Prepared for: Encyclopedia of Rhetoric (Oxford University Press)
Version of 3/9/00Robert T. Craig Department of Communication Campus Box 270 University of Colorado at Boulder Boulder, CO 80309-0270 Phone: (303)492-6498 Fax: (303)492-8411 Email: Robert.Craig@Colorado.EDU
Commonly defined as the transmission or exchange of ideas, communication relates to rhetoric in various small and large ways. Communication has long had a bit part in rhetoric as communicatio, a technique whereby the rhetor figuratively interacts with the audience, for example by asking and answering rhetorical questions ("Why now, you ask? I say, we dare not delay!"). In larger ways, communication as a whole can be nearly synonymous with rhetoric, subsume or be subsumed by rhetoric, or even play a co-staring role—whether heroic or villainous—as rhetoric's archenemy. Communication relates to rhetoric in these diverse ways in part because communication, no less than rhetoric itself, has been conceptualized on radically different models.
Transmission and Constitutive Models
In the simplistic transmission model that is so often taken for granted in everyday discourse, communication is conceptualized as a process in which meanings, packaged in symbolic messages like bananas in crates, are transported from sender to receiver. Too often the bananas are bruised or spoiled in transport and so we have the ubiquitous problem of miscommunication: The message sent is not the message received, the sender's meaning does not come across. In order to improve communication, according to this model, we need better packaging and speedier transportation of messages. Good communication is basically a technical problem.
Sophisticated versions of the transmission model acknowledge that ideas cannot literally be put into words and transported. In a cliché expression, meanings are in people, not in words. The English empiricist philosopher John Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), famously articulated this view. According to Locke, words have no natural meanings. The association of words with ideas in the mind is a voluntary act of the individual person. Although social convention establishes a rough correlation between words and ideas, however conscientiously we follow these conventional rules of language we ultimately have no way of knowing whether the corporeal signs we choose to represent our thoughts will excite similar thoughts in the mind of another person. The inherent limitations of language thus make perfect communication well-neigh impossible. Yet, good communication is imperative; for communication is the bond that holds society together and the conduit through which knowledge is disseminated through society and conveyed to future generations. Locke warned against common abuses of language (such as confusing words with things) and proposed a series of remedies to improve communication. Except for the rhetorical principles of order and clarity, which promote understanding, Locke denounced rhetoric, especially the use of figurative language, as an "instrument of error and deceit." In this Lockean drama, then, rhetoric, unless it takes a deservedly minor role as communication's humble servant, can only play the villain as communication's archenemy.
Variations of the transmission model, whether simplistic or sophisticated, still typify everyday thinking and much of the academic literature about communication, but communication theorists recently have favored an alternative, constitutive model. According to these critics, the transmission model misleadingly assumes that the essential elements of communication—distinct individuals, their private thoughts and feelings, and technical means of communication (shared codes, channels of transmission, etc.)—must all be fixed in place before the act of communication occurs. The constitutive model posits instead that the elements of communication, rather than being fixed in advance, are reflexively constituted within the act of communication itself. Communication is defined as an ongoing process that symbolically forms and re-forms our personal identities, our social relations, our common world of meaningful objects and events, our ideas and feelings, and our routine ways of expressing these socially constructed realities. No longer merely a technical question of how to get one's meaning across without distortion, the problem of communication has complex moral and political dimensions in a constitutive model. The field of communication expands to include all aspects of the creation and negotiation of meaning in society.
A constitutive model posits that the social practice of communication is ultimately inseparable from the ideas about communication embedded in ordinary language. The reality of communication as a distinct, meaningful kind of activity is socially created, shaped, and sustained by our routine ways of talking about communication. These ordinary ideas and ways of talking have emerged in history, and the traditions of intellectual thought now designated as "communication theory" have emerged along with them. Communication theory is thus inextricably bound up with the cultural evolution of communication as a social practice.
Formal theories of communication recurrently have drawn from, reflected upon, and influenced the vernacular language of communication, and so the everyday practice of communication. The idea of rhetoric emerged in ancient Greece as a reflection on practices of public speaking that were central to the life of citizens in the polis. Similarly, the idea of communication as transmission emerged in modern Europe as a reflection on practices (related to private property and trade, transportation, empire, the spread of literacy and print media, etc.) that were central to life in bourgeois society, and has been bolstered by subsequent advances in communication technology. Now, as communication theorists have recently argued, the idea of communication as a constitutive social process is emerging as a reflection on practices (related to global interdependence, cultural diversity, ideas of democracy and human rights, etc.) that are becoming central to life in our own world.
Rhetoric, as it was formally theorized, began to shape its own field of practices, which continued to play an important role in European education and public communication for many centuries after the demise of the Greek polis. Communication theory now shapes its own field of practices, which play an increasingly important role in education and other formal institutions of society. Communication skills, and a savvy awareness of communication techniques, are considered essential to success in business, the professions, public affairs, and personal relationships. We speak of communication in an eclectic terminology drawn from discourses of human relations and therapy, information processing, marketing, and entertainment, as well as rhetoric and the social sciences.
The subtext of current debates in communication theory is a debate on how to shape the language that constitutes the field of communication practices in society. One of the virtues of the constitutive model is that it sensitizes us to the political stakes that are always involved in such debates. Every form of communicative practice, including ones that fly the banner of the constitutive model, reflects the perspectives of some social groups more than others. Cultural conservatives, for example, may understandably dislike the constitutive model with its overtones of cultural and moral relativism, while globalizing elites may like it for their own reasons.
In the expanded field of communication implied by the constitutive model, rhetoric, depending on how it is defined, may be subsumed as a particular kind of communication (rhetoric defined as persuasive or intentionally purposive communication), criticized as a misguided outgrowth of the transmission model (rhetoric defined as a manipulative technique for getting one's ideas across effectively), or identified with communication as a whole (rhetoric defined as a constitutive social process). Rhetorical theory under any of these definitions becomes a branch or tradition of communication theory.
Communication theory emerged as a distinct intellectual topic only in the mid-twentieth century. The term, communication theory, was first used in the 1940's by electrical engineers with reference to the mathematical analysis of signals. Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver's The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana, 1949), and Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics (New York, 1948), for many readers augured the dawn of a new science of communication. The technical vocabulary of information transmission and feedback entered the common language and was taken up by social scientists, especially in the booming interdisciplinary field of communication research.
The rapid spread of this vocabulary was one manifestation of a long crescendo of societal interest in problems of communication, punctuated by wars and technological advances, throughout the last century. Communication was recurrently at the center of public debates about democracy, propaganda, mass media, popular culture, and human relations. Early in the century, communication as a formal category of knowledge was still largely identified with commercial and military transportation. As late as 1928, the Library of Congress subject classification featured the word communication(s) in only two headings: "communication and traffic" and "communications, military". With the growth of electronic media, communication(s) more frequently referred to processes of information transmission through technological channels (the initial subject of communication theory). Around mid-century, however, as the quantity of published works on communication exploded, the emphasis in defining the term shifted decisively. Communication was now commonly defined as an interactive process that performs essential functions in every field of social practice. Subject categories related to communication now included communication in worship, communication in business, political communication, mass communication, communication in the family, and so on.
Communication theory, having germinated in the groves of academe in the late 1940's, grew like a weed by sinking roots into every intellectual tradition or trend in any way related to communication. Ideas from physical science and engineering, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and philosophy were absorbed and reinterpreted as theories of communication. While continuing to grow in this fashion, the subject even now has not yet matured as a coherent body of thought. Unlike rhetorical theory, communication theory has not grown historically forward, out of its traditions, but, in a sense, historically backward, by retrospectively appropriating a series of traditions, one of which is rhetorical theory.
Currently, at least seven major traditions of communication theory can be distinguished, rhetoric being the oldest. From classical rhetoric comes the idea that communication can be studied and cultivated as a practical art of discourse. Whereas the art of rhetoric still refers primarily to the theory and practice of public, persuasive communication, the communication arts more broadly encompass the whole range of communication practices including interpersonal, organizational, and cross-cultural communication, technologically mediated communication, and practices specific to various professions and fields. Modern rhetorical theory has elaborated and problematized the epistemological, sociological, and political dimensions of the classical tradition in ways that further contribute to communication theory. In theories of epistemic and constitutive rhetoric, for example, rhetorical theory has developed its own versions of the constitutive model. From a communication theory point of view, this Encyclopedia of Rhetoric falls largely within the rhetorical tradition of communication theory.
A second tradition of communication theory, originated in its modern form by Locke, is semiotics, the study of signs. Semiotic theory conceptualizes communication as a process that relies on signs and sign systems to mediate across the gaps between subjective viewpoints. For semiotic theory, communication problems result from barriers to understanding that arise from the slippage between sign-vehicles (physical signs such as spoken or written words, or graphic images) and their meanings, the structure of sign systems, and particular ways of using (or misusing) signs. Distinct traditions of semiotics grew from the late-nineteenth century writings of the American pragmatist philosopher Charles S. Peirce, and the early twentieth century work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The Peirceian tradition analyzed the cognitive and mental functions of signs as a basis for distinguishing among types of signs (icon, index, symbol) and dimensions of semiosis (syntactics, semantics, pragmatics). The Saussureian tradition, which led to structuralist and poststructuralist theory, focused instead on the systematic structure of language and other sign systems. Although Locke's semiotic theory was the fountainhead of the transmission model, poststructuralist theories, such as Jacques Derrida's theory of deconstruction, conceptualize communication as a process in which meanings are not fixed by the linguistic system but billow up and float in shifting winds of discourse. In a poststructuralist view, we do not exist independently of signs, with our essentially real personal identities and subjective viewpoints, and "use" signs in order to communicate. We exist meaningfully only in and as signs.
A third, phenomenological tradition conceptualizes communication as the experience of self and other in dialogue. Such twentieth-century theorists of dialogue as Martin Buber, Hans-George Gadamer, Emanuel Levinas, and Carl Rogers (although Rogers was a psychologist rather than a philosopher) can be broadly identified with this tradition. The problem of communication for phenomenology, as for semiotics, is that of a gap between subjective viewpoints: One cannot directly experience another consciousness, and the potential for intersubjective understanding is thereby limited. The two traditions approach this problem in quite different ways, however. Whereas semiotics looks to the mediational properties of signs, phenomenology looks to the authenticity of our ways of experiencing self and other. The basis for communication lies in our common existence with others in a shared world that may be constituted differently in experience. Authentic dialogue requires open self-expression and acceptance of difference while seeking common ground. Barriers to communication can arise from self-unawareness, non-acceptance of difference, or strategic agendas that preclude openness to the other. The phenomenological tradition in modern philosophy stems from Edmund Husserl's (1859-1938) transcendental phenomenology, which was an analysis of the essential structure of conscious experience. Husserl's protégé and critic Martin Heidegger, in Zein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927), held that our being has no essence apart from the interpretive self-understanding that unfolds through time as we engage with the particular world in which we find ourselves. This hermeneutic phenomenology influenced subsequent existentialist, hermeneutic, and poststructuralist theories that have emphasized the constitutive properties of dialogue. Dialogue, in these theories, is not a essentially a sharing of pre-existing inner meanings; it is engagement with others to negotiate meaning.
Fourth, a cybernetic tradition of communication theory grew from the mid-twentieth century work of Shannon, Wiener, Gregory Bateson, and a host of other writers in many fields. This is actually one of the newest traditions of communication theory, although, as we have noted, it was the first communication theory explicitly named and widely known as such. Cybernetics conceptualizes communication as information processing. All complex systems, including computers and telecommunication devices, DNA molecules and cells, plants and animals, the human brain and nervous system, social groups and organizations, cities, and entire societies, process information, and in that sense communicate. Cybernetic theory downplays the differences between human communication and other kinds of information processing systems. Information storage, transmission, and feedback, network structures, and self-organizing processes occur in every sufficiently complex system. Problems of communication can arise from conflicts among subsystems or glitches in information processing like positive feedback loops that amplify noise. Proponents of second-order cybernetics (such as Heinz von Forster, Klaus Krippendorff, and Paul Watzlawick) have recast cybernetic theory within a constitutive model of communication. Second-order cybernetics reflexively includes the observer within the system observed and emphasizes the necessary role of the observer in defining, perturbing, and, often in unpredictable ways, changing a system by the very act of observing it.
Social psychology, a fifth tradition of communication theory, conceptualizes communication as social interaction and influence. Communication always involves individuals with their distinctive personality traits, attitudes, beliefs, and emotions. Social behavior both displays the influence of these psychological factors and modifies them as participants influence each other, often with little awareness of what is happening. Influence can be essentially a transmission process from source to receiver. If, however, interaction reciprocally changes the participants and leads to collective outcomes that would not otherwise have occurred, communication becomes a constitutive social process. Whether conceived on a transmission or a constitutive model, the problem of communication from a sociopsychological perspective is how to manage social interaction effectively in order to achieve preferred and anticipated outcomes. This requires an understanding, solidly grounded in scientific theory and research, of how the communication process works. Social scientific communication research has always been closely identified with social psychology, so it is not surprising that classic mid-century theories of group dynamics (Kurt Lewin), persuasion (Carl Hovland), and cognitive dissonance (Leon Festinger), were quickly absorbed into communication theory, and joined by many later theories in a flow of cross-disciplinary borrowing that continues unabated.
Sociocultural communication theory, which derives from twentieth century sociological and anthropological thought, is a sixth tradition. Sociocultural theory conceptualizes communication as a symbolic process that produces and reproduces shared meanings, rituals, and social structures. As John Dewey noted in Democracy and Education (New York, 1916), society exists not only by but in communication. That is, society exists not only by using communication as a necessary tool for transmitting and exchanging information. To communicate as a member of society is to participate in those coordinated, collective activities and shared understandings that constitute society itself. There is a tension in sociocultural theory between approaches that emphasize macro-social structures and processes and those that emphasize micro-social interaction. On the macro side, structural and functionalist views emphasize the necessary role of stable social structures and cultural patterns in making communication possible. On the micro side, interactionist views emphasize the necessary role of communication as a process that creates and sustains social structures and patterns in everyday contexts of social interaction. From either view, communication involves the coordination of activities among social actors, and communication problems are directly manifested in difficulties and breakdowns of coordination. Communication problems have apparently become more pressing and difficult under modern conditions of societal diversity, complex interdependence, and rapid change. A reasonable conjecture from a sociocultural point of view is that communication theory developed in modern society as a way of understanding and addressing this new condition in which communication seems to be at once the disease that causes most of our social problems, and the only possible cure.
A seventh tradition of communication theory, and the last to be discussed here, is a critical tradition that defines communication as a reflexive, dialectical discourse essentially involved with the cultural and ideological aspects of power, oppression, and emancipation in society. Dialectic, like its counterpart rhetoric, was first conceptualized in ancient Greece.. In the philosophical practice of Socrates as portrayed in Plato's Dialogues, dialectic was a method of argumentation through question and answer that, by revealing contradictions and clarifying obscurities, led the interlocutors to higher truth. The dialectical materialism of Karl Marx (1818-1883) initiated the modern conception of dialectic as an inherently social process connecting political economy to cultural practice. In orthodox Marxist theory, ideology and culture were determined by class interests, and dialectic at the level of ideas primarily reflected the underlying struggle between economic classes. Latter-day Marxism, notably in the mid-twentieth century critical theory of the Frankfort School (a circle that formed in Frankfurt, Germany in the 1920's and migrated to the U.S.A. during the Nazi period), has tended to see a larger role, less directly dependent on economic class relationships, for cultural and ideological debate. The goal of critical theory is then to promote emancipation and enlightenment by lifting ideological blinders that otherwise serve to perpetuate ignorance and oppression. More recently, the German social theorist Jürgen Habermas has reconstructed critical theory around key concepts including communicative action and systematically distorted communication. Communicative action, or discourse that seeks mutual understanding, for Habermas inherently involves certain transcendental validity claims that social actors must be free to contest openly in order for authentic communication to occur. Communication is systematically distorted by power imbalances that affect participation and expression, and critical theory can serve emancipatory interests by reflecting upon the sources of systematically distorted communication. Recent movements in the critical tradition such as postmodernism and critical cultural studies tend to reject both Marxist economic determinism as well as Habermas's universalistic ideal of communicative action, but continue to conceptualize communication in ways that emphasize ideology, oppression, critique, and reflexivity. Postmodernist cultural critique primarily addresses ideological discourses of race, class, and gender that suppress differences, preclude or devalue the expression of certain identities, and limit cultural diversity. In postmodernist theory, ideal communication is not, as it was for Plato, a dialectical discourse that leads the way to higher, universal truths. Postmodernism nevertheless implies a similar model of communication: that of a dialectical (that is, critical) discourse that can, if only in limited ways, liberate the participants and expand human possibilities.
These seven traditions include the most prominent intellectual sources that currently influence communication theory but the seven traditions do not, of course, cover the field exhaustively. Ideas about communication are too numerous, diverse, and dynamically evolving to be captured entirely by any simple scheme. The field could certainly be mapped in other ways that would distinguish the main traditions differently. Moreover, no matter how the traditions may be defined, they will not be found to have developed independently of one another. Contemporary theory draws from all of the traditions in various ways but is often hard to classify neatly in any one of them. Blends and hybrid varieties are common. Poststructuralist theory, for example, draws from both semiotics and phenomenology, is often regarded as a kind of rhetorical theory, and has significantly influenced recent sociocultural and critical theory. Similarly, traces of every other tradition of communication theory can be found recent rhetorical theory. The academic discipline of communication studies has become like a cauldron in which ideas from across the traditions of communication theory are mixed and stirred in different combinations to make intellectual stock for current debates.
During the second half of the twentieth century, academic studies of human communication became the province of a distinct academic discipline. Communication research, which coalesced as an interdisciplinary field in the 1940's, drew from research traditions that had originated more or less independently in many fields of behavioral and social science including sociology, political science, public opinion, propaganda analysis, education, advertising, business, social psychology, linguistics, anthropology, and others. As this interdisciplinary movement grew to prominence it influenced the intellectual identities of scholars in departments of speech in U.S. universities. Speech departments by mid-century had become a primary academic home for rhetorical studies. Because communication research was identified with the behavioral and social sciences, whereas rhetoric was considered to be a humanistic field, efforts to increase the presence of communication research in speech departments and related professional organizations threatened the dominant status of rhetoric. Intense institutional conflict, along with some creative efforts at intellectual synthesis, resulted.
The development of communication studies in speech departments (like the related evolution of mass communication and media studies in schools of journalism) was undoubtedly influenced by the growing prominence of communication as a theme in societal discourse. As evidenced, for example, by the proliferation of communication-related topics we noted earlier, communication by mid-century had become a vogue word used to label an ever wider range of social problems and practices. Communication-related jobs and communication skills in general were becoming more important in the postindustrial economy that that was beginning to emerge. According to John Durham Peters (Speaking into the Air, Chicago, 1999), two themes predominated in the post-World War II discourse on communication. One was a technological discourse associated with information theory and cybernetics. The other was a therapeutic discourse associated with the Carl Rogers and what was later known as human potential movement. As Peters points out, the drive for communication technology and therapy were both fueled by anxieties associated with the nuclear bomb and the cold war against communism.
In light of these trends in society, it is not surprising that speech and eventually rhetoric increasingly were thought to fall naturally under the general heading of communication. Beginning in the 1960s, communication gradually displaced speech in the titles of academic departments, professional organizations, and scholarly journals, and the speech curriculum was accordingly transformed around a new focus on the theory and practice of communication. As communication became the accepted name of the field as a whole, communication studies ceased to be identified exclusively with the behavioral and social sciences. Although the old tensions between scientific and humanistic approaches continued in new forms in communication departments, and rhetoric itself rose to prominence as an interdisciplinary field, rhetorical studies became, among other things, a branch of communication studies, and rhetorical theory became a tradition of communication theory.
Communication studies currently range across a broad field, the boundaries and subdivisions of which resist stable definition. The traditions of communication theory provide one interesting approach to mapping the intellectual structure of communication studies, but several other approaches are more common and also continue to be useful. One common approach to classifying knowledge about communication is by discipline. Communication can be studied as a scientific or humanistic discipline, an art, or a professional field. As a multidisciplinary field of scholarship, communication extends into such traditional disciplines as sociology, psychology, and linguistics, as well as newer ones like cultural studies and information science. It includes (or is closely related to) professional and technical fields such as journalism, advertising, public relations, broadcasting, and telecommunications. Each of these disciplines contributes its own structure of knowledge, which we cannot begin to explore in this article. Knowledge in the discipline of communication studies is also conventionally classified according to certain conceptual schemes. Without attempting an exhaustive survey, we will briefly explore three of the most common conceptual schemes for mapping the field: functions, codes-media-channels, and levels-contexts.
Just as rhetoric can be adapted to the different ends of moving, instructing, or pleasing an audience, communication can perform a variety of different functions. Persuasion or social influence, socialization, social support, information processing, conflict, decision-making, and entertainment are a few of the more widely studied functions of communication.
Persuasion, a large topic in itself, bonds communication studies to rhetoric in one important way. Aristotle defined rhetoric as the art of discovering the available means of persuasion in any given case. Experimental social psychological research on persuasion and attitude change has often been linked to this Aristotelian tradition and characterized as "scientific rhetoric"—an effort to create a more solid, scientific basis for the art of persuasion. Numerous scientific experiments have investigated the persuasive effects of logical and emotional appeals, one-sided and two-sided arguments, source credibility (or ethos), audience characteristics, media of transmission, and a host of other variables. Social psychological theories have been presented as scientific alternatives to traditional rhetoric. Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance, for example, not only offered a seemingly new explanatory principle for persuasion but opened entirely new fields of study such as selective exposure (the tendency to seek information that supports one's current attitudes) and self-persuasion (or counterattitudinal advocacy, as it was uncharmingly called). A more recent line of research has investigated "compliance-gaining" behavior, the strategies people use to influence each other in interpersonal situations.
With the growing popularity of the human potential movement and associated therapeutic conceptions of communication in the 1960's and '70s, the traditional focus of communication research on persuasion and social influence processes was criticized. As an alternative to such manipulative, "rhetorical" uses of communication, research was needed to promote more humane and therapeutic functions of communication such as interpersonal bonding, group cooperation, and conflict resolution. Lines of research have developed in each of these areas and have produced substantial bodies of knowledge.. One such area, for example, is the study of social support and comforting communication. Some of these studies have investigated behaviors that function to express emotional supportiveness under given conditions, or variables that predict the ability to produce sophisticated comforting messages.
Social scientific communication researchers have often favored a functional approach because it focuses attention on measurable outcomes of communication, and attempts to explain how outcomes are influenced by variables and processes that occur across a wide range of communicative situations. For example, certain cognitive processes and message characteristics may help to explain the efficiency with which information is gained from communication, whether in the context of a political campaign in the mass media, the socialization of new members in an organization, a classroom lesson, or a group discussion among friends.
Codes, Media, and Channels
Another common way of classifying communication is according to the codes, media, or channels through which it occurs. Codes, media, and channels are not so much different kinds of things as they are different perspectives on the same range of phenomena. Code refers to the way a sign system is structured to constitute a particular correlation of signs to meanings. Medium (in current usage often confused with its Latinate plural form, media) refers to a particular configuration of physical, technological, and institutional characteristics that constitute a distinct form of communication such as face-to-face interaction, commercial television, or electronic mail. Channel refers to a selection from a particular array of options for sending and receiving information. One array of channels comprises the five senses of vision, hearing, touch, etc.; another array comprises the telephone, fax, postal letter, e-mail, or face-to-face interview as options for business communication; still another array might be a set of available television channels. The use of different channels may or may not involve the use of different media and codes for communication.
Language, of course, is a primary code (or, in different perspectives, a medium or channel) of human communication, and is a vast field of research in its own right. The commonplace distinction between verbal and nonverbal channels (or codes) is often criticized by experts in nonverbal communication, who point out that verbal and nonverbal behaviors are closely intertwined and function together in the communication process. Kinesics (gesture, facial expression, and body movement), proxemics (the use of space), haptics (touch), and paralanguage (vocal pitch, intonation, etc.) are some codes of face-to-face communication that have been studied. On the wider scene of societal culture, every distinguishable field of cultural practice, insofar as it is meaningful, can be said to embody its own particular codes or sign system. Semiotic analysis reveals systematic codes that govern the social meaning of clothing, food, mythic stories, character types in television genres, or kinds of shots in film or video. For example, whether a television scene is filmed in close-up, medium, or long shots can contribute, in conjunction with other codes, to the portrayal of different kinds of social relationships (the longer the shot, the more public the relationship).
A branch of media theory known, in its more extreme formulations, as technological determinism holds that communication media shape our consciousness of the world, and that the dissemination of new media through society can bring about new forms of consciousness and culture. Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980), undoubtedly the most publicly famous technological determinist, popularized several catch phrases ("the medium is the message," "the Guttenberg galaxy," "the Global Village") that have persisted in common usage. McLuhan speculated that the new electronic media, especially television, were causing cultural and epistemological changes no less profound than the revolutionary changes in consciousness that came with the transition from oral to literate culture and the introduction of the printing press in earlier eras. The simplistic notion that changes in media technology directly cause changes in consciousness has never been widely accepted by communication theorists. McLuhan's ideas, however, along with the less popularized works of Harold Innis, Walter Ong, and other scholars of media history, continue to stimulate thought on the cultural implications of new communication media. The recent tidal waves of technological change in computing and telecommunications have triggered new waves of speculation on the changes in culture and consciousness that may come in the wake of this so-called digital revolution.
Levels and Contexts
A third commonly used way of classifying communication is according to the context or situation in which it occurs. From the cybernetic tradition of general system theory comes the idea of nested levels of systemic organization. Every complex system is composed of subsystems at lower levels, and is itself a subsystem nested within some higher-level system. This idea has been applied by communication theorists to conceptualize levels of communication such as intrapersonal (within the person), interpersonal (between people), small group (among a set of individuals who are mutually aware and maintain a common focus of attention), organizational (within a complex network of individuals and groups having subgroups and differentiated functions), public (between a communication source and a large, co-present audience), and mass (from a communication source, through a technological medium, to a very large, anonymous audience).
Intrapersonal communication, which has never developed as a major research area within communication studies (perhaps because it seems well enough covered by the discipline of psychology), in principle includes such topics as attention, perception, information seeking, cognitive processing, personality, and self-reflection. Interpersonal communication is a very broad research field that ranges from studies of the development, conduct, and dissolution of personal relationships (friendships, romantic relationships, family relationships, etc.), to studies of communicator traits such as communication apprehension and argumentativeness, to studies of the communication strategies and behaviors associated with social influence, deception, conflict, social support, impression management, and a myriad of other communication functions. Small group communication includes such topics as the effects of group composition on group outcomes, the functions of communication in groups (e.g., task-related versus group maintenance functions), group leadership and other group roles, stages and processes of group development and decision-making, methods of group facilitation, and the characteristics of particular kinds of groups as in business, education, or therapy. Organizational communication is a major field that includes, among other topics, studies of formal and informal communication networks, leadership, superior-subordinate relationships, power and control, decision-making, socialization, identification, workplace democracy and participatory practices, organizational culture and change, and inter-organizational and public relations. Mass communication is an even vaster field that includes studies of media institutions, professions, law, economics, and history; the characteristics and behavior of media audiences; the effects of mass communication on audience knowledge and opinions, consumer and voting behavior, violence and perceptions of violence in society, public agendas and political processes; media formats, genres, and contents; and the role of media as producers of culture and agents of social change.
This "levels" scheme is thought by some to be especially useful because it provides distinct places for traditional subdisciplines of communication studies (such as interpersonal communication, organizational communication, and mass communication) while suggesting how these subdisciplines might work together to compose a coherent field of study. Rhetoric in this scheme can be conceived as the study of public communication. Understood in this way, rhetoric is naturally linked to the neighboring levels of mass communication (e.g., in studies of political campaigns and televised rhetoric), and organizational communication (e.g., in studies of organizational leadership and organizations as public actors).
From a strict, system-theoretic standpoint, conventional versions of the levels scheme of communication are conceptually suspect. Whether intrapersonal processes constitute communication at all is a matter of dispute. It is equally questionable whether public communication is really a distinct systemic level nested between mass and organizational communication. Much of our public communication occurs via the mass media, yet individuals also interact in public (while walking on public streets, for example) without necessarily engaging in one-to-many public address. One also wonders what to do with an established field like intercultural communication (communication between members of different cultures). Sometimes intercultural communication is appended to the scheme as a level above mass communication, which makes little sense because much intercultural communication is also interpersonal, small group, and/or organizational. More generally, changes in media technology and practice are progressively blurring the boundaries between traditional levels of communication. Mass audiences are ever more finely segmented and play more interactive roles in the communication process. Individuals and groups interact through technological media, sometimes anonymously, and sometimes in public forums like virtual chat rooms or broadcast talk shows. Virtual organizations (such as agencies that manage temporary workers) become little more than loose networks of individuals connected by media.
Apart from the levels model, there are other, less conceptually schematic ways of distinguishing contexts of communication. Intercultural communication, if not a distinct systemic level of organization, might be classified as a communication function, or perhaps simply as a particular kind of situation in which communication occurs. Every distinct social situation, field of activity, and cultural community has its own communication problems, practices, and ideals that need to be understood in their own terms. In this perspective, communication can be divided very finely into a myriad of overlapping contextual fields of religious communication, business communication, family communication, communication in education, communication in particular ethnic and cultural groups, and so on—finally, the innumerable, mundane categories of human interaction.
The discipline of communication has grown enormously in recent decades and continues to evolve. Some of the more important current trends in communication studies can be encapsulated in four emerging themes: technology, culture, discourse, and practice.
The first theme is technology. The present era is one of dizzying technological change, so rapid that we lack a conceptually stable language with which to describe it. Information has become a fungible commodity, transferable from any medium to any other. Twenty years ago the television and the telephone were clearly two distinct technologies. Twenty years from now the proliferating array of telecommunication devices may be classified quite differently. As we noted earlier, technological change is reshuffling the levels and functions of communication. Competence and critical awareness in the use of new media become important goals of communication education, but the contents of this learning are difficult to codify and expensive to keep up-to-date. Every tradition of communication theory is challenged to conceptualize new technology. The rhetoric of visual images, the phenomenology of virtual reality, the social psychology of e-mail, sociocultural community in cyberspace, and, perhaps most importantly, critical analysis and debunking of the ideology underlying much of the hype that currently surrounds technology, become topics for investigation.
A second emerging theme is culture. Culture converges with technology in critical cultural studies of technological practices, ethnographic studies of virtual communities, and so on. But culture is also an important theme in its own right. With increasing global interdependence, cultural diversity and change become visible everywhere and raise inescapable questions. Cross-cultural diffusion raises questions of neo-imperialist cultural domination. Intercultural communication loses its distinct character as we become more aware of the interplay of cultural identity and difference in all communication. Gender, class, racial, ethnic, and national identities are always at stake, whether in media representations or workplace interactions. The performance of these identities, and their often subtle negotiation, become critical elements of communicative practice in multicultural societies. Much traditional communication theory and research has been implicitly ethnocentric and patriarchal. "We" studied the communication behavior of males, and occasionally of females in comparison with a male standard, and seldom questioned whether such categories might be defined differently except in "other" cultures. This approach is no longer intellectually or politically acceptable. Traditional ethnographic studies of communication in various cultural communities continue to be important. But every branch of communication studies is now challenged to address the cultural dimensions of communication and to recognize its own constitutive role in the production of culture.
A third trend is to conceptualize communication as discourse. Discourse is language in use, or more broadly, the interactive production of meaning. The theme of discourse is significant in several dimensions. In one dimension it represents an effort to understand in greater detail the process by which communication actually occurs, beyond merely summarizing the process in abstract models and categories. It is no longer enough to count the number of experts who appear on television talk shows or to classify the types of advice they provide. The trend now is to ask exactly how "expertise" is constituted in the discourse among participants on stage and in the audience, and how this negotiation of the expert role relates to other discourses on matters such as legitimate knowledge and authority, selfhood, and the boundary between private and public spheres. In another dimension, discourse represents a point of convergence between rhetoric and other traditions of communication theory. It brings a rhetorical perspective to our understanding of forms of communication (such as personal interaction) that were not traditionally thought of as rhetoric. And it enriches the rhetorical perspective with insights and techniques from pragmatics, conversation analysis, cultural studies, and other fields. In a third dimension, discourse represents a movement toward understanding communication as practice—that is, as meaningful, situated, morally accountable action.
Practice, then, is a fourth theme that encapsulates current trends in communication. In recent years it has become more academically respectable—and more intellectually interesting—to admit that communication is a practical discipline. Throughout the field, applied studies, critical studies, community-based action research, attention to normative, ethical, and educational issues, and, in general, the idea that academic work ought to address socially relevant practical concerns, are both more common and more esteemed in high places than they used to be. The forces that have contributed to this shift are numerous, but the tradition of rhetoric as a practical art within communication studies is surely one of them. Contrary to what might be expected, the trend toward practice has not been accompanied by a rejection of theory. Communication theory is now flourishing as never before. Rather, the traditional separation of practice from theory has been challenged by alternative views. Some of those alternative views have been informed by an Aristotelian tradition of practical philosophy in which the art of rhetoric was closely associated with political praxis. In this tradition, practice requires judgement as well as skill, and both judgment and skill can be informed and cultivated with the help of theory that is specifically designed to serve those ends. The challenge to communication studies is not to elevate practice over theory, but to develop more practical theories for the cultivation of better and more reflective communication practices.
Metadiscourse, Theory, and Practice
Communication theory has sometimes aspired to transcend the mundane. Communication on a very abstract plane is universal. Planet and moon, flower and bee, lover and beloved, all communicate. All exist in reciprocal relations. All emit and respond to signals according to laws of physics and laws of information. Cybernetics reveled in such analogies, which inspired visions of a fundamental communication theory to rival the theories of Newton and Einstein.
If that mid-twentieth century vision was grandiose, the reality has been grand enough in some ways. The abstract model of communication as information and signal transmission is a hallmark of the Information Age. It has been usefully applied in engineering and science, biology, psychology, and social science. Ironically, its role in the theory and practice of human discourse has been more limited and may even have diminished, relatively speaking, despite the current vogue of communication technology and the associated efflorescence of cyber-talk. In a transmission model of communication, human interaction is merely one among many examples of information processing, less attractive to science than others, perhaps, because it is so complex and difficult to analyze. In the constitutive model that communication theorists now tend to prefer, information theory is merely one among many examples of metadiscourse, one way of constituting "communication" within the act of communication.
Practical metadiscourse, or reflexive discourse-about-discourse, occurs abundantly in human interaction. In everyday conversation, "the second point I want to make" could be a bit of metadiscourse used to bracket and introduce a segment of talk. "That's a promise" could be a bit of metadiscourse used to constitute what has just been said as a promise. "There was too much noise in the channel" could be a bit of metadiscourse used to make an excuse for a failure of communication. That last example happens to draw from the language of information theory. It illustrates one way in which theoretical metadiscourse—the formal discourse of communication theory—can be used in practical metadiscourse. Theory becomes a resource for constituting communication as an object of discussion in a particular way, for some practical purpose.
The entire field of communication—the discourse about models of communication, traditions of communication theory, disciplines, functions, codes, media, levels, contexts, technology, culture, discourse, and practice—is a vast metadiscourse that constitutes "communication" as an object for systematic study and critical reflection for many different purposes. Of the various ways in which rhetoric can be related to communication, one of the most currently useful may be to conceptualize communication theory as a rhetoric of communication. Classical rhetorical theory, as other articles in this Encyclopedia amply demonstrate, provides a rich storehouse of topical categories, lines of argument, and figures of speech useful for crafting persuasive messages on public affairs. Rhetorical stases assist the communicator in defining the issues under dispute in a given situation, and rhetorical topoi assist in finding arguments with which to address those issues.
Just as rhetorical theory provides resources for participating in discourses on public affairs, communication theory provides resources for practical metadiscourse, that is, for participating in discourses on communication. This suggests one way of connecting communication theory to practice: Communication theory is to the practice of communication as rhetorical theory is to the practice of public affairs. Rhetorical theory can affect public affairs indirectly, by informing what Thomas B. Farrell has called the norms of rhetorical culture (see his Norms of Rhetorical Culture, New Haven, 1993)—the climate of beliefs and habits that shapes the discourses in which we negotiate and conduct public affairs. So, communication theory can affect the practice of communication in society indirectly, by informing the practical metadiscourse in which we negotiate and conduct communication. Thus, academic communication studies, including rhetorical studies, can participate actively in societal discourses that ultimately constitute what we might call the norms of communicative culture.
Arnold, Carroll C., and John Waite Bowers, eds. Handbook of Rhetorical and Communication Theory. Boston, 1984. Defines rhetoric as purposive communication. A functional approach with major review chapters on processing information, changing attitudes, pleasing, etc.
Barnouw, Erik, George Gerbner, Wilbur Schramm, Tobia L. Worth, and Larry Gross, eds. International Encyclopedia of Communications. 4 vols. New York and Oxford, 1989. Comprehensive reference emphasizing media, history, and multidisciplinary perspectives.
Berger, Charles R., and Steven H. Chaffee, eds. Handbook of Communication Science. Newbury Park, California, 1987. Literature reviews, primarily of social psychological communication research, organized by levels, functions, and contexts. Includes a fine chapter by Delia on the history of the field.
Carey, James. W. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Winchester, Massachusetts, 1989. Media history and cultural studies based on a ritual model of communication.
Deetz, Stanley A. Democracy in an Age of Corporate Colonization: Developments in Communication and the Politics of Everyday Life. Albany, 1992. Critical theory of communication as a constitutive process, emphasizes organizational communication.
Ellis, Donald G. Crafting Society: Ethnicity, Class, and Communication Theory. Mahwah, New Jersey, 1999. Theoretical essays on the link between micro-communication activities and macro-social categories such as race and class.
Hauser, Marc D. The Evolution of Communication. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996. Excellent survey of the evolution of auditory and visual signals in a wide range of animal species, including humans.
Leeds-Hurwitz, Wendy. Communication in Everyday Life: A Social Interpretation. Norwood, New Jersey, 1989. Readable presentation of a sociocultural approach rooted in ethnography and micro-sociology.
Littlejohn, Stephen W. Theories of Human Communication. 6th edition. Belmont, California, 1999. Currently the most comprehensive textbook.
Mattelart, Armand. The Invention of Communication. Translated by Susan Emanuel. Minneapolis, 1996. Social history as an "archeology of knowledge," how communication came to be associated with the idea of progress.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, 1964. Technological determinist media history and prophecy.
McQuail, Denis. Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction. 3rd edition. London, 1994. Broad overview of media studies.
Pearce, W. Barnett. Communication and the Human Condition. Carbondale, Illinois, 1989. Essay on forms of communication and ways of being, with "CMM" theory as a constitutive model.
Peters, John Durham. Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago, 1999. Beautifully written essay on the origins of communication as "a registry of modern longings."
Pilotta, Joseph J., and Algis Mickunas. Science of Communication: Its Phenomenological Foundation. Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1990.
Rogers, Everett M. A History of Communication Study: A Biographical Approach. New York, 1994. Twentieth century founders and forerunners of social scientific communication research.
Rothenbuhler, Eric W. Ritual Communication: From Everyday Conversation to Mediated Ceremony. Thousand Oaks, California, 1998. Rituals and ceremonies as symbolic forms of communication linking individuals to the social order.
Schiller, Dan. Theorizing Communication: A History. New York, 1996. Critical history showing how communication theory has participated in the ideological split between intellectual and manual labor.
Taylor, Talbot J. Mutual Misunderstanding: Scepticism and the Theorizing of Language and Interpretation. Durham, North Carolina, 1992. Deconstruction of language theory since Locke as intellectual metadiscourse.
Watzlawick, Paul, Janet Helmick Beavin, and Don D. Jackson. Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes. New York, 1967. Influential cybernetic analysis of relational communication as a basis for therapeutic intervention.
ROBERT T. CRAIG