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Historical Background for the Film
Written by Peter Simonson and Lauren Archer

While humans have always interacted with and influenced one other through language, the organized study of entities called “communication” and “media” is a twentieth-century creation. Out of the Question casts light on media research around the 1940s, one important and consequential period in the longer story of the development of this research, and gets behind the scenes of some of the most influential work of the period, that was done at Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research and associated with the famous sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld, Robert K. Merton, and C. Wright Mills. From the late 1930s through the early 1950s, the field established many of its intellectual, methodological, and institutional foundations. Through up till now this complex tale has been told from the perspectives of the men who played major roles in it. Out of the Question begins the process of unveiling the perspectives and roles played by the dozens—if not scores—of women who made important contributions as well (see Women in Media Research to learn more about some of those women).

Included in this section of the website is a very brief introduction to the emergence of communications research (a label used here to cover studies of media, public opinion, and communication more generally, from the late nineteenth century into the 1950s, when it began acquiring institutional footing in departments and schools of communication). Like the film, it focuses on the case of the United States and emphasizes topics mentioned by the women in the film. A short bibliography follows with suggestions for further reading for those interested in fuller accounts of the history of the field. Also included are pages explaining some of the methods mentioned in Out of the Question along with descriptions of some of the key studies to emerge from early communication research.