UHV associate professor named outstanding theorist in communication

Mark Ward Sr., an associate professor of communication at the University of Houston-Victoria, was named the 2022 Outstanding Scholar in Communication Theory by the Southern States Communication Association.

Mark Ward Sr.

“This honor is especially gratifying because theory development is the key to research in communication studies and in any academic discipline,” Ward said.

Ward received the award at the association’s annual convention held April 6-10 in Greenville, S.C. The association is one of four regional societies affiliated with the National Communication Association.

“Dr. Ward is a proficient researcher who is dedicated to understanding communication concepts in faith communities,” said Kyoko Amano, dean of the UHV College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences. “His work is well known in the academic community, and I applaud him for receiving this most recent award.”

Kyoko Amano

Theory development keys research in two ways, Ward said. First, researchers discover specific cases from which general theories can then be built. Second, general theories provide researchers with frameworks to analyze and explain their findings.

“My contribution to communication theory is in sociolinguistics and how communities use language to construct unique cultures,” Ward said. “For many years, researchers have studied how people use culturally coded language in individual conversations. But my work theorizes how culture is constructed when coded language is used throughout a community at its interpersonal, organizational and institutional levels.”

Ward developed his theory through field research in evangelical Christian churches. He observed culturally coded language in church members’ personal conversations, but also heard the same language used in local sermons and in the radio and television programs of national evangelical ministries.

“So, I theorized that culture is built as coded language circulates across all three levels of the community,” Ward said. “Institutions set the norms, local organizations and groups transmit the norms, and the people individually act out the norms through their talk and behavior.”

During the convention, Ward also received the award for Top Paper in Language and Social Interaction. The paper was coauthored with Leland Spencer, Miami University; Craig Stewart, University of Memphis; and Elisa Varela, University of Colorado Boulder and was titled “Return to Teamsterville: A Reconsideration and Dialogue on Ethnography and Critique.” It was recently published in the scholarly journal Communication Quarterly.

 “We dialogue about ethics in field research,” Ward said. “What should ethnographers do when they observe people using sexist, racist or homophobic language that’s hurtful to others? Should we just observe and not make judgments, or should we intervene?”

Ward’s theory can help researchers with this dilemma. By observing how language is used not only in individual conversations but in groups and institutions, researchers can analyze the overall social structure of a community. Then researchers can analyze how power is structured across the community and its culture.

“In that way, research can reveal how language creates power dynamics and thus open up a space for marginalized members of a community to have a voice,” Ward said.

SSCA Outstanding Scholar is one of several honors for Ward’s research. His recognitions include multiple Article of the Year Awards from the Religious Communication Association, as well as the Digital Religion Research Award, David R. Maines Narrative Research Award and Clifford G. Christians Ethics Research Award. In 2018, he received the UHV Research and Scholarly Activities Excellence Award.

Ward also writes a monthly “Communication Corner” opinion column in the Victoria Advocate newspaper that illustrates how communication concepts can be practically applied to current issues of national and local concern.

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973 in Victoria, Texas, offers courses leading to more than 80 academic programs in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, Texas, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.