communication theory

communication theory

communication theory: see information theory.

Field of mathematics that studies the problems of signal transmission, reception, and processing. It stems from Claude E. Shannon's mathematical methods for measuring the degree of order (nonrandomness) in a signal, which drew largely on probability theory and stochastic processes and led to techniques for determining a source's rate of information production, a channel's capacity to handle information, and the average amount of information in a given type of message. Crucial to the design of communications systems, these techniques have important applications in linguistics, psychology, and even literary theory.

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There is much discussion in the academic world of communication as to what actually constitutes communication. Currently, many definitions of communication are used in order to conceptualize the processes by which people navigate and assign meaning. Communication is also understood as the exchanging of understanding.

We might say that communication consists of transmitting information from one person to another. In fact, many scholars of communication take this as a working definition, and use Lasswell's maxim, "who says what to whom in what channel with what effect," as a means of circumscribing the field of communication theory.

Other commentators suggest that a ritual process of communication exists, one not artificially divorceable from a particular historical and social context.

Communication stands so deeply rooted in human behaviors and the structures of society that scholars have difficulty thinking of it while excluding social or behavioral events. Because communication theory remains a relatively young field of inquiry and integrates itself with other disciplines such as philosophy, psychology, and sociology, one probably cannot yet expect a consensus conceptualization of communication across disciplines.but it is totally unreliable.

Currently, there is no paradigm from which communication scholars may work. One of the issues facing scholars is the possibility that establishing a communication metatheory will negate their research and stifle the broad body of knowledge in which communication functions.

History of Communication Theory

Communication as a named and unified discipline has a history of contestation that goes back to the Socratic dialogues, in many ways making it the first and most contestatory of all early sciences and philosophies. Aristotle first addressed the problem of communication and attempted to work out a theory of it in The Rhetoric. He was primarily focused on the art of persuasion. A monologue (speak to self) is also a method of communication even if the person involved does not have any audition but himself. Humanistic and rhetorical viewpoints and theories dominated the discipline prior to the twentieth century, when more scientific methodologies and insights from psychology, sociology, linguistics and advertising began to influence communication thought and practice.

Seeking to define "communication" as a static word or unified discipline may not be as important as understanding communication as a family of resemblances with a plurality of definitions as Ludwig Wittgenstein had put forth.

Communication Theory Framework

It is helpful to examine communication and communication theory through one of the following viewpoints:

  • Mechanistic: This view considers communication to be a perfect transaction of a message from the sender to the receiver. (as seen in the diagram above)
  • Psychological: This view considers communication as the act of sending a message to a receiver, and the feelings and thoughts of the receiver upon interpreting the message.
  • Social Constructionist (Symbolic Interactionist): This view considers communication to be the product of the interactants sharing and creating meaning.
  • Systemic: This view considers communication to be the new messages created via “through-put”, or what happens as the message is being interpreted and re-interpreted as it travels through people.
  • Critical: This view considers communication as a source of power and oppression of individuals and social groups.

Inspection of a particular theory on this level will provide a framework on the nature of communication as seen within the confines of that theory.

Theories can also be studied and organized according to the ontological, epistemological, and axiological framework imposed by the theorist.

Ontology essentially poses the question of what, exactly, it is the theorist is examining. One must consider the very nature of reality. The answer usually falls in one of three realms depending on whether the theorist sees the phenomena through the lens of a realist, nominalist, or social constructionist. Realist perspective views the world objectively, believing that there is a world outside of our own experience and cognitions. Nominalists see the world subjectively, claiming that everything outside of one’s cognitions is simply names and labels. Social constructionists straddle the fence between objective and subjective reality, claiming that reality is what we create together.

Epistemology is an examination of how the theorist studies the chosen phenomena. In studying epistemology, objective knowledge is said to be the result of a systematic look at the causal relationships of phenomena. This knowledge is usually attained through use of the scientific method. Scholars often think that empirical evidence collected in an objective manner is most likely to reflect truth in the findings. Theories of this ilk are usually created to predict a phenomenon. Subjective theory holds that understanding is based on situated knowledge, typically found using interpretative methodology such as ethnography and interviews. Subjective theories are typically developed to explain or understand phenomena in the social world.

Axiology is concerned with what values drive a theorist to develop a theory. Theorists must be mindful of potential biases so that they will not influence or skew their findings (Miller, 21-23).

Mapping the theoretical landscape

A discipline gets defined in large part by its theoretical structure. Communication studies often borrow theories from other social sciences. This theoretical variation makes it difficult to come to terms with the field as a whole. That said, some common taxonomies exist that serve to divide up the range of communication research. Two common mappings involve contexts and assumptions.

Contexts

Many authors and researchers divide communication by what they sometimes called "contexts" or "levels", but which more often represent institutional histories. The study of communication in the US, while occurring within departments of psychology, sociology, linguistics, and anthropology (among others), generally developed from schools of rhetoric and from schools of journalism. While many of these have become "departments of communication", they often retain their historical roots, adhering largely to theories from speech communication in the former case, and from mass media in the latter. The great divide between speech communication and mass communication becomes complicated by a number of smaller sub-areas of communication research, including intercultural and international communication, small group communication, communication technology, policy and legal studies of communication, telecommunication, and work done under a variety of other labels. Some of these departments take a largely social-scientific perspective, others tend more heavily toward the humanities, and still others gear themselves more toward production and professional preparation.

These "levels" of communication provide some way of grouping communication theories, but inevitably, some theories and concepts leak from one area to another, or fail to find a home at all.

Assumptions

Another way of dividing up the communication field emphasizes the assumptions that undergird particular theories, models, and approaches. While this approach also tends to have as its basis institutional divisions, theories within each of the seven "traditions" of communication theory that Robert Craig suggests tend to reinforce one another, and retain the same ground epistemological and axiological assumptions. His traditions include:

  • rhetorical - practical art of discourse
  • semiotic – intersubjective mediation through signs in order to mediate between different perspectives
  • phenomenological - experience of otherness, dialogue
  • cybernetic - information processing and explains how all kinds of complex systems, whether living or nonliving, macro or micro, are able to function, and why they often malfunction
  • sociopsychological - expression, interaction and influence
  • critical - discursive reflection
  • sociocultural - reproduction of social order (Miller, 13)

Craig finds each of these clearly defined against the others, and remaining cohesive approaches to describing communicative behavior. As a taxonomic aid, these labels help to organize theory by its assumptions, and help researchers to understand why some theories may seem incommensurable.


While communication theorists very commonly use these two approaches, theorists decentralize the place of language and machines as communicative technologies. The idea (as argued by Vygotsky) of communication as the primary tool of a species defined by its tools remains on the outskirts of communication theory. It finds some representation in the Toronto School of communication theory (alternatively sometimes called medium theory) as represented by the work of Innis, McLuhan, and others. It seems that the ways in which individuals and groups use the technologies of communication — and in some cases are used by them — remain central to what communication researchers do. The ideas that surround this, and in particular the place of persuasion, remain constants across both the "traditions" and "levels" of communication theory.

Some realms of communication and their theories

More information

There is a wealth of information available about communication and communication theory. Included here are some examples of texts, journals, and organizations focusing on communication theory.

The following list is a survey of Communication Theory texts currently available on Amazon.com:

  • Communication Theory: Epistemological Foundations by James A. Anderson
  • Communication Theories: Origins, Methods and Uses in the Mass Media (5th Edition) by Werner J. Severin and James W. Tankard
  • Theories of Human Communication (9th Edition) by Stephen W. Littlejohn and Karen A. Foss
  • Communication: Theories and Applications by Mark V. Redmond
  • Communication Theories: Perspectives, Processes, and Contexts by Katherine Miller
  • Communication Theory: Media, Technology and Society by David Holmes
  • Building Communication Theory by Dominic A. Infante, Andrew S. Rancer, and Deanna F. Womack
  • The Communication Theory Reader by Paul Cobley
  • Clarifying Communications Theories: A Hands-On Approach by Gerald Stone, Michael Singletary, and Virginia P. Richmond
  • An Introduction to Communication Theory by Don W. Stacks, Sidney R. Hill, and Mark, III Hickson

Scholarly journals are also a great source for recent research and academic discussion of theory. Some communication journals that emphasize theory are as follows:

  • Argumentation
  • Asian Journal of Communication
  • China Media Research
  • Communication Abstracts
  • Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies
  • Communication Education
  • Communication Monographs
  • Communication Quarterly
  • Communication Research Reports
  • Communication Research
  • Communication Studies
  • Communication Theory
  • Communications and the Law
  • Continuum - Journal of Media and Cultural Studies
  • Critical Discourse Studies
  • Critical Studies in Media Communication
  • Discourse Studies
  • Howard Journal of Communications
  • Human Communication: A Journal of the Pacific and Asian Communication Association
  • Human Communication Research
  • Intercultural Communication Studies
  • Journal of Applied Communication Research
  • Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media
  • Journal of Communication
  • Journal of Communication Inquiry
  • Journal of Intercultural Communication Research
  • Journal of Language Identity and Education
  • Journal of Mass Media Ethics
  • Journal of Multicultural Discourses
  • Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development
  • Journal of Public Relations Research
  • Journal of Technical Writing and Communication
  • Journalism - Theory Practice and Criticism
  • Journalism History
  • Journalism Studies
  • Keio Communication Review
  • Language in Society
  • Listening - Journal of Religion and Culture
  • Mass Communication and Society
  • Media Asia
  • Media, Culture and Society
  • Multilingua - Journal of Cross-Cultural and Interlanguage Communication
  • New Media and Society
  • Philosophy and Rhetoric : Paper for Muse Participants
  • Political Communication
  • PR Reporter
  • Public Relations Quarterly
  • Review of Communication
  • Rhetoric and Public Affairs
  • Rhetorica
  • Southern Communication Journal
  • Studies in Communication Sciences
  • Text - Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse
  • Vital Speeches of the Day
  • Western Journal of Communication
  • Women's Studies in Communication
  • Word and Image
  • Written Communication

Finally, there are many Communication Organizations that create a network of scholars who actively pursue and test theories. These organizations usually hold an annual conference showcasing the latest and best research in the field, as well as publish scholarly Journals. Examples of Communication Organizations with contact information are:

See also

Bibliography

  • Littlejohn, S. W.,Theories of human communication. 7th edition, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002.
  • Emory A Griffin, A first look at communication theory. 3rd edition, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997. ISBN 0-07-022822-1
  • Miller, K., Communication Theories: Perspectives, processes, and contexts. 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
  • Werner, E., "Cooperating Agents: A Unified Theory of Communication and Social Structure", Distributed Artificial Intelligence, Vol. 2, L. Gasser and M. Huhns, eds., Morgan Kaufmann and Pitman Press, 1989. Abstract
  • Werner, E., "Toward a Theory of Communication and Cooperation for Multiagent Planning", Theoretical Aspects of Reasoning About Knowledge: Proceedings of the Second Conference, Morgan Kaufman Publishers, pp. 129-143, 1988. Abstract PDF
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