Departmental Papers (ASC)

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Aspen Institute Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives


The words community and communications are both derived from the Latin word for common. According to John Dewey, people "live in a community by virtue of the things they have in common; and communication is the way in which they come to possess things in common" (1915: 4). Dewey’s point — that communities can not exist without communications — leads to a corollary: that the nature and health of a community depends upon the nature and health of its communications capacity. Thus, to revitalize a community necessarily means revitalizing communications.

Communications can take many forms, ranging from face-to-face conversations among family, friends, and neighbors to the broader flows of information that are provided through the mass media. All these forms are central to the way communities are constructed, maintain themselves, interact with other communities, and impact the political process. In this paper I will address how the communications environment, as currently structured, has contributed to many of the problems faced by inner city racial and ethnic communities in the United States.

In order to address this issue I will first discuss the importance of communications to community development. In the next four sections I will examine relevant research regarding four key elements of the mass media: structure; access and control; content; and impact. In the sixth section, I will explore the literature regarding less mediated, more interpersonal communications. Throughout sections two through five I will pay specific attention to what existing communications theories and research tell us (explicitly or implicitly) about issues of race and ethnicity, especially as they relate to poor urban communities. Finally, I will discuss issues regarding the intersection of race, class, and communications that require further study, and how changes in the communications environment might contribute to the revitalization of urban communities.

Copyright/Permission Statement

Postprint version. Published in Aspen Institute Roundtable on Comprehensive Community Initiatives, November 1998. Publisher URL:


NOTE: At the time of publication, the author Michael X. Delli Carpini was affiliated with Columbia University. Currently January 2008, he is a faculty member of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.



Date Posted: 09 January 2008