Communication Theory/Introduction

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'Communication is deeply rooted in human behaviors and societies. It is difficult to think of social or behavioral events from which communication is absent. Indeed, communication applies to shared behaviors and properties of any collection of things, whether they are human or not.

We may turn to etymology for clues: "communication" (from the Latin "communicare") literally means "to put in common", "to share". The term originally meant sharing of tangible things; food, land, goods, and property. Today, it is often applied to knowledge and information processed by living things or computers.

We might say that communication consists of transmitting information. In fact, many scholars of communication take this as a working definition, and use Lasswell's maxim ("who says what to whom") as a means of circumscribing the field of communication. Others stress the importance of clearly characterizing the historical, economic and social context. The field of communication theory can benefit from a conceptualization of communication that is widely shared.

Communication Theory attempts to document types of communication, and to optimize communications for the benefit of all.

Indeed, a theory is some form of explanation of a class of observed phenomena. Karl Popper colorfully described theory as "the net which we throw out in order to catch the world--to rationalize, explain, and dominate it." The idea of a theory lies at the heart of any scholarly process, and while those in the social sciences tend to adopt the tests of a good theory from the natural sciences, many who study communication adhere to an idea of communication theory that is akin to that found in other academic fields.

This book approaches communication theory from a biographical perspective, in an attempt to show theory development within a social context. Many of these theorists would not actually consider themselves "communication" researchers. The field of communication study is remarkably inclusionary, and integrates theoretical perspectives originally developed in a range of other disciplines.

Theories and Models[edit]

A simple communication model with a sender which transfers a message containing information to a receiver.

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

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

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