Theories of Communication

I needed an outline of communication theory issues, so I threw together some stuff and put it up as an article on wikipedia. You can read it over there (where you can also add appropriate changes and follow the links) or see it by clicking “more.”

What is communication theory?

Some have suggested that the very common practice of beginning a communication theory class with an attempt to define communication and theory is flawed pedagogy. Nonetheless, it is difficult to begin a study of the theories of communication without first having some grasp, however temporary and tenuous, of what sorts of phenomena “count” as communication, and what kinds of ideas about those phenomena constitute “theory,” or, more specifically, good theory.

Communication is a slippery concept, and while we may casually use the word with some frequency, it is difficult to arrive at a precise definition that is agreeable to most of those who consider themselves communication scholars. Communication is so deeply rooted in human behaviors and the structures of society that it is difficult to think of social or behavioral events that are absent communication.

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 to what effect”) as a means of circumscribing the field of communication. Others suggest that there is a ritual process of communication that cannot be artificially abstracted from a particular historical and social context. As a relatively young field of inquiry, it is probably premature to expect a conceptualization of communication that is shared among all or most of those who work in the area. Furthermore, communication theory itself is, in many ways, an attempt to describe and explain precisely what communication is.

Indeed, a theory is some form of explanation of a class of observed phenomena. Karl Popper colorfully described theory as “the net which we throw out in order to catch the world–to rationalize, explain, and dominate it.” The idea of a theory lies at the heart of any scholarly process, and while those in the social sciences tend to adopt the tests of a good theory from the natural sciences, many who study communication adhere to an idea of theory that is akin to that found in other academic fields. Nonetheless, when evaluating the strength of a theory, the criteria commonly found in the sciences, and derived from the scientific method are often broadly applicable.

Evaluating theory

What makes a theory “good”? Six criteria might be said to be properties of a strong theory. (The terminology presented here is drawn from Littlejohn, Theories of Human Communication, but a similar set of criteria are widely accepted both within and outside the field of communication.)

Theoretical Scope
How general is the theory? That is, how widely applicable is it? In most cases, a theory that may only be applied within a fairly narrow set of circumstances is not considered as useful as a theory that encompasses a very wide range of communicative interactions. The ideal, of course, is a theory that succinctly explains the nature of human communication as a whole.

Theories are often evaluated based upon how well their epistemological, ontological, and axiological assumptions relate to the issue or question being explained. If a theory recapitulates its assumptions (if it is tautological), it is not an effective theory.

Heuristic value
Some theories suggest the ways in which further research may be conducted. By presenting an explanatory model, the theory generates questions or hypotheses that can be operationalized relatively easily. In practical terms, the success of a theory may rest on how readily other researchers may continue to do fruitful work in reaction or support.

It may seem obvious that for a theory to be good, it must also be valid. Validity refers to the degree to which the theory accurately represents the true state of the world. Are the arguments internally consistent and are its predictions and claims derived logically from its assumptions? Many also require that theories be falsifiable; that is, theories that present predictions that — if they prove to be incorrect — invalidate the theory. The absence of such questions significantly reduces the value of the theory, since a theory that cannot be proven false (perhaps) cannot be shown to be accurate, either.

The law of parsimony (Occam’s razor) dictates that a theory should provide the simplest possible (viable) explanation for a phenomenon. Others suggest that good theory exhibits an aesthetic quality, that a good theory is beautiful or natural. That it leads to an “Aha!” moment in which an explanation feels as if it fits.

Theories, perhaps paradoxically, should not exist to the absolute exclusion of other theories. Theory should not be dogma: it should encourage and provide both for skepticism and should — to whatever degree possible — be compatible with other accepted theory.

It is important to note that a theory is not “true,” or “false” (despite the above discussion of falsifiability), but rather better or worse at explaining the causes of a particular event. Especially within the social sciences, we may find several different theories that each explain a phenomenon in useful ways. There is value in being able to use theories as “lenses” through which you can understand communication, and through which you can understand the world together with other scholars.

Theories and Models

Many suggest that there is no such thing as a successful body of communication theory, but that that we have been relatively more successful in generating models of communication. A model, according to a seminal 1952 article by Karl Deutsch (“On Communication Models in the Social Sciences”), is “a structure of symbols and operating rules which is supposed to match a set of relevant points in an existing structure or process.” In other words, it is a simplified representation or template of a process that can be used to help understand the nature of communication in a social setting. Such models are necessarily not one-to-one maps of the real world, but they are successful only insofar as they accurately represent the most important elements of the real world, and the dynamics of their relationship to one another.

Deutsch suggests that a model should provide four functions. It should organize a complex system (while being as general as possible), and should provide an heuristic function. Both these functions are similar to those listed above for theories. He goes on to suggest models should be as original as possible, that they should not be obvious enough that they fail to shed light on the existing system. They should also provide some form of measurement of the system that will work analogously within the model and within the actual system being observed.

Models are tools of inquiry in a way that theories may not be. By representing the system being observed, they provide a way of working through the problems of a “real world” system in a more abstract way. As such, they lend themselves to the eventual construction of theory, though it may be that theory of the sort found in the natural sciences is something that cannot be achieved in the social sciences. Unfortunately, while models provide the “what” and the “how,” they are not as suited to explaining “why,” and therefore are rarely as satisfying as strong theory.

Laws and Rules

The aim in the natural sciences is to create what, since Hempel at least, has been called covering law. Covering law requires the explicit relationship of a causal condition to an effect within certain bounderies. It has been observed that social relationships are very difficult to capture within the structure of covering law. Perhaps this is because people have the annoying habit of violating “natural laws.” Wittgenstein’s later work in particular put forward the possibility that rules-based systems may provide a more effective descriptive model of human communication. This may account for the propensity of communication theorists to develop models more often than theory. Rules-based approaches are particularly popular within speech communication, where human interaction is seen to proceed along structural, though not necessarily causal, lines.

Mapping the Theoretical Landscape

A discipline is defined in large part by its theoretical structure. Instead communication, at its present state, might be considered a field of inquiry. Theory is often borrowed from other social sciences, while communication provides few examples of theories that have been exported to other disciplines. What is taught as communication theory at one institution is unlikely to be at all similar to what is taught within other communication schools. This theoretical variegation makes it difficult to come to terms with the field as a whole. That said, there are some common taxonomies that are used to divide up the range of communication research. Two common mappings will be briefly presented here.

Many authors and researchers divide communication by what are sometimes called “contexts” or “levels,” but 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 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 mass media in the latter. The great divide between speech communication and mass communication is joined 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 science perspective, others tend more heavily toward the humanities, and still others are geared more toward production and professional preparation.

These “levels” of communication provide some way of grouping communication theories, but inevitably, there are theories and concepts that leak from one area to another, or that fail to find a home at all. If communication is a cohesive field of study, one would expect to see a cohesive set of theories, or at least a common understanding of the structure of the field, and this appears to still be developing.

Another way of dividing up the communication field emphasizes the assumptions that undergird particular theories, models, and approaches. While this tends also to be based on 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 the rhetorical, semiotic, phenomenological, cybernetic, sociopsychological, and sociocultural traditions. Each of these are, for Craig, clearly defined against the others and remain cohesive approaches to describing communicative behavior. As a taxonomic aid, these labels help to organize theory by its assumptions, and help researchers to understand the reasons some theories may be incommensurable.

While these two approaches are very commony used, it seems that they decentralize the place of language and machines as communicative technologies. The idea that communication is (as Vygotsky argues) the primary tool of a species that is defined by its tools remains at the outskirts of communication theory. It is represented somewhat 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 — remains central to what communication researchers do, and the ideas that surround this, and in particular the place of persuasion, are constants across both the “traditions” and “levels” of communication theory.

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One Comment

  1. Anonymous
    Posted 8/31/2004 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    I agree that the relation between communication and language is undertheorized. As a teacher of communication in the English department in an Indian university, I am struggling to evolve a theory of communication in a context where English is part of a complex language economy.

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