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  1. 1. Communication Theory Nine: TwoRobert T. Craig May 1999 Pages 119-161Communication Theory as a FieldThis essay reconstructs communication theory as a dialogical-dialecti-cal field according to two principles: the constitutive model of com-munication as a metamodel and theory as metadiscursive practice. Theessay argues that all communication theories are mutually relevantwhen addressed to a practical lifeworld in which “communication” isalready a richly meaningful term. Each tradition of communicationtheory derives from and appeals rhetorically to certain commonplacebeliefs about communication while challenging other beliefs. Thecomplementarities and tensions among traditions generate a theoreti-cal metadiscourse that intersects with and potentially informs theongoing practical metadiscourse in society. In a tentative scheme ofthe field, rhetorical, semiotic, phenomenological, cybernetic, socio-psychological, sociocultural, and critical traditions of communicationtheory are distinguished by characteristic ways of defining communi-cation and problems of communication, metadiscursive vocabularies,and metadiscursive commonplaces that they appeal to and challenge.Topoi for argumentation across traditions are suggested and implica-tions for theoretical work and disciplinary practice in the field areconsidered.Communication theory is enormously rich in the range of ideas that fallwithin its nominal scope, and new theoretical work on communicationhas recently been flourishing.’ Nevertheless, despite the ancient rootsand growing profusion of theories about communication, I argue thatcommunication theory as an identifiable field of study does not yetexist.2 Rather than addressing a field of theory, we appear to be operatingprimarily in separate domains. Books and articles on communicationtheory seldom mention other works on communication theory exceptwithin narrow (inter)disciplinary specialties and schools of t h ~ u g h t . ~Except within these little groups, communication theorists apparentlyneither agree nor disagree about much of anything. There is no canon ofgeneral theory to which they all refer. There are no common goals thatCopyright 0 1999 International Communication Association 119
  2. 2. Communication Theoryunite them, no contentious issues that divide them. For the most part,they simply ignore each ~ t h e r . ~ College courses in communication theory are increasingly offered atall levels, and numerous textbooks are being published. However, a closerlook at their contents only further demonstrates that, although thereexist many theories of communication-indeed, way too many differenttheories to teach effectively in any one course-there is no consensus oncommunication theory as a field. Anderson (1996) analyzed the contents of seven communication theorytextbooks and identified 249 distinct “theories,” 195 of which appearedin only one of the seven books. That is, just 22% of the theories ap-peared in more than one of the seven books, and only 18 of the 249theories (7%) were included in more than three books. If communica-tion theory were really a field, it seems likely that more than half of theintroductory textbooks would agree on something more than 7% of thefield’s essential contents. The conclusion that communication theory isnot yet a coherent field of study seems ines~apable.~ Although communication theory is not yet a coherent field, I believeit can and should become one. A field will emerge to the extent that weincreasingly engage as communication theorists with socially importantgoals, questions, and controversies that cut across the various disciplin-ary traditions, substantive specialties, methodologies, and schools ofthought that presently divide us. In this essay I argue that all communication theories are relevant to acommon practical lifeworld in which communication is already a richlymeaningful term. Communication theory, in this view, is a coherent fieldof metadiscursive practice, a field of discourse about discourse with im-plications for the practice of communication. The various traditions ofcommunication theory each offer distinct ways of conceptualizing anddiscussing communication problems and practices. These ways derivefrom and appeal to certain commonplace beliefs about communicationwhile problematizing other beliefs. It is in the dialogue among thesetraditions that communication theory can fully engage with the ongoingpractical discourse (or metadiscourse) a bout communication in society(Craig, 1989; Craig & Tracy, 1995). Succeeding sections of the essay develop the following points: 1. Communication theory has not yet emerged as a coherent field ofstudy because communication theorists have not yet found a way be-yond the disabling disciplinary practices that separate them. 2. The potential of communication theory as a field can best be real-ized, however, not in a unified theory of communication but in a dia-logical-dialectical disciplinary matrix, a commonly understood (thoughalways contestable) set of assumptions that would enable productiveargumentation across the diverse traditions of communication theory. 120
  3. 3. Communication Theory as a Field 3. A disciplinary matrix can be developed using a constitutivemetamodel of communication that opens up a conceptual space in whichdiverse first-order models can interact, and a conception of communica-tion theory as theoretical metadiscourse productively engaged with thepractical metadiscourse of everyday life. 4. Based on these principles, a tentative reconstruction of themultidisciplinary traditions of communication theory can appear as sevenalternative vocabularies for theorizing communication as a social prac-tice. In conclusion, I suggest applications and extensions of the matrix andimplications for disciplinary practice in the field of communication theory.Roots of IncoherenceThe incoherence of communication theory as a field can be explained bycommunication theory’s multidisciplinary origins and by the particularways in which communication scholars have used and too often mis-used the intellectual fruits that continue to pour from this multidisci-plinary horn of plenty.Multidisciplinary OriginsOne of the most interesting facts about communication theory is that ithas cropped up more or less independently in so many different aca-demic disciplines. Littlejohn (1982),in what may be still the closest thingwe have to a comprehensive schematic overview, traced contributions tocommunication theory from disciplines as diverse as literature, math-ematics and engineering, sociology, and psychology.6 Budd and Ruben’s( 1972) anthology of communication theory included chapters represent-ing 24 disciplinary approaches in alphabetical order from anthropologyto zoology. The communication discipline initially tried to set itself up as a kindof interdisciplinary clearinghouse for all of these disciplinary approaches.This spirit of interdisciplinarity is still with us and deserves to be culti-vated as one of our more meritorious qualities. The incorporation of somany different disciplinary approaches has made it very hard, however,to envision communication theory as a coherent field. What, if any-thing, do all of these approaches have to do with each other? Developedwithin various disciplines to address various intellectual problems, theyare, in Kuhn’s ( 1 970) sense of the term, incommensurable: They neitheragree nor disagree about anything, but effectively bypass each other be-cause they conceive of their nominally shared topic, communication, insuch fundamentally different ways. Dance (1970) reviewed 95 published definitions of communicationthat had appeared in the 50s and 60s.’ He concluded that the defini-tions differed in so many ways (he distinguished 15 conceptual compo- I21
  4. 4. Communication Theorynents) that communication might better be theorized as a “family” ofrelated concepts rather than a unitary concept in order to avoid “dissen-sion, academic sniping, and theoretical divisiveness’’ (p. 21 0). Workingin a positivist tradition that at least held the concept of theory stable,Dance perhaps underestimated the difficulty of integrating definitionsderived eclectically from disciplines with incommensurable intellectualagendas, now often involving radically different conceptions of “theory”(Craig, 1993). Given a plethora of definitions of communication andthe difficulty of integrating or deciding among them in any satisfactoryway, it became conventional wisdom among communication scholars(e.g. Fisher, 1978; Murphy, 1991) that to argue over definitions of com-munication was pointless. Over what, then, is it not pointless for com-munication theorists to argue if not the primary concept that constitutestheir common field of study?From Sterile Eclecticism to ProductiveFragmentationAccording to Peters ( 1986), communication research has been intellec-tually impoverished in part because of the peculiar way in which thediscipline was institutionalized in U.S. universities. The term communi-cation, he argues, was used by Wilbur Schramm and others as an institu-tional legitimizing device in ways that precluded any coherent definitionof “the field, its intellectual focus, and its mission” (p. 527). In estab-lishing itself under the banner of communication, the discipline stakedan academic claim to the entire field of communication theory and re-search-a very big claim indeed, since communication had already beenwidely studied and theorized. Peters writes that communication researchbecame “an intellectual Taiwan-laiming to be all of China when, infact, it was isolated on a small island” (p. 545). Perhaps the most egre-gious case involved Shannon’s mathematical theory of information(Shannon & Weaver, 1948), which communication scholars touted asevidence of their field’s potential scientific status even though they hadnothing whatever with creating it, often poorly understood it, andseldom found any real use for it in their research. The sterile eclecticismof communication theory in this mode is evident in the cataloguing tra-ditions still appearing in most of our recent communication theory text-books. The “field” of communication theory came to resemble in someways a pest-control device called the Roach Motel that used to be adver-tised on TV:Theories check in, but they never check out. Communica-tion scholars seized upon every idea about communication, whatever itsprovenance, but accomplished little with most of them-entombed them,you might say, after removing them from the disciplinary environmentsin which they had thrived and were capable of propagating. Communi-cation scholars contributed few original ideas of their own. Peters (1986) also points to a related phenomenon that I may inter- 122
  5. 5. Communication Theory as a Field pret somewhat differently than he. Leading communication scholars werequite aware of the problem I am calling “sterile eclecticism” and soughtto overcome it by developing systematic, theoretically based researchprograms. Since most of their theories and research paradigms wereborrowed from other disciplines, this meant, in effect, initiating com-munication research programs closely based upon research programs inthose other disciplines, so that much political communication research,for example, was little more than “political science as practiced in thefield of communication” (Peters, 1986, p. 548). Similarly, much inter-personal communication research was, and continues to be, little morethan experimental social psychology as practiced in the field of commu-nication. Interdisciplinarity and cross-disciplinary borrowing are, of course, use-ful practices in themselves and ought to be encouraged in order to miti-gate the fragmentation of knowledge among disciplines. The problem,as Peters (1986) suggested, is that mostly borrowed goods were lever-aged to sustain institutional claims to disciplinary status without articu-lating any coherent, distinctive focus or mission for this putative com-munication discipline. Communication research became productive by importing fragmentsof various other disciplines into its own culture, but the fragments didnot and could never, in the ways they were used, cohere as a self-sustain-ing whole that was something more than the sum of its parts. This con-dition further explains why communication theory has not yet emergedas a coherent field. Each of the fragments of communication researchhas been productive within its own domain, hence my term “productivefragmentation.” As long as the research discipline is thus fragmented,the textbooks will continue to be mired in sterile eclecticism and therewill continue to be more and more communication theories but still nofield of communication theory.~Reconstructing Communication Theoryas a FieldThe Goal: Dialogical-Dialectical CoherenceIn considering remedies for incoherence, the goal should not be somechimerical, unified theory of communication just over the rainbow. Sucha unified theory will always be out of reach, and we probably should notwant one even if it were attainable. No active field of inquiry has a fullyunified theory. A perfectly coherent field would be a static field, a deadfield, but the practice of communication itself is very much alive andendlessly evolving in a worldly scene of contingency and conflict. Com-munication theory, the theory of this practice, in all likelihood will never,therefore, achieve a final, unified form. The goal, indeed, should be thevery condition that Dance (1970) was so keen to avoid: theoretical di- 123
  6. 6. Communication Theoryversity, argument, debate, even at the cost of occasional lapses into aca-demic sniping. The goal should not be a state in which we have nothingto argue about, but one in which we better understand that we all havesomething very important to argue about. If, however, we should not chase after the chimera of a unified theory,neither should we be distracted from the path of inquiry by the red her-ring of antidisciplinarity. Productive theoretical arguments most readilyoccur within an interpretive community sustained by a disciplinary ma-trix, a background of assumptions shared in common. Disciplinarity,however, does not require that diversity and interdisciplinarity be sup-pressed.8 To be a discipline means only, at a minimum, that many of usagree that we disagree about certain matters that are consequential incertain ways and therefore worth discussing. A discipline in this sense isnothing more nor less than “a conversational community with a tradi-tion of argumentation” (Shotter, 1997). The goal, in short, should be dialogical-dialectical coherence: a com-mon awareness of certain complementarities and tensions among differ-ent types of communication theory, so it is commonly understood thatthese different types of theory cannot legitimately develop in total isola-tion from each other but must engage each other in argument. My pur-pose here is to explore how communication theory might be reconstructedwithin a practical discipline to reveal such complementarities and ten-sions and thereby constitute a coherent field. For this purpose, I willpropose a tentative theoretical matrix constructed on the basis of twoprinciples. The first of these principles derives from the “constitutive”model of communication that has been featured in other recent effortsto conceptualize a field of communication theory but puts the constitu-tive model through a reflexive turn from which it emerges looking quitedifferent.Principle One: The Constitutive Modelof Communication as MetamodelAlthough the earlier debate over defining communication largely ceasedafter Dance (1970), the concept of communication has once again,roughly since the late 1980s, become a subject of serious discussion amongcommunication theorists. Amidst a general flourishing of communica-tion theory, this renewed focus on the concept of communication re-flects a growing conviction among at least some scholars that communi-cation theory can become a coherent field of inquiry, a field of centralimportance to social thought. In conceptualizing communication, weconstruct, in effect, a “communicational” perspective on social realityand so define the scope and purpose of a communication discipline dis-tinct from other social discipline^.^ Among the most interesting of these field-defining proposals have beenseveral versions of a constitutive, or ritual, model of communication. 124
  7. 7. Communication Theory as a Field Typically, the proposed model is defined largely by contrast with its dia- lectical opposite, a transmission, or informational, model of communi- cation that, it is claimed, continues to dominate lay and much academic thought (Carey, 1989; Cronen, 1995; Deetz, 1994; Pearce, 1989; Peters, 1989; Rothenbuhler, 1998; Shepherd, 1993; Sigman, 1992, 1995b). According to the conventional transmission concept, communication is a process of sending and receiving messages or transferring information from one mind to another. This transmission model of communication has come under heavyattack in recent years. Peters (1989) has traced its origins to 18th-cen-tury empiricism, with its individualistic and ultimately solipsistic assump-tions (also see Taylor, 1992, 1997). Carey (1989), Deetz (1994), Pearce(1989), and Shepherd (1993),among others, have variously argued thatthe transmission model is philosophically flawed, fraught with paradox,and ideologically backward, and that it should at least be supplemented,if not entirely supplanted, by a model that conceptualizes communica-tion as a constitutive process that produces and reproduces shared mean-ing. The constitutive model offers the discipline of communication afocus, a central intellectual role, and a cultural mission (i.e., to critiquecultural manifestations of the transmission model). Several important themes run through this literature. One is that ideasabout communication have evolved historically and are best understoodin a broader context of cultural and intellectual history. A second is thatcommunication theories are reflexive: Formal theories, that is, often drawfrom ordinary, culturally based ways of thinking about communicationbut these theories, once formulated, can also influence, either to rein-force or to change, everyday thinking and practice. The relationshipbetween theory and culture is thus reflexive, or mutually constitutive.Communication theories help to create the very phenomena that theypurport to explain (Carey, 1989; Krippendorff, 1997). This leads to a third theme, which is that theories of communication,because they are historically and culturally rooted and reflexive, havepractical implications, including political ones. Because they influencesociety, theories always serve some interests-often, unsurprisingly, in-terests of the more privileged and powerful strata of society-more thanothers. For example, a transmission model of communication can servethe interests of technical experts, such as scientists and engineers, whenit is used to reinforce cultural beliefs that highlight the value of expertsas reliable sources of information. A fourth theme is that the communication can be a legitimate intellec-tual discipline, but only if it embraces a communicational perspective onsocial reality that is radically distinct from, but at least equal in statusto, such established disciplinary perspectives as those of psychology, so-ciology, economics, linguistics, and so on. Each of these disciplinary per- 125
  8. 8. Communication Theoryspectives has its own ways of explaining certain aspects of communica-tion. Psychological theories explain, for example, the cognitive processesby which people are able to create messages (Berger, 1997). A communi-cational perspective, however, completely turns the explanatory tables.Communication, from a communicational perspective, is not a second-ary phenomenon that can be explained by antecedent psychological,sociological, cultural, or economic factors; rather, communication itselfis the primary, constitutive social process that explains all these otherfactors. Theories about communication from other disciplinary perspec-tives are not, in the strict sense, within the field of communication theorybecause they are not based on a communicational perspective. All genu-ine communication theory acknowledges the consequentiality of com-munication (Sigman, 1995b); it acknowledges communication itself as afundamental mode of explanation (Deetz, 1994).1° Deetz points out that new disciplines (in the sense of fundamentallynew modes of explanation) “arise when existing modes of explanationfail to provide compelling guidance for responses to a central set of newsocial issues” (1994, p. 568). Today, the central social issues have to dowith who participates in what ways in the social processes that con-struct personal identities, the social order, and codes of communication.Against the traditional informational view of communication that takesthese elements for granted as a fixed framework that must be in place inorder for communication to occur, Deetz endorses an emerging “com-munication perspective” that focuses on “describing how the inner world,outer world, social relations, and means of expression are reciprocallyconstituted with the interactional process as its own best explanation”(1994, p. 577). Especially noteworthy is that the arguments advanced in support of aconstitutive model of communication, as the passages just quoted fromDeetz (1994) illustrate, most often are not purely theoretical. The chang-ing social situation in which communication is theorized, it is said, callsfor new ways of thinking about communication. The constitutive modelis presented as a practical response to contemporary social problems,such as those arising from the erosion of the cultural foundations oftraditional ideas and institutions, increasing cultural diversity and inter-dependence, and widespread demands for democratic participation inthe construction of social reality. Just as a transmission model can beused to bolster the authority of technical experts, a constitutive modelcan hopefully serve the causes of freedom, toleration, and democracy.” Although I largely agree with these arguments for a constitutive modelof communication, I favor a pragmatic interpretation that does not nec-essarily reject other models, such as the transmission model, for practi-cal purposes. That is, I take the constitutive model to be a metamodelthat opens up a conceptual space in which many different theoretical 126
  9. 9. Communication Theory as a Field models of communication can interact. Logically, a first-order model ofcommunication is a perspective on communication that highlights cer-tain aspects of the process. Thus, for example, a transmission modelpictures communication as a process in which messages flow from sources to receivers. A second-order model, or metamodel, is a perspective on models that highlights certain aspects of models. A constitutivemetamodel of communication pictures models of communication as dif-ferent ways of constituting the communication process symbolically forparticular purposes. The failure to distinguish logically between first-order models of communication and the constitutive metamodel is, Ibelieve, a category mistake that produces at least two sorts of confusion. First, a paradox lurks in the dialectical opposition between constitu-tive and transmission models. Since the constitutive model typically de-nies that any concept has a true essence except as constituted within thecommunication process, to assert that the constitutive model is the “true”model of communication would seem self-contradictory. Despite theimpression one might get from a superficial reading of the literature, thedefinition of communication is not a binary choice between two com-peting models, transmission versus constitutive, which in fact is no choiceat all because the transmission model, as usually presented, is scarcelymore than a straw figure set up to represent a simplistic view. A trans-mission model, regarded as one way of constituting communication sym-bolically for pragmatic purposes, is perfectly consistent with the consti-tutive model. That is, the constitutive model does not tell us what com-munication really is, but rather implies that communication can be con-stituted symbolically (in and through communication, of course) in manydifferent ways, including (why not, if it is useful to do so for some pur-poses?) as a transmission process. l 2 Transmission-like notions of com-munication, whatever their philosophical flaws, continue to have cul-tural curren~y.’~ may find, moreover, upon critical reflection, that Wethere are often good reasons for using a transmission model: that it canbe useful to distinguish pragmatically between communication sourcesand receivers, to map the flow of information through systems, or tothink of messages as containers of meaning or of communication as anintentional act performed in order to achieve some anticipated outcome.Transmission models can be defended, for example, on grounds thatthey cultivate a particular kind of alertness to the diversity and relativityof perspectives and the ever-present dangers of distortion and misunder-standing in communication.14 Second, and more generally, the constitutive model, unless clearly dis-tinguished as a metamodel, may tend to confuse communication itselfwith communication as theorized within certain limited traditions andthus, by excluding other useful traditions, unduly restrict the field ofcommunication theory. The constitutive model is perhaps most easily 127
  10. 10. Communication Theoryconfused with what I will define later in this essay as a socioculturaltradition of communication theory. In this tradition, communication istheorized as a process that produces and reproduces-and in that wayconstitutes-social order. Confusing the constitutive metamodel withthis first-order sociocultural model of communication can lead to thefalse impression that other traditions of communication theory, such asthose I will call the cybernetic and sociopsychological traditions, are notgenuine communication theories because they do not take a communi-cational perspective on social reality. To the contrary, as I will show,these other traditions can be reconstructed according to the constitutivemetamodel as alternative types of communication explanations, not justexplanations of communication based on noncommunication factors.In short, there are many different ways in which communication can betheorized, or constituted symbolically, within a constitutive metamodel.The sociocultural tradition of communication theory is just one of thoseways. The mere fact that communication can be theorized in various wayswithin a constitutive metamodel does not, however, give us any goodreason to do so, nor does it give us any good reason to expect that acoherent field of communication theory would result from such a prolif-eration of theories. Does this “pragmatic” line of thinking-the moretheories the better-put us right back in the same old pickle of sterileeclecticism or, at best, productive fragmentation? I shall argue that com-munication theory in all its open-ended diversity can be a coherent field,and useful too, if we understand it in a certain way as metadiscourse, adiscourse about discourse, in the context of a practical discipline. This isthe second principle for constructing a dialogical-dialectical disciplinarymatrix.Principle Two: Communication Theoryas MetadiscourseMy reading of Taylor (1992)sparked a key insight that led to this essayon communication theory as a field. In a critique of language theoryfrom Locke to the present, Taylor “represents the technical practice oftheorizing language, interpretation, communication, and understanding. . . as derived from . . .our ordinary, everyday practices of talking aboutwhat we say and do with language” (1992, p. 10). Formal linguistictheory, he claims, can be, and in effect has been, derived by transform-ing commonplaces of practical metadiscourse-such as the common-place belief that people ordinarily understand each other’s utterances-into theoretical axioms or empirical hypotheses. Each language theoryestablishes its plausibility by appealing rhetorically to the taken-for-granted validity of some of these metadiscursive commonplaces whilesubjecting others to skeptical challenge. As each language theory ques-tions metadiscursive commonplaces that other theories take for granted, 128
  11. 11. Communication Theory as a Fieldlanguage theory as a whole becomes an intellectual metadiscourse struc-tured as a closed, self-referential game. The only way out of this self-contained rhetorical game of intellectual metadiscourse, Taylor ( 1992)suggests, is to set aside the pseudoproblem on which it is based-that ofexplaining how communication is possible-and to turn instead to theempirical study of practical metadiscourse-how communication is re-flexively accomplished in practice. Practical metadiscourse is intrinsic to communicative practice. Thatis, communication is not only something we do, but also something werefer to reflexively in ways that are practically entwined with our doingof it. When Ann says to Bill, for example, “you can’t possibly knowwhat I’m talking about,” Ann appeals, in the form of a metadiscursiveremark, to certain commonplace beliefs about meaning and reference(such as the belief that true understanding comes only from personalexperience), probably in order undermine some assertion of Bill’s. Prac-tical discourse a bounds in such metadiscursive commonplaces, whichare important in everyday life for all sorts of pragmatic functions. Taylor’s ( 1992) deconstruction of language theory sparked the insightthat all communication theory, not just language theory, is a kind ofmetadiscourse, a way of talking about talk, that derives much of itsplausibility and interest by appealing rhetorically to commonplaces ofeveryday practical metadiscourse. Sociopsychological trait theories ofcommunication, for example, seem plausible because they appeal to thecommonplace notion that people’s communication styles reflect theirpersonalities. Communication apprehension theory is just a more so-phisticated version of everyday metadiscourse about shyness, as in “shewas afraid to talk to him because she’s so shy.” My working assumption, then, to paraphrase Taylor (1992),is thatthe technical practice of communication theory largely derives from ourordinary, everyday practices of talking a bout communication, and myanalysis of the broader, more heterogeneous field of communicationtheory follows Taylor’s narrower, more tightly structured analysis of lan-guage theory in some respects. There is, however, an important differ-ence. Whereas Taylor (1992)portrays language theory as a closed, self-referential game, completely divorced from the pragmatic functions thatanimate practical metadiscourse, I envision communication theory as anopen field of discourse engaged with the problems of communication asa social practice, a theoretical metadiscourse that emerges from, extends,and informs practical metadiscourse. In this vision, our task is not to deconstruct communication theory.(What would be the point? It’s already a mess.) Rather, we must recon-struct communication theory as a theoretical metadiscourse engaged indialogue with the practical metadiscourse of everyday life. This concep-tion of theoretical metadiscourse embraces the implications and com- 129
  12. 12. Communication Theorymitments that flow from a constitutive metamodel of communication. Itacknowledges the reflexivity of communication theory and our conse-quent obligation, as theorists of communication, to address our theo-retical work to the cultural situation that has given rise to our discipline.It acknowledges, in other words, the potential for communication theoryto assist in the cultivation of communication as a social practice, and sofor communication to develop as a practical discipline (Craig, 1989,1995, 1996a, 1996b; Craig & Tracy, 1995). In a practical discipline of communication, theory is designed to pro-vide conceptual resources for reflecting on communication problems. Itdoes this by theorizing (conceptually reconstructing) communicative prac-tices within relatively abstract, explicitly reasoned, normative idealiza-tions of communication (Craig, 1996b; Craig & Tracy, 1995). Commu-nication can be theorized, of course, from many different perspectives,so the field of communication theory becomes a forum in which to dis-cuss the relative merits of alternative practical theories. This discussionabout alternative theories constitutes what I am calling theoreticalmetadiscourse. Communication has the potential to be a practical discipline in thefirst place because “communication” is already a richly meaningful con-cept in our lifeworld. If ours is a culture in which we tend to think thatall problems are fundamentally problems of communication (McKeon,1957), in which we often find that we need to “sit down and talk” inorder “to work out problems” in our relationships (Katriel & Philipsen,1981), in which we ritually avow that communication is the only tiethat can hold together a diverse society across the vast spatial and cul-tural gaps that divide us (Carey, 1989), then communication is already atopic much discussed throughout society, and everyone already knowsthat communication is important and worth studying in order to im-prove. Because communication is already so much talked about in soci-ety, communication theory can be constructed inductively through criti-cal studies of everyday practice, in part by transcribing and theoreticallyreconstructing the “situated ideals” articulated by people themselves intheir everyday metadiscourse. This critical-inductive way of construct-ing communication theory has been explored in earlier work on “grounded practical theory” (Craig & Tracy, 1995). Communication also has the potential to be a practical discipline inpart because communication is already an important theoretical cat-egory within a wide range of established disciplines, from which we canderive a rich array of conceptual resources for reflecting on the practiceof communication. These already-established traditions of communica-tion theory offer distinct, alternative vocabularies that can be criticallyreconstructed as alternative ways of conceptualizing communicationproblems and practices. The rich intellectual heritage of communication 130
  13. 13. Communication Theory as a Fieldtheory constitutes, then, a second starting point for constructing a field of communication theory. Communication theory can be constructed deductively, starting from theory, as well as inductively, starting frompractice. This critical-deductive way of constructing communicationtheory is the one we are exploring in the present essay. Although theoretical ideas a bout communication have been devel-oped in various disciplines with incommensurable intellectual agendas,it is nevertheless a reasonable working assumption that every one ofthose ideas is potentially relevant to practice. One interesting, althoughadmittedly speculative, reason for thinking so is that communicationmay have been theorized in all these different disciplines during the 20thcentury in part just because it has become such a culturally importantcategory of social practice. This assumption is consistent with the re-flexivity, or mutual influence, between communication theory and cul-tural practice as suggested by Carey (1989), Deetz (1994), and otherwriters. From a rhetorical perspective, one way for an academic disci-pline to legitimize itself in the culture is to establish its social relevanceby showing that it has something interesting to say a bout culturally sa-lient themes and practical problems-such as, in our culture, communi-cation. If it is true that the widespread theorization of communication in somany different academic disciplines has arisen in part from an impulsetoward practical relevance, then the multidisciplinary heritage of com-munication theory is ready-made, to some extent, for the purposes of apractical discipline. My goal in the remainder of this essay is to showhow the potential practical relevance of all communication theories,whatever their disciplinary origins, can be exploited to construct a field,a common ground, a common (meta)discursive space, in which all com-munication theories can interact productively with each other and,through the medium of practical metadiscourse, with communicationpractice. My method for reconstructing the traditions of communication theoryto highlight their practical relevance loosely follows Taylor ( 1992). Iassume that theoretical metadiscourse (that is, communication theory)derives from and theorizes practical metadiscourse (everyday ways oftalking about communication), and in so doing both (a) appeals rhetori-cally to certain metadiscursive commonplaces, which is what makes atheory seem plausible and commonsensical from a lay point of view, and(b) skeptically challenges other metadiscursive commonplaces, which iswhat makes a theory seem interesting, insightful, or maybe absurdlynonsensical from a lay point of view. This combination of plausibilityand interestingness constitutes the presumptive practical relevance of atheory. Because different theories turn out to be relevant in significantlydifferent and often conflicting ways, theoretical metadiscourse turns back 131
  14. 14. Communication Theoryon itself to debate the differences and thereby constitutes itself as a dia-logical-dialectical field. Our present task, then, is to jump-start that self-reflexive process in the field of communication theory.A Sketch of the Field: Seven TraditionsSo far, I have argued that communication theory is not yet a coherentfield but has the potential to become a dialogical-dialectical field basedon two principles: (a) a constitutive metamodel of communication, and(b) a conception of communication theory as metadiscursive practicewithin a practical discipline. To see where this approach might take us,I will sketch seven reconstructed traditions of communication theory,arrayed in a matrix that highlights practically relevant complementaritiesand tensions among them. Tables 1 and 2 summarize the seven traditional standpoints, whichare further discussed in the following pages. In Table 1, each tradition isidentified by its characteristic definition of communication and its asso-ciated definition of communication problems, metadiscursive vocabu-lary, taken-for-granted metadiscursive commonplaces that make the tra-dition plausible, and metadiscursive commonplaces that the traditioninterestingly reinterprets or challenges. Table 2 continues the analysis by suggesting topoi (that is, dialecticalcommonplaces or stock arguments) for argumentation across the tradi-tions. The purpose of Table 2 is to indicate distinctive critical objectionsthat each tradition would typically raise against each tradition’s typicalway of analyzing communication practices.15 The traditions are briefly discussed in the following sections. The dis-cussions generally follow and supplement Tables 1 and 2, but withoutcommenting in detail on each cell. In order to illustrate the traditions,including blends of different traditions, I do cite recent literature oncommunication theory as appropriate. Without question, these are in-strumental constructions rather than essential categories, but they rep-resent recognizable communities of scholarship. Although I attemptedto be inclusive in selecting and defining the traditions, I have made deci-sions that undoubtedly reflect my own intellectual biases and limita-tions. Other scholars are invited to point these out. The contents of the seven traditions, I hope, will resonate with anyreader who is moderately well acquainted with the broad range of com-munication theory. Several of the seven correspond fairly closely to cer-tain chapters in Littlejohn’s (1996b) influential textbook, for example.Despite the familiarity of the contents, however (these are, after all, tra-ditions of communication theory), the structure of the matrix differsradically from conventional ways of dividing up the field. Communica-tion theories traditionally have been classified by disciplinary origin (e.g., 132
  15. 15. Rhetorical Semiotic Phenomenological Cybernetic Sociopsychological Sociocultural Critical Communication The practical art Intersubjective Experience of Information Expression, inter- (Re)productionof Discursive theorized as: of discourse mediation by signs otherness; dialogue processing action, & influence social order reflection Problems of Social exigency Misunderstanding Absence of, or Noise; overload; Situation requiring Conflict; alienation; Hegemonic communication requiring collective or gap between failure to sustain, underload; a manipulationof misalignment; ideology; theorized as: deliberation and subjective authentic human malfuction or causes of behavior failure of systematically judgment viewpoints relationship "bug" in a system to achieve specified coordination distorted speech outcomes situation Metadiscursive Art, method, Sign, symbol, Experience, self Source, receiver, Behavior, variable, Society, structure, Ideology, dialectic, vocabulary communicator, icon, index, & other, dialogue, signal, information,effect, personality, practice, ritual, oppression, such as: audience, strategy, meaning, referent, genuineness, noise, feedback, emotion, perception, rule, socialization, consciousness- commonplace, code, language, supportiveness. redundancy, cognition, attitude, culture, identity, raising, resistance, logic, emotion medium, openness network, function interaction coconstruction emancipation (mis)understanding Plausible when Power of words; Understanding All need human Identity of mind Communication The individual is a Self-perpetuation appeals to value of informed requires common contact, should and brain; value of reflects personality; product of society; of power &wealth; metadiscursive judgment; language; omni- treat others as information and beliefs & feelings every society has a values of freedom, commonplaces improvability of present danger of persons, respect logic; complex bias judgments; distinct culture; equality & reason; such as: practice miscommunication differences, seek systems can be people in groups social actions have discussion m m o n ground unprediile affect one another unintendedeffects produces aware- ness, insight Interestingwhen Mere words are not Words have correct Communication is Humans and Humans are rational Individualagency Naturalness & challenges actms; appearance meanings 8 stand skill; the word is machines differ; beings; we know & responsibility; rationalityof tradi- metadiscursive is not rearii; style for thoughts; codes not the thing; facts e m d i is not our own minds; we absolute identity of tional social order; commonplaces is not substance; & media are neutral are obpctwe and l g l linear order o m; know what we see self; naturalness of objectiiily of sci- such as: opinion is not t u h rt channels values subjective of cause & effect the social order ence & technologyc)w
  16. 16. Rhetorical Semiotic Phenomenological Cybernetic Sociopsychological Sociocultural CriticalAgainst The art of hetoric We do not use Strategic communi- Intervention in Rhetoric lacks good Rhetorical theory is Rhetoric reflectsrhetoric can be learned only signs; rather they cation is inherently complex systems empirical evidence culture bound & traditionalist, by practice; theory use us inauthentic & often involves technical that its persuasive overemphasizes instrumentalist, & merely distracts counterproductive problems rhetoric techniques actually individual agency individualist fails to grasp work as intended vs. social structure ideologiesAgainst All use of signs is Langue is a fic- Langue-parole & “Meaning” con- Semiotics fails to Sign systems aren’t Meaning is notsemiotics rhetorical tion: meaning & signifier-signified sists of functional explain factors that autonomous; they fixed by a code; it intersubjectivity are fake distinctions. relationships with- influence the produc- exist only in the is a site of social are indeterminate Languaging in dynamic infor- tion 8 interpretation shared pmctices of conflict constitutes world mation systems of messages actual communitiesAgainst Authenticity is a Self & other are Other‘s experience Phenomenological Phenomenological Intersubjectivity is Individualphenomen- dangerous myth; semiotically deter- is not experienced “experience” must introspection falsely produced by social consciousness isology good communica- termined subject directly but only as occur in the brain assumes self-aware- processes that socially consti- tion must be artful, positions 8 exist constituted in ego’s as information ness of cognitive phenomenology tuted, thus ideolo- hence strategic only idas signs consciousness processing processes fails to explain gically distortedAgainst Practical reason Functionalist Functionalism fails The observer must Cybernetics is too Cybernetic models Cybernetics re-cybernetics cannot (or should explanations to explain meaning be included in the rationalistic; e.g.. it fail to explain how flects the domi- not) be reduced to ignore subtleties as embodied, con- system, rendering underestimates the meaning emerges nance of instru- formal calculation of sign systems scious experience it indeterminate role of emotion in social interaction mental reasonAgainst Effects are Sociopsycholo- The subject-object Communication Sociopsychological Sociopsychological Sodopsychdogysociopsycho- situational and gical “effects” are dichotomy of socio- involves circular theories have limited “laws” are culture reflects ideologieslogy cannot be precisely internal properties psychology must be causation, not predictive power, bound 8 biased by of individualism, predicted of sign systems transcended linear causation even in laboratory individualism instrumentalismAgainst Sociocultural rules, Sociocultural The social life-world The functional Sociocultural theory Sociocultural order Socioculturalsociocultural etc., are contexts 8 rules, etc., are all has a organization of is vague, untestable, is particular 8 theory privilegestheory resources for rhe- systems of signs phenomenological any social system ignores psychological locally negotiated consensusover torical discourse foundation can be modeled processes that under- but theory must be conflict & change formally lie all social order abstract 8 generalAgainst Practical reason is There is nothing Critique is Self-organizing Critical theory Critical theory im- Critical theory iscritical based in particular outside the text immanent in every systems models confuses facts 8 pases an interpretive elitist 8 withouttheory situations, not uni- authentic encounter account for social values, imposes a frame, fails to appre- real influence on versal principles with tradition conflict & change dogmatic ideology date local meanings social change
  17. 17. Communication Theory as a Fieldpsychology, sociology, rhetoric), level of organization (e.g., interpersonal,organizational, mass), type of explanation (e.g., trait, cognitive, system-theoretic), or underlying epistemology (e.g. empiricist, interpretive, criti-cal). By contrast, the scheme I am proposing divides the field accordingto underlying conceptions of communicative practice. An effect of thisshift in perspective is that communication theories no longer bypass eachother in their different paradigms or on their different levels. Communi-cation theories suddenly now have something to agree and disagreeabout-and that “something” is communication, not epistemology.The Rhetorical Tradition: Communicationas a Practical Art of DiscourseFormally speaking, rhetoric is the collaborative art of addressing and guiding decisionand judgment-usually public judgment that cannot be decided by force o r expertise.Rhetorical inquiry, more commonly known as the study of public communication, isone of the few areas of research that is still actively informed by its own traditions. . . .(Farrell, 1993, p. 1 ) The primary source of ideas about communication prior to this century, dating backto ancient times, was rhetoric. (Littlejohn, 1996a, p. 117)In the tradition of rhetorical theory that originated with the ancient Greeksophists and runs through a long and varied history down to the present,communication has typically been theorized as a practical art of dzs-course.16This way of theorizing communication is useful for explainingwhy our participation in discourse, especially public discourse, is impor-tant and how it occurs, and holds forth the possibility that the practiceof communication can be cultivated and improved through critical studyand education. Problems of communication in the rhetorical traditionare conceived as social exigencies that can be resolved through the artfuluse of discourse to persuade audiences (Bitzer, 1968). Rhetorical theory seems plausible and useful because it appeals tocertain commonplace beliefs about communication. We all know thatrhetoric is a powerful force in society. Most will readily agree that inmatters of opinion it is good to hear about different sides of a questionbefore reaching our own judgment, so rhetoric seems to be basicallynecessary and useful, even though it is too often poorly done, annoying,or even seriously harmful. For such reasons, it is important for us tounderstand how rhetoric works and to cultivate our abilities as criticalconsumers as well as effective producers of rhetoric. We know that somepeople are better communicators than others, and that the best examplesof rhetoric can rise to the level of great art. Since we know that commu-nicators vary in wisdom and skill, and that skill, if not wisdom, canoften be improved through instruction and practice, it is reasonable tothink that people can become better communicators by learning andpracticing methods of communication that can be invented or discov-ered through research and systematically taught. Moreover, once we 135
  18. 18. Communication Theoryunderstand that public advocacy is just one of many areas of communi-cative practice, such as interpersonal conversation, news reporting, CD-ROM design, and so on, it becomes obvious that all communication canbe theorized as practical art and studied in much the same ways as rhetorichas traditionally been studied. This is why it now comports with com-mon sense to think of communication as a practical discipline. If, however, the rhetorical tradition seems plausible and useful be-cause it appeals to many commonplace beliefs about communication, itis also interesting because it challenges other commonplace beliefs andreveals some of the deepest paradoxes of communication. It challengesthe commonplaces that mere words are less important than actions, thattrue knowledge is more than just a matter of opinion, and that tellingthe plain truth is something other than the strategic adaptation of amessage to an audience. For over 2 millennia rhetorical theorists havedisputed about the relative places of emotion and logic in persuasion,whether rhetoric is inherently good or bad or just a neutral tool, whetherthe art of rhetoric has any special subject matter of its own, and whethertheory has any useful role to play in the improvement of practice. Theseare interesting questions-or can be made so by a skillful teacher-inpart because they are deeply puzzling intellectually, and in part becausethey can be connected to real problems that all of us face in our every-day lives. We really should reflect, for example, on how we are swayedby the emotional appeals that pervade political and commercial adver-tising, and rhetorical theory provides a useful vocabulary with which toconceptualize and discuss this common experience.The Semiotic Tradition: Communicationas Intersubjective Mediation by Signs[Slemiotics has paid a great deal of attention to how people convey meanings and thushas developed a vocabulary we can borrow for our own uses. (Leeds-Hurwitz, 1993, p. xv)Miscommunication . . . is the scandal that motivates the concept of communication.(Peters, 1989, p. 397)Semiotics, the study of signs, like rhetoric, has ancient roots (Manetti,1993), but semiotics as a distinct tradition of communication theory canbe said to have originated in the language theory of John Locke (themuch neglected Book III).l’ This tradition runs through Peirce andSaussure, whose seminal works founded two quite different disciplinesof semiotics, and continues down to current theories of language, dis-course, interpretation, nonverbal communication, culture, and media.In the semiotic tradition, communication is typically theorized asintersubjective mediation by signs. Communication theorized in this wayexplains and cultivates the use of language and other sign systems tomediate between different perspectives. Problems of communication inthe semiotic tradition are primarily problems of (re)presentation andtransmission of meaning, of gaps between subjectivities that can be 136
  19. 19. Communication Theory as a Field bridged, if only imperfectly, by the use of shared systems of signs. Locke (169011979) argued that we cannot take it for granted that people ordinarily understand each other. Taylor (1992), as I mentioned earlier, shows how all language theories since Locke can be construed as a series of replies to Locke’s skeptical argument against the common- place assumption of intersubjective understanding. Semiotic theory now commonly asserts that signs construct their users (or “subject-positions”),that meanings are public and ultimately indeterminate, that understand- ing is a practical gesture rather than an intersubjective psychological state, and that codes and media of communication are not merely neu-tral structures or channels for the transmission of meanings, but havesign-like properties of their own (the code shapes the content and themedium itself becomes a message, or even the message [McLuhan, 19641). Semiotic communication theory seems plausible and practical when itappeals to the commonsense beliefs that communication is easiest whenwe share a common language, that words can mean different things todifferent people so miscommunication is a constant danger, that mean-ings are often conveyed indirectly or by subtle aspects of behavior thatmay go unnoticed, and that certain ideas are easier to express in certainmedia (a picture is worth a thousand words; email should not be usedfor delicate business negotiations). On the other hand, semiotics canseem interesting, insightful, or even absurdly implausible to ordinarypeople when it challenges other commonplace beliefs, such as that ideasexist in people’s minds, that words have correct meanings, that mean-ings can be made explicit, that communication is a voluntary act, andthat we use signs and media of communication as tools to represent andshare our thoughts. As distinct traditions within the field of communication theory, rhetoricand semiotics are closely akin in some ways and hybrids of the two arenot uncommon (e.g., Burke, 1966; Kaufer & Carley, 1993). Rhetoriccan be thought of as the branch of semiotics that studies the structuresof language and argument that mediate between communicators andaudiences. Semiotics also can be thought of as a particular theory ofrhetoric that studies the resources available for conveying meanings inrhetorical messages. Semiotics and rhetoric also have sharp differences, with importantpractical implications. Peters points out that “Locke understood com-munication not as a kind of speech, rhetoric, or discourse, but an alter-native to them” (1989, p. 394). In modernist thought, rhetoric has oftenbeen cast as the enemy of communication. Communication for modern-ists is all about reason, truth, clarity, and understanding; rhetoric is allabout traditionalism, artifice, obfuscation, and manipulation. Commu-nication marks the new way of science and enlightenment; rhetoric, theold way of obscurantism and reaction. 137
  20. 20. Communication Theory In postmodernist thought, of course, all of this has largely been turnedon its head. For poststructuralist semioticians all communication is rheto-ric, if by rhetoric we mean uses of language for which reason, truth,clarity, and understanding can no longer be upheld as normative crite-ria. In the rhetorical tradition of communication theory, however, rheto-ric typically means something quite different and arguably more useful(see above). It means communication designed to appeal to an audienceand inform their judgment on important matters of opinion and deci-sion. In short, the theoretical debate between rhetoric and semiotics ispractically important because it is ultimately about the normative basisfor our everyday use of concepts like judgment, meaning, and truth inpractical metadiscourse.The PhenomenologicalTradition:Communication as the Experienceof OthernessPhenomenological understanding of dialogue is not a theory imposed from above bysome autocratic reason, but rather it is an exposition of the communicative process as ittakes place in experience. (Pilotta & Mickunas, 1990, p. 81)Communication thus implies noncomprehension, for I am most firmly placed in a situ-ation of communication with the other when I recognize that someone has come to mebut do not understand why and do not quite understand what he, she, or it says. (Chang,1996, p. 225)In the mainly 20th-century tradition of phenomenology that runs fromHusserl through the existential and hermeneutic phenomenologists andbroadly includes such different sorts of thinkers as Martin Buber, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Carl Rogers, communication is theorized as dia-logue or experience of otherness. Communication theorized in this wayexplains the interplay of identity and difference in authentic human re-lationships and cultivates communication practices that enable and sus-tain authentic relationships. Authentic communication, or dialogue, is founded on the experienceof direct, unmediated contact with others. Communicative understand-ing begins in prereflective experience arising from our bodily existencein a shared lifeworld. Once we set aside the dualisms of mind and body,subject and object, as phenomenologists argue, we see that direct, un-mediated contact with others is a very real and utterly necessary humanexperience, although it may be a fleeting experience that easily degradesinto some form of inauthenticity. For example, when I feel a cold orangry glance from another person, I first experience the glance as a di-rect expression of the other’s coldness or anger directed to me, not as anexternal sign of an internal, mental state of the other that can be inter-preted in different ways (see Pilotta & Mickunas, 1990, pp. 111-1 14).In thus experiencing the other’s expression toward me, I directly experi-ence our commonality and also our difference, not only the other asother to me but myself as other to the other. 138
  21. 21. Communication Theory as a Field Hence, phenomenology challenges the semiotic notion t h a tintersubjective understanding can be mediated only by signs (Stewart,1995, 1996), as well as the rhetorical notion that communication in-volves artful or strategic uses of signs. Although “dialogue does not justhappen” (except as a fleeting experience), neither can it be “planned,pronounced, or willed” (Anderson, Cissna, & Arnett, 1994, p. xxi). Myexperience of the other’s anger may be sustained in a dialogue that deep-ens our mutual understanding, but no conscious effort on my part canensure such a happy outcome to an experience that, in the normal courseof events, is more likely to alienate us. Among the paradoxes of commu-nication that phenomenology brings to light is that conscious goal seek-ing, however benevolent one’s intentions may be, annihilates dialogueby interposing one’s own goals and strategies as a barrier against one’sdirect experience of self and other. Problems of communication as con-ceived within the phenomenological tradition of communication theorythus arise from the necessity, and yet the inherent difficulty-even, argu-ably, the practical impossibility-of sustained, authentic communica-tion between persons. The phenomenological tradition, despite the arcane language in whichit is so often couched, can be made plausible to ordinary people throughrhetorical appeals to the commonplace beliefs that we can and shouldtreat each other as persons (I-Thou) not as things (I-It), and that it isimportant to acknowledge and respect differences, to learn from others,to seek common ground, and to avoid polarization and strategic dishon-esty in human relations. We have all experienced encounters with othersin which we seemed to discover an immediate understanding beyondwords. We all know, as phenomenologists variously affirm, that honestyis the best policy, that supportive relationships are essential to our healthydevelopment as human beings, and that the most satisfactory humanrelationships are characterized by reciprocity and nondomination. Phenomenology, however, is not only plausible, but also interestingfrom a practical standpoint because it both upholds dialogue as an idealform of communication, yet also demonstrates the inherent difficulty ofsustaining dialogue. It challenges our commonsense faith in the relia bil-ity of techniques for achieving good communication. It problematizessuch commonsense distinctions as those between mind and body, factsand values, words and things. Phenomenology shares with rhetorical theory an impulse to searchfor common ground among people with differing points of view andwith semiotics the assumption that what is fundamentally problematicin communication has to do with intersubjective understanding. Phe-nomenology differs sharply from rhetoric, though, on questions of au-thenticity versus artifice and just as radically from semiotics on the rela-tion between language and meaning. Phenomenology, from a rhetoricalpoint of view, can seem hopelessly naive or unhelpfully idealistic in ap- 139
  22. 22. Communication Theoryproaching the practical dilemmas that real communicators must face,whereas rhetoric, from a phenomenological point of view, can seem un-duly cynical or pessimistic about the potential for authentic human con-tact. When rhetoric and phenomenology are combined, the result is typi-cally an antirhetorical rhetoric in which persuasion and strategic actionare replaced by dialogue and openness to the other (e.g., Brent, 1996;Foss & Griffin, 1995; Freeman, Littlejohn & Pearce, 1992), or else ahermeneutical rhetoric in which the roles of theory and method in com-municative practice are downplayed (Gadamer, 1981; Leff, 1996). Vis-i-vis semiotics, as Stewart (1995,1996)has shown, the phenom-enological tradition, with its doctrine of communication as direct con-tact, fundamentally questions the distinction between words and thingsand the assumption that communication can occur only through themediation of signs. Thus, mixtures of semiotics and phenomenology canproduce a theoretical compound that is deconstructively explosive if notimpenetrably dense (e.g., Chang, 1996; Lanigan, 1992).In reply to thispoststructuralist challenge, the traditional semiotician argues that signsmust have stable meanings in order for communication to occur in prac-tice (Ellis, 1991, 1995), whereas the traditional phenomenologist reiter-ates that the communicative use of language is a form of direct, unmedi-ated contact between persons (Stewart, 1995). What is at stake pragmatically in the debate between semiotics andphenomenology is obliquely illustrated by Peters (1994).It is commonlyasserted that interpersonal interaction is the basic form of human com-munication, and that mass or technologically mediated communicationis at best a poor substitute for direct human contact. Peters (1994),whoelsewhere has severely criticized Lockean semiotics (Peters, 1989), hererelies on the semiotic assumption of an inherent “gap” between trans-mission and reception of messages in order to argue that mass commu-nication is actually more basic than interpersonal. “No distance,” henow argues, “is so great as that between two minds,” and “Dialogueconceals general features of discourse that are more evident in texts,especially the fact of distanciation” (p. 130). In the end, however, Petersacknowledges that both dialogue and mediated communication are im-portant, but difficult to combine because of “an enduring tension be-tween specific and general modes of address” (p. 136). Only dialoguesatisfies the basic human needs for “companionship, friendship and love,” but mass communication expresses an “equally noble impulse” towardnormative universality that often conflicts with the demands of intimacy (p. 136). “The distinction, then, between interpersonal and mass com-munication has hidden utopian energies” (p. 136) and potentially illu-minates “our plight as creatures who belong both to a family and to apolis” (p. 137). 140
  23. 23. Communication Theory as a FieldThe Cybernetic Tradition: Communicationas Information ProcessingWe have decided to call the entire field of control and communication theory, whether inthe machine or in the animal, by the name of Cybernetics. (Wiener, 1948, p. 1 9 )Modern communication theory arose out of the cybernetic marriage of statistics andcontrol theory. (Krippendorff, 1989, p. 444)Communication theory, the study and statement of the principles and methods by whichinformation is conveyed. . . . (Oxford English Dictionary, 1987)Communication theory. See INFORMATION THEORY. (Audi, 1995)Modern communication theory originated with the cybernetic traditionand the work of such mid-20th-century thinkers as Shannon, Wiener,von Neumann, and Turing (Heims, 1991; Krippendorff, 1989). Thiscybernetic tradition extends to current theories in areas as diverse assystems and information science, cognitive science and artificial intelli-gence, functionalist social theory, network analysis, and the Batesonianschool of interpersonal communication (e.g., Watzlawick, Beavin, & Jack-son, 1967). Communication in the cybernetic tradition is theorized asinformation processing and explains how all kinds of complex systems,whether living or nonliving, macro or micro, are able to function, andwhy they often malfunction. Epitomizing the transmission model, cy-bernetics conceives of communication problems as breakdowns in theflow of information resulting from noise, information overload, or mis-match between structure and function and, as resources for solving com-munication problems, offers various information-processing technolo-gies and related methods of systems design and analysis, management,and, on the “softer” side, therapeutic intervention. Cybernetics has plausibility as a way of theorizing communication inpart because it appeals rhetorically to the commonplace assumptions ofeveryday materialism, functionalism, and rationalism. For cybernetics,the distinction between mind and matter is only a functional distinctionlike that between software and hardware. Thought is nothing more thaninformation processing, and so it makes perfect sense to say that indi-vidual thought is “ i n t r a p e r s ~ n a communication and that groups and l~~organizations also think, whole societies think, robots and artificial or-ganisms will eventually think.l8 Cybernetics thus evokes the plausibilityof a world in which Commander Data might be truly the most “human”member of the Enterprise crew: To assert otherwise is merely soft-headedsentimentality (a two-edged criticism in this case). Cybernetics, then, isalso interesting and sometimes implausible from a commonsense viewbecause it points out surprising analogies between living and nonlivingsystems, challenges commonplace beliefs a bout the significance of con-sciousness and emotion, and questions our usual distinctions betweenmind and matter, form and content, the real and the artificial. 141
  24. 24. Communication Theory Cybernetics also challenges simplistic notions of linear cause and ef-fect by appealing to our commonsense understanding that communica-tion processes can be enormously complex and subtle. Although rootedin technological functionalist thought, it emphasizes the problems oftechnological control, the perverse complexity and unpredictability offeedback processes, and the pervasive likelihood that communicativeacts will have unintended consequences despite our best intentions. Agreat practical lesson of cybernetics is that the whole is greater than thesum of the parts, so it is important for us as communicators to transcendour individual perspectives, to look at the communication process froma broader, systemic viewpoint, and not to hold individuals responsiblefor systemic outcomes that no individual can control. In valorizing technique and artifice, cybernetics shares common groundwith rhetoricI9; in collapsing human agency into underlying oroverarching symbol-processing systems, it resembles semiotics2”; stress- ining the emergence of meaning in the interactions among elements of asystem, it is like phenomenology.21 Cybernetics, however, also has sharpdifferences with each of these other traditions. Communication as rhetoricis artful discourse that informs practical judgment, but communicationas information processing is merely a mechanism that performs certainfunctions. Semiotics has problems with the cybernetic notion of “infor-mation,” which reduces semantic content (what a message means) tomere function (such as feedback or reduction of uncertainty). For thephenomenologist, authentic communication requires congruency betweenexperience and expression, so sincerity is essential to the I-thou relation-ship of dialogue. The cybernetician, like the semiotician, points out,however, that we can never really know if another person (or even one-self) is being sincere in this way. From a cybernetic view, there are prob-ably better ways to evaluate the reliability of information rather thantrying to figure out if someone is being sincere. In general, then, cybernetics, in contrast to other traditions of com-munication theory, cultivates a practical attitude that appreciates thecomplexity of communication problems and questions many of our usualassumptions about the differences between human and nonhuman in-formation-processing systems.The SociopsychologicalTradition: Communicationas Expression, Interaction, and Influence[In the 1950~1 study of communication found its greatest exemplars in the voting thestudies of Lazarsfeld and Berelson and the experimental persuasion studies of Hovland.By the mid-19SOs, theoretically-focused communication study was concerned with is-sues of effects. This work recreated the general mediational framework in social psy-chology that was already evident in the 1930s. . . the mediating roles in communicationof recipient predispositions and social processes, and . . . the possibility of differentialeffects. (Delia, 1987, p. 63) 142
  25. 25. Communication Theory as a Field[Tlhe kinds of “why” questions communication scholars choose to answer may differfrom those that intrigue psychologists. . . . As communication theorists, we also need tounderstand when, how, and why interaction alters sender behavior patterns and receiverjudgments. (Burgoon & Buller, 1996, pp. 316-317)The 20th-century tradition of experimental social psychology, whichcontinues to predominate in much of what is called “communicationscience” (Berger & Chaffee, 1987), theorizes communication as a pro-cess of expression, interaction, and influence, a process in which thebehavior of humans or other complex organisms expresses psychologi-cal mechanisms, states, and traits and, through interaction with the similarexpressions of other individuals, produces a range of cognitive, emo-tional, and behavioral effects. Communication, in short, is the process by which individuals interactand influence each other. Communication may occur face-to-face orthrough technological media and may flow from one to one, one tomany, or many to many, but in all formats it involves (contrary to thephenomenological view) interposed elements that mediate between in-dividuals. Whereas for semiotics, communication is mediated by signsand sign systems, for social psychology, it is mediated by psychologicalpredispositions (attitudes, emotional states, personality traits, uncon-scious conflicts, social cognitions, etc.) as modified by the emergent ef-fects of social interaction (which may include the effects of media tech-nologies and institutions as well as interpersonal influence). Communication theorized in this way explains the causes and effectsof social behavior and cultivates practices that attempt to exert inten-tional control over those behavioral causes and effects. Communicationproblems in the sociopsychological tradition are thus thought of as situ-ations that call for the effective manipulation of the causes of behaviorin order to produce objectively defined and measured outcomes. Social psychology seems plausible and practically useful because itappeals to our commonsense beliefs and our everyday practical con-cerns about the causes and effects of communication. We readily believethat our ways of communicating and our reactions to the communica-tions of others vary according to our individual personalities. Humannature being what it is, we are not surprised to learn that our judgmentscan be influenced by the immediate social context and are often biasedin predictable ways by our strong beliefs, attitudes, and emotional states.We know, too, that interactional processes in groups, such as those in-volving leadership and conflict, can affect group outcomes, so it is im-portant to understand these causal relations in order to manage the pro-cesses effectively. While appealing to these commonplace beliefs, sociopsychologicaltheory deeply challenges the equally commonsensical premise that hu-mans are rational beings. Its recurrent demonstrations of human weak- 143
  26. 26. Communication Theoryness and irrationality challenge our commonsense faith in our own per-sonal autonomy.22Moreover, social psychology skeptically questions allunproven assumptions about causal influences on human behavior, forwhich it requires-and attempts to provide-rigorous experimental evi-dence. It criticizes rhetoric, for example, for lacking proof that its per-suasive techniques really work and cybernetics for reducing all commu-nication to information-processing algorithms that ignore the vagariesof motivation, personality, and emotion. As a mode of social practice,social psychology, like cybernetics, valorizes technique; it holds forththe promise that our lives can be improved through the self-consciousapplication by experts of techniques of psychological manipulation andtherapy. Thus, a sociopsychological theory of rhetoric tends to view rheto-ric more as a technology of psychological manipulation rather than anart of discourse that informs the receiver’s judgment. Social psychologyis not, however, without its own moral view: It implies a strong moralimperative that we as individual communicators should make respon-sible choices based on scientific evidence concerning the likely conse-quences of our messages.The Sociocultural Tradition: Communicationas the (Re)Production of Social OrderCommunication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired,and transformed. (Carey, 1989, p. 23)Wherever activities or artifacts have symbolic values that articulate individuals into po-sitions vis-a-vis each other or their collectivities, the communicative is present.(Rothenbuhler, 1993, p. 162)A communication practic-r discursive practice-is, then, an actual means of expres-sion in a community, given that community’sspecific scenes and historical circumstances(in the broadest sense). (Carbaugh, 1996, p. 14) Sociocultural communication theory represents the “discovery” ofcommunication, largely since the 19th century and partly under the in-fluence of semiotic thought, within the intellectual traditions of sociol-ogy and anthropology. Communication in these traditions is typicallytheorized as a symbolic process that produces and reproduces sharedsociocultural patterns. So conceived, communication explains how so-cial order (a macrolevel phenomenon) is created, realized, sustained,and transformed in microlevel interaction processes. We exist in a socio-cultural environment that is constituted and maintained in large part bysymbolic codes a n d media of c o m m ~ n i c a t i o n .The term ~~“(re)production”suggests the paradoxical reflexivity of this process. Oureveryday interactions with others depend heavily on preexisting, sharedcultural patterns and social structures. From this point of view, our ev-eryday interactions largely “reproduce” the existing sociocultural order.Social interaction, though, is also a creative process that permits andeven requires a good deal of improvisation that, albeit collectively and 144
  27. 27. Communication Theory as a Fieldin the long run, “produces” the very social order that makes interactionpossible in the first place. A central problem of sociocultural theory isthus to find the right balance, that is, to sort out the complex relationsbetween production and reproduction, micro and macro, agency andstructure, particular local culture and universal natural law, in sociallife. A primary axis of debate is between structural theories that giveexplanatory priority to relatively stable, macrolevel patterns and inter-pretive or interactionist theories that give priority to microlevel pro-cesses in which social order is locally cocreated and negotiated by mem-ber~.~~ Communication problems in the sociocultural tradition are thoughtof as gaps across space (sociocultural diversity and relativity) and acrosstime (sociocultural change) that disable interaction by depleting the stockof shared patterns on which interaction depends. Conflicts, misunder-standings, and difficulties in coordination increase when social condi-tions afford a scarcity of shared rituals, rules, and expectations amongmembers. Sociocultural theory thus has much to say about problemsarising from technological change, breakdown of traditional social or-ders, urbanization and mass society, bureaucratic rationalization, and,more recently, postmodern cultural fragmentation and globalization. Suchperturbations in the ecology of codes and media disrupt interaction, butat the same time enable the creative production of new meanings andnew means of communication. Hybrids of sociocultural and other traditions of communication theoryare quite common, so common indeed that relatively “pure” exemplarsof sociocultural communication theory may be hard to come by. Socialaction media theory, for example, melds a range of sociocultural, phe-nomenological, and semiotic perspectives (Schoening & Anderson, 1995).CMM theory melds interactionist social theory with cybernetic and dia-logical concepts (Cronen, 1995; Pearce, 1989). Conversation analysishas interactionist, phenomenological, and semiotic roots (Heritage, 1984). Rhetorical theory in the 20th century has also taken a strongly socio-cultural turn in which rhetoric has quite often been conceptualized as aninstrument for improving human relations (Ehninger, 1968), and “somehave argued that acculturation to the forms and practices of organiza-tions, social groups, sciences, technologies, subcultures, and cultures issignificantly rhetorical learning. . . [of] what is communicatively appro-priate to particular bodies of content in particular situations” (Arnold,1989, p. 464). Sociocultural order thus constitutes the materials of rheto-ric, while rhetoric becomes a method, whether consciously or uncon-sciously applied, for the constitution of social order. In all of these hybrid traditions, however, a distinct sociocultural“voice” can be heard. It is the voice, for example, that criticizes socialpsychology for its excessive individualism, inattention to macrosocial 145
  28. 28. Communication Theoryforces, and insensitivity to cultural differences and calls, again and again,for sociopsychologically dominated communication research to adopt amore cultural or social approach.2s Likewise, it criticizes classical rheto-ric for its naive assumptions about agency (in portraying great oratorsas shapers of history, for example) and semiotics for abstracting signsand sign processes from the larger sociocultural context in which theyfunction. This sociocultural voice has also worked its way into everyday practi-cal metadiscourse. Sociocultural theory is plausible from a lay point ofview in part because it appeals rhetorically to the commonplace beliefsthat individuals are products of their social environments, that groupsdevelop particular norms, rituals, and worldviews; that social changecan be difficult and disruptive; and that. attempts to intervene actively insocial processes often have unintended consequences. Sociocultural theoryalso challenges many commonplace assumptions, especially our tenden-cies to take for granted the absolute reality of our own and others’ per-sonal identities, to think of social institutions as if they were inevitablenatural phenomena, to be ethnocentric or insensitive to cultural differ-ences, and to overattribute moral responsibility to individuals for prob-lems, like poverty and crime, that are largely societal in origin. Sociocul-tural theory cultivates communicative practices that acknowledge cul-tural diversity and relativity, value tolerance and understanding, andemphasize collective more than individual responsibility. The everydaypractical discourse of blame and responsibility, for example, has clearlybeen influenced by theoretical discourses on “society” in the sociocul-tural tradition (Bowers & Iwi, 1993).The Critical Tradition: Communicationas Discursive ReflectionFor the communicative model of action, language is relevant only from the pragmaticviewpoint that speakers, in employing sentences with an orientation to reaching under-standing, take up relations to the world, not only directly as in teleological, normativelyregulated or dramaturgical action, but in a reflective way. . . . They no longer relatestraightaway to something in the objective, social, o r subjective worlds; instead theyrelativize their utterances against the possibility that their validity will be contested byother actors. (Habermas, 1984, p. 98)When we see the constraints that limit our choices we are aware of power relations;when we see only choices we live in and reproduce power. (Lannamann, 1991, p. 198)Systematically distorted communication, then, is an ongoing process within particularsystems as they strategically (though latently) work to reproduce, rather than produce,themselves. (Deetz, 1992, p. 187)Undoability is the ultimate consequence of the adage that power becomes slippery whenreflected upon. (Krippendorff, 1995, p. 113)The origins of critical communication theory can be traced to Plato’sconception of Socratic dialectic as a method for attaining truth in the I46
  29. 29. Communication Theory as a Field give and take of disputative interaction by asking questions that pro- voke critical reflection upon the contradictions that come to light in the process. Critical communication theory emphasizes a certain instability that inheres, according to Habermas (1984),in every act of communica- tion oriented to the achievement of mutual understanding, a built-in telos towards articulating, questioning, and transcending presupposi- tions that are judged to be untrue, dishonest, or unjust. Communication that involves only the transmission-reception or ritual sharing of mean- ings is inherently faulty, distorted, incomplete. Authentic communica-tion occurs only in a process of discursive reflection that moves towardsa transcendence that can never be fully and finally achieved-but thereflective process itself is progressively emancipatory. The tradition of critical social theory (broadly construed) runs fromMarx through the Frankfurt School to Habermas, or alternatively throughother strands of late Marxism and post-Marxism to current theories ofpolitical economy, critical cultural studies, feminist theory, and relatedschools of theory associated with new social movements (such aspostcolonial theory and queer theory).26 For critical communicationtheory, the basic “problem of communication” in society arises frommaterial and ideological forces that preclude or distort discursive reflec-tion. Communication conceived in this way explains how social injus-tice is perpetuated by ideological distortions and how justice can poten-tially be restored through communicative practices that enable criticalreflection or consciousness-raising in order to unmask those distortionsand thereby enable political action to liberate the participants from them. The critical tradition is plausible from a lay point of view when itappeals to commonplace beliefs about the omnipresence of injustice andconflict in society, the ways in which power and domination can over-come truth and reason, and the potential for discourse with others toproduce liberating insight, demystification, perhaps even the realizationthat one has been “had.” Critical theory appeals to commonplace Val-ues of freedom, equality, and reason, yet it challenges many of our com-monplace assumptions about what is reasonable. It challenges the natu-ralness of the social order and questions the rational validity of all au-thority, tradition, and conventional belief, including traditional beliefsabout the nature of reason itself, which, it claims, have distorted reasonin the service of capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. It challenges com-monplace assumptions about the objectivity and moral-political neu-trality of science and technology. It challenges the pervasive individual-ism of our culture and the ideological dominance of instrumental rea-son, the assumption that rationality consists entirely in means-ends cal-culations where the ends in question can only be voluntaristically cho-sen based on individual interests. It is, or at least tries to be, the mostdeeply practical kind of theory, although its notion of what is practical 147