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Whose medium has the message?

Pioneers in media studies re-examined by Concordia University researcher
April 24, 2013
By Media Relations

“The medium is the message,” is an important phrase in the history of communication studies. Marshall McLuhan, the man who coined it, is widely regarded as that field’s father. But without the work of political economist and historian Harold Innis, McLuhan might never have pronounced those famous words. New research from Concordia University re-examines this relationship between the two media-studies pioneers, and argues that Innis deserves equal prominence in the evolving field of communications, as an entity separate from McLuhan’s dominant celebrity.

William Buxton is a professor in Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies. | Photo by David Ward
William Buxton is a professor in Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies. | Photo by David Ward

In a recent article in the Canadian Journal of Communication Studies, William Buxton, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies, argues that Innis and McLuhan, long viewed in tandem, should be de-coupled. “Innis was eclipsed by what we would now call McLuhan’s brand power,” explains Buxton, who argues that Innis’s ideas deserve to be considered on their own, not as a function of McLuhan’s work.

As a professor of political economy at the University of Toronto, Innis helped develop the theory of staples, which says that Canada's culture and economy have been influenced by the exploitation and export of a series of “staples,” such as fur, fish, wood, wheat, metals and fossil fuels.


Innis went on to write several seminal works on media and communication theory, which explore the role of media in shaping the culture and development of civilizations. These books, however, did not receive much acclaim when they were first published. Innis was well respected, but as an economist, not a media-studies scholar.

McLuhan, however, developed a strategy of building on Innis’ considerable reputation as a staples theorist in order to lend credibility to his own approach of looking at how media technologies exerted effects by virtue of their inherent properties. While this allowed McLuhan to help resurrect Innis as a pioneering figure in media studies, it came at the expense of leaving his own mark indelibly on the Innisian legacy to communication research. “The result has been the common tendency to view Innis as some sort of precursor to McLuhan, if not a junior partner in the tandem,” explains Buxton.

Despite McLuhan’s enthusiastic support, Innis’s books fell out of print. But this was not the only reason that Innis’ studies of media were largely initially ignored while McLuhan developed a considerable following.

McLuhan gained popularity thanks to a slim book with eye-catching graphic designs and tongue-in-cheek title: The Medium is the Massage. Widely published and read, the book allowed McLuhan to develop a kind of a celebrity status – something never afforded to Innis.

“By virtue of that book, a distinct McLuhan brand emerged,” says Buxton. “As a result, the work has important implications for how we understand McLuhan and his relationship to Innis.” Without a similar volume to popularize his work, the attention paid to Innis was not as widespread.

For Buxton, however, Innis deserves to be considered on his own. “We need to make better sense of a ‘de-McLuhanised’ Innis,” says Buxton. “Innis’s concept of communication should not be reduced to a form of media staple, but could be viewed more as an interactive process, inherently connected to the growth of civilization, the emergence of universities, and the advent of new forms of public.”

About the research: The article discussed is a revised version of a paper that was originally presented at a conference at Montreal’s Société des arts technologiques in April 2012, titled Innis, McLuhan, and the Media: Path to Enlightenment or Dead End?. The conference was organized by the Concordia/Université de Montréal/Université de Québec à Montréal Joint PhD Program in Communication. The paper appeared (along with four other revised papers from the conference) in a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Communication – Tracing Innis and McLuhan, edited by Buxton and Professor Thierry Bardini of Université de Montréal. A Standard Research Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada funded the preparation of Buxton’s article.

A related volume, Harold Innis and the North: Appraisals and Contestations, edited by William Buxton, will be published this summer by McGill-Queens University Press.

Related links:
•    Cited study: The Rise of McLuhanism, The Loss of Innis-sense: Rethinking the Origins of the Toronto School of Communication. Canadian Journal of Communication, vol. 37, no. 4
•    Concordia University’s Department of Communication Studies
•    William Buxton's proile on Research @ Concordia
•    Harold Innis and the North: Appraisals and Contestations

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