed to attend any of the meetings. Nor did others from this group take part in the public proceedings. If it had not been for some special efforts the laborers would have had no part, and as it was, their role was considerably less than that of the Negroes.

Some understanding of the failure to involve this third of the town's population can be gained through examination of a specific situation in which an attempt was made to involve a working-class neighborhood in the Health Inventory. The results illuminated the almost unbridgeable contrast in values, communication rituals, and procedures of action between middle-class and working-class people.

The chairman of the Inventory, prodded by criticism that it was the "same old gang" running the study, visited the West End, a working-class neighborhood, and there sought to enlist the interest of several persons with whom he had some acquaintance. He was greatly impressed by the favorable response, combined with expressions that they had been waiting to be asked to take part. He encouraged them to arrange a public meeting and invite their friends.

The meeting was held in a neighborhood church a few nights later. A group of about twenty-five, all but two or three of whom were men, had assembled. The delegation from the "other side" of town included the mayor, a respected minister of the town's leading church, the chairman of the Inventory, and members of the research team. In the ritual of communication habitual with the middle class, each of the visitors spoke in turn of the objectives of the enterprise and urged that the local group join them in making a survey of neighborhood conditions. Those who responded first expressed appreciation and approval and then described in great detail the prevailing conditions under which they lived. They expressed the need for sidewalks, paved streets, sewers, and playgrounds for their children. They needed to make no survey. They and all others present knew the menace of the open-pit toilets, the hazards their children experienced in walking to school, and the plight of families afflicted with tuberculosis. What they wanted was corrective action, and for the answer they turned to the mayor, who attempted to explain the details of petitions, engineering surveys, tax assessments, and other bureaucratic and legal requirements which must be satisfied. The spokesmen wanted to know how fast action might be expected. At this point dissident voices were raised. Objections were made that the tax burden would be insufferable and that property owners would be threatened with tax confiscation. Heated words flew between the protagonists, and attempts to smooth ruffled tempers proved unavailing. The meeting was adjourned, but in the churchyard the controversy was continued with threats of physical violence. The visitors departed, having failed in their goal to organize a survey and were thus unable to cope with the internal divisions. It was also a failure in that middle-class techniques and processes of communication had proved inadequate. The laborer's world was one in which need prompted action, in which the intensity of individual decision was in conflict with the processes of group action. Certainly, it was demonstrated that a part of the isolation of the laborers from the rest of the community rested in cultural differences that prevented participation in middle-class activities.


The differential relation between Negroes and white laborers and the dominant middle-class segment of the town provides us with both contrasts and similarities in the communication process. Both segments occupy a subordinate and relatively isolated position within the community. But their relatively equal structural position does not provide the basis for a common bond between them. In fact, it would seem that tenuous as the ties to the dominant white group may be, each is more closely bound upward than laterally. Actually, there are no institutional arrangements or even informal devices which unite these two subordinate classes. Irrespective of potential political and economic adherences, for the moment, Negroes and white laborers are separated by cultural barriers of great height. Thus, although the groups possess commonly shared opinions, there is no community of interest and their relations are casual and erratic. Where men are thrown together on the job, there is a limited amelioration of the exclusiveness.

The attempt of leaders of the Health Inventory to stimulate organization met with quite different response in each case. Among the Negroes a portion of the response could be interpreted as an attempt to please the white people. And in intermittent biracial discussions long habits of deference and timidity on the one hand, or of superior white behavior on the other, prevented close cooperation.

In contrast, the initial failure of white laborers to respond to a general civic invitation to participate came from their reluctance to take part where they had not been asked. Their strongly held values of individual independence and equality, a product of the frontier and rural neighborhood background, do not permit a man to attempt superiority over his neighbors or allow him, in good grace, to place himself in positions where he is snubbed or excluded. He is free of the deference of race, although he holds respect for the leader and the man of education. Thus, the enthusiastic response accorded the personal invitation to take part assumes meaning in terms of the cultural values. The fiasco of the meeting between representatives from the two parts of town, and of separate social systems, may be seen as evidence of the difficulty with which persons from different cultural worlds establish communication with each other. The problem was one of the traditional devices, communication ritual, modes of action, and point of view which both characterize and separate.


One of the objectives of the research team was to observe the processes and results of the attempt to involve an entire community in a survey of health conditions. Obviously, the success of an enterprise of this type depended upon creating understanding of the goals, developing acceptance of these plus willingness to participate, and finally, an opportunity to take part. Only through skills in communication could this be accomplished. We must understand that however important instruments and content of communication may be, they are powerless to bring change in values or promote action unless the human situation provides a favorable environment.

Anthropology offers evidence that cultural and social systems constitute the ultimate components of the communication process. The social systems themselves form the intricate network of traditional human relationships within which decisions are made and actions taken or rejected. The activities of persons within these systems have been shaped by customary practices which, in turn, facilitate or impede communication depending upon the degree of their conf ormance to values and techniques. The anthropologist would conclude, and the illustrations presented here have been for the purpose of providing substantiation, that the practitioner of communication arts must also learn to understand and operate within these systems.

11 Professor Kimball is a past president of the Society for Applied Anthropology and a Fellow of the American Anthropological Association. He has conducted research among various peoples, including the Irish, Navaho Indians, Japanese-Americans, and American urban and rural communities. The present article is based upon a recent community study in Alabama.

1 Earl James McGrath (ed.), Communication in General Education (Contributors: Lennox Grey, John C. Gerber, C. W. Edney, Harold B. Allen, Frederic Reeve, Thomas F. Dunn, S. I. Hayakawa, Lee S. Hultzen, Charles W. Roberts, James Paul Stokes, George S. Wykoff, J. Hooper Wise, John B. Hoben, Wesley H. Tilley, Norman Foerster, Wendell Johnson, Porter Perrin, Francis Shoemaker) (Dubuque, Wm. C. Brown Company, 1949).

2 Vol. I, The English Language Arts (1952); Vol. II, The Language Arts for Today's Children (1954); Vol. Ill, The English Language Arts in the Secondary School (In press). (New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts).

3 Frances Henne, Alice Brooks, and Ruth Ersted (eds.). Youth, Communication and Libraries (Chicago: American Library Association, 1949).

4 See current bulletins of the University of Illinois, The University of Minnesota, The University of North Carolina, The University of Wisconsin and The University of Southern California.

5 The Commission on Freedom of the Press, A Free and Responsible Press (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1947). Also: William Ernest Hocking, Freedom of the Press: A Framework of Principle (1946). Zechariah Chafee, Jr., Government and Mass Communications (1947). Ruth A. Inglis, Freedom of the Movies (1947). Llewellyn White and Robert D. Leigh, Peoples Speaking to Peoples (1946). Llewellyn White, The American Radio (1947). F. L. Hughes, Prejudice and the Press, 1950.

6 E. S. Carpenter (ed.), Explorations; Studies in Culture and Communication. (Toronto: University of Toronto. Published three times a year for two years, 1954 and 1955). The publication was made possible by a grant from the Behavioral Sciences Program of the Ford Foundation.

7 Contributors to these volumes include: Fred S. Siebert, Charles V. Kinter, Raymond B. Nixon, Carl Hovland, Edgar Dale, Leo Lowenthal, Ralph O. Nafziger, Elmo C. Wilson, Hugh M. Belville, Jr., John E. Ivey, Jr., Clyde Hart, Bernard Berelson, Ralph D. Casey, Robert J. Blakely, Robert E. Park, Llewellyn White, Terry Ramsaye, Robert D. Leigh, Harold D. Lasswell, Edward P. Cheyney, Robert A. Brady, Neil H. Borden, Wendell Johnson, Daniel Katz, Wilbur Schramm, Margaret Mead, Hadley Cantril, Gordon Allport, Frank Luther Mott, Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites, Kenneth Baker, Rudolph Arnheim, Patricke Johns-Heine and Hans Gerth, Rudolph Flesch, Paul Lazarsfeld and Patricia Kendall, Lester Asheim, Walter Lippman, Douglas Waples, John Dollard, and Lewis Wirth.

8 Joseph Klapper is Research Associate at The Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University. Other Columbia University faculty members participating periodically in the Interdivisional Course include Professors John Hohenberg (School of Journalism), Eric Barnouw (Center for Mass Communication), Paul Lazarsfeld (Bureau of Applied Social Research), Robert D. Leigh (School of Library Service), and Herbert Hyman (Department of Sociology).

9 Marshall McLuhan is Professor of English, St. Michael's College in The University of Toronto. Other visiting lecturers in the Interdivisional Course have included Irving Gitlin (Columbia Broadcasting Company), Harold D. Lasswell (Yale University), William Agar (United Nations), S. I. Hayakawa (International Society for General Semantics), William D. Boutwell (Scholastic Magazines), Henry Simon (Simon & Schuster Publishing Company), Susanne K. Langer, and Gilbert Seldes.

10 Such readers are invited to write to Professor Arthur R. Young, Chairman, Interdivisional Committee on Communication and the Communication Arts, Teachers College, Columbia University.

11 Professor Kimball is a past president of the Society for Applied Anthropology and a Fellow of the American Anthropological Association. He has conducted research among various peoples, including the Irish, Navaho Indians, Japanese-Americans, and American urban and rural communities. The present article is based upon a recent community study in Alabama.

12 Solon Kimball and Marion Pearsall. Talladega Story; A Study in Community Process (University, University of Alabama Press, 1954).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 57 Number 2, 1955, p. 59-63
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 4610, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 4:07:14 PM

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