Communication and media permeate our society. At its most basic level, we can think of communication as the exchange of information or meaning – but what does that mean? When are you not exchanging information or meaning? To try and help make sense of the wealth of encounters in which communication might be said to be occurring, we try and categorize communication into different types. Some of these types include:
- interpersonal communication, or one-on-one talking and rhetoric, where we analyse things like tone, body language, and speech
- mass communication, which includes one-to-many and many-to-many communication acts, with a particular interest in mediated communication, such as with the press.
- Organizational communication, where we look at how people organize their information exchanges to maintain and facilitate group behaviour
- Intercultural communication, which looks at the exchange of information and ideas across different cultural groups or subgroups.
But is communication purely a functional and pragmatic tool for the exchange of information, and serves no other function or plays no other role within society? Or is there more than one level to consider when studying the act and role of communication in a social context?
Building on work started by Robert T. Craig, we can generally talk about seven models or traditions of communication – we can look at any communication practice through the lens of one or more of these models to develop a more nuanced understanding of communication in everyday life.
The seven models (adapted from Miller) are:
- Rhetorical – this model is concerned primarily with communication as a discourse, and tends to concern itself primarily with interpersonal, one-to-one or one-to-few communication acts, such as speech. Post the linguistic turn of the mid- to late-twentieth century, rhetoric has expanded its area of focus to include mass communication that attempts to persuade, such as political communication and advertising. A rhetorical approach to communication might look at who was speaking to whom, in what context, and to what end or purpose (i.e.: to persuade or to change an opinion or belief).
- Semiotic – this model sees communication primarily as an exchange of signs within a meaning-making system. We will be going into much further depth into the idea of semiotics in a later module, but for now it is just worth noting that semiotics approaches communication in itself, seeing the communication as a sign within a sign system, which employs signs in culturally contextualized combinations to convey meaning.
- Phenomenological – this model is primarily concerned with communication as an experience. A phenomenological approach would see communication as both a representation and a reinforcement of what the communicators see to be self-evident. A phenomenological approach can take on both interpersonal and mass communications, and may also take under its purvey objects or ideas as sites of meaning-making.
- Cybernetic – this model views communication as a flow of information. This is not just the pragmatic A sends a message to B type of flow, but also tries to take into account factors which influence and constraint the flow of information, including social factors such as mores and etiquette, technological factors such as channel access and availability, and political factors such as regulation.
- Psychological or Socio-psychological – this model, as the name suggests, is concerned with the impact of communication acts on the individual, particularly their sense of self in society. This model sees communication as representing certain individual choices made in order to maximize benefit to the individual or group. We’ll come back to these ideas when we discuss symbolic interactionism in the next module.
- Sociocultural – this model sees communication as a way of replicating and reinforcing (and challenging) the social order. This approach assumes that people in societies have models of how that society should operate; communication acts to build, reinforce, and propagate these models.
- Critical – this model views communication as a set of assumptions that are open to challenge and negotiation; as you might have guessed, it has strong links to the socio-cultural tradition. Approaches such as Marxist critique are representative of this model.
We can look at any act of communication through any of these models, and uncover something different about the communication itself, the meaning it helps construct and reconstruct, and how that communication and the communicators involved fit within a socio-cultural context.
It’s worth stepping back even further for a moment, and turning your attention to the wider role of communication in everyday life. To do this, it is worth starting with a question: can you imagine a world without communication?
What does it look like?
What might be some of the cultural roles of communication in everyday life? In no particular order, we can talk about the following:
1 Communication tells stories, and perhaps more importantly, they retell stories. Communication, particularly mass communication and the mass media, tends to fall into repetitive and recursive patterns of representation and ideology, ones that often reinforce the dominant hegemony of a culture or society. For example, the narratives around masculinity and sports such as rugby — think of the way stories about All Blacks are constructed and reconstructed in the media.
By using these narrative strategies in our communication patterns, we are engaging in a kind of shorthand that facilitates communication behaviours, signals a shared culture or values system, and indicates an expectation of communicative and ideological symmetry. However, such myths also propagate a particular set of ideas about what is valued within a culture, and what or who is marginalized.
Let’s take a look at the New England Patriots for example – think of the language that is used to describe them, and the thoughts and feelings it evokes.
These sports stars and their games, which are a form of communication, reinforce particular, in this case modern and Western, views about masculinity, which then has an impact on how the readers of these texts understand the masculine in their culture.
We’ll be coming back to sports stars and cultural mythology when we touch on gender in a later module. In the meantime see this link:
2 A second role that communication plays in everyday life is to help maintain social order by taking on a kind of surveillance operation, in that communication demonstrates to a society what behaviors are considered acceptable and unacceptable. This may be through object representation, or it may be through commentary on active behaviors. An example of the former might be soaps. Soaps like Gossip Girl play out, in a mass media, the narratives of types of private lives and decision processes of different groups of people in a palatable, easy to understand and follow manner. It is not by accident that reality TV and soap operas follow the same structural beats. Both are structured to play out long-form ‘life’ narratives, with different characters taking on the role of hero or villain. An example of commentary might be gossip, whether about a sports star, a pop singer, or your neighbors.
Facebook is a great example of this, in that it runs on social communication – on gossip and networking – and people very deliberately structure their behavior on these sites to present the best ‘face’ and thus receive the most desirable commentary and feedback from others. For example, think about how long you spent choosing and setting up your profile picture to use for your Facebook page? Along similar lines, new communication channels and technologies now allow us to extend our interpersonal surveillance, both across space and through time. Whereas once students who went off to college in a way escaped the surveillance of their parents, now their parents can (unless they’ve locked their account) follow their children’s antics on Facebook. Those same antics may then form part of a person’s online profile which is seen by potential employers as they use those same tools of surveillance to get a sense of who you are before they call you in for a job interview.
Either way, this role of communication serves to demonstrate correct social behavior, and the consequences of incorrect social behavior, and to allow social sanctions and feedbacks on our own behavior and decisions.
3 A third role that communication plays is to help us interpret and make sense of information. This has become a particularly important role in the modern communication landscape, as information overload has become an increasingly common part of our everyday lives. Again, new media and electronic communication channels have raised the profile of this role of communication in everyday life. We can see this most clearly in news media, and the idea of agenda setting, but even the use of particular language or even images can also frame a topic or give subtle hints and clues as to how we are ‘meant’ to interpret information according to our culture.
4 This act of interpreting, of governing behavior, and even of storytelling, is of course at its heart a representation of a particular set of values and ideologies that emerge from and are part of a culture. It is very important to remember that no act of communication is ideologically neutral! Ideologies are part of our lifeworlds, part of the assumptions we make and encode into and decode out of our communication practices and behaviors, and so if we are to study communication, we need to address these ideological underpinnings.
5 That’s not to say that we always communicate thinking about these things – they are often covert, assumed and unchallenged parts of our everyday lives. But they exist, even when we think about communication on a basic uses and gratifications level. Uses and Gratifications Theory is a very simple theory you may already be familiar with at some level. It hypothesizes that audiences, and communicators in general, are active in why they seek out media and communicative exchanges. These four reasons are diversion, socialization, identity, and surveillance. We may have multiple simultaneous reasons, or we may just be bored and channel surfing. But even those decisions and positions – to be bored, to seek our diversion through television rather than another way, or to settle on a particular channel or show – reflect ideologies and social, technological, and political pressures that are so every day that we don’t even think about them anymore.
So, to recap. Communication is pervasive and an integral part of our everyday lives – we cannot imagine our world without communication. Communication serves a number of concurrent functions in society – pragmatic, normative, ideological and informational. We can approach an analysis of communication at a number of different levels – rhetorical, semiotic, phenomenological, cybernetic, socio-psychological, socio-cultural or critical. We can move between these different levels to uncover different aspects of communicative processes. But in general, it is important to remember that communication serves more than just a functional process of getting information from point A to point B. Communication also propagates what a society considers to be normal or normative behavior. It reinforces the dominant ideologies of a society, and may also create space for new ideologies to come in and challenge that dominant hegemony. We can see these ideological debates being played out as people challenge and critique existing stories and narratives that permeate and propagate through our communicative culture. We can break communication down to the level of the individual sign, or scale it up to see it play out over time across an entire culture, but communication is never ideologically neutral.
In the next section, we’ll discuss how communication fits and is a part of cultural systems.
- Can you identify a time or situation when you are not exchanging information or meaning, and in a wider context, discuss what a world without communication might be like?
- Find examples of each of the seven models of communication. Give reasons for your choices.
- In the media or elsewhere, identify examples of competing ideologies that challenge an existing hegemony. Describe their context – political, commercial, social and academic etc – and give a short outline of each, including the media role in communicating the information.
Craig, Robert T. and Heidi L Muller. Theorizing Communication: Readings Across Traditions. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2007.
Miller, K. Communication Theories: Perspectives, Processes and Contexts. 2nd Ed. McGaw Hill: New York, 2005. Pp 1-16