Communication has been defined in many aspects but central to all these definitions is the expression that “communication is the process in which relationships are established, maintained, modified, or terminated through the increase or reduction of meaning. This allows us to examine the process of communication in a way which includes the “relateds” and how they are always affected as objects which become subjects, affecting and being affected, as well as the changes in meaning and in messages which become filled or voided of meaning as the process, and those related to it, constantly change.” Consequently, arguments have been put forward that communication is education, that it is the church. that it is incarnation, and that it is Christianity. While each of these connections contain helpful insights, in a sense, communication is a constituent of everything.
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The history of communication dates back to prehistory, with significant changes in communication technologies (media and appropriate inscription tools) evolving in tandem with shifts in political and economic systems, and by extension, systems of power. Currently, at least seven major traditions of communication theory can be distinguished, rhetoric being the oldest. From classical rhetoric comes the idea that communication can be studied and cultivated as a practical art of discourse. Whereas the art of rhetoric still refers primarily to the theory and practice of public, persuasive communication, the communication arts more broadly encompass the whole range of communication practices including interpersonal, organizational, and cross-cultural communication, technologically mediated communication, and practices specific to various professions and fields. Modern rhetorical theory has elaborated and problematized the epistemological, sociological, and political dimensions of the classical tradition in ways that further contribute to communication theory. Consequently, rhetoric performs a variety of different functions as it can be adapted to the different ends of moving, instructing, or pleasing an audience.
A second tradition of communication theory, originated in its modern form by Locke, is semiotics, the study of signs. Semiotic theory conceptualizes communication as a process that relies on signs and sign systems to mediate across the gaps between subjective viewpoints. For semiotic theory, communication problems result from barriers to understanding that arise from the slippage between sign-vehicles (physical signs such as spoken or written words, or graphic images) and their meanings, the structure of sign systems, and particular ways of using (or misusing) signs. Distinct traditions of semiotics grew from the pre Christian era as evidenced by Ancient Egypt cave paintings and symbol writings. General Semiotics tends to be formalistic, abstracting signs from the contexts of use whereas Social Semiotics takes the meaning-making process. As such, Social Semiotics is more closely associated with discourse analysis, multimedia analysis, educational research, cultural anthropology, political sociology, e.t.c. We therefore do not exist independently of signs, with our essentially real personal identities and subjective viewpoints, but “use” signs in order to communicate. We exist meaningfully only in and as signs.
A third, phenomenological tradition conceptualizes communication as the experience of self and other in dialogue. The problem of communication for phenomenology, as for semiotics, is that of a gap between subjective viewpoints: One cannot directly experience another consciousness, and the potential for inter-subjective understanding is thereby limited. The two traditions approach this problem in quite different ways, however. Whereas semiotics looks to the mediational properties of signs, phenomenology looks to the authenticity of our ways of experiencing self and other. The basis for communication lies in our common existence with others in a shared world that may be constituted differently in experience. Authentic dialogue requires open self-expression and acceptance of difference while seeking common ground. Barriers to communication can arise from self-unawareness, non-acceptance of difference, or strategic agendas that preclude openness to the other. This hermeneutic phenomenology influenced subsequent existentialist, hermeneutic, and poststructuralist theories that have emphasized the constitutive properties of dialogue. Dialogue, in these theories, is not a essentially a sharing of pre-existing inner meanings; it is engagement with others to negotiate meaning.
Fourth, a cybernetic tradition of communication theory grew from the mid-twentieth century. This is actually one of the newest traditions of communication theory, although, as we have noted, it was the first communication theory explicitly named and widely known as such. Cybernetics conceptualizes communication as information processing. All complex systems, including computers and telecommunication devices, DNA molecules and cells, plants and animals, the human brain and nervous system, social groups and organizations, cities, and entire societies, process information, and in that sense communicate. Cybernetic theory downplays the differences between human communication and other kinds of information processing systems. Information storage, transmission, and feedback, network structures, and self-organizing processes occur in every sufficiently complex system. Problems of communication can arise from conflicts among subsystems or glitches in information processing like positive feedback loops that amplify noise. Second-order cybernetics reflexively includes the observer within the system observed and emphasizes the necessary role of the observer in defining, perturbing, and, often in unpredictable ways, changing a system by the very act of observing it.
Social psychology, a fifth tradition of communication theory, conceptualizes communication as social interaction and influence. Communication always involves individuals with their distinctive personality traits, attitudes, beliefs, and emotions. Social behavior both displays the influence of these psychological factors and modifies them as participants influence each other, often with little awareness of what is happening. Influence can be essentially a transmission process from source to receiver. If, however, interaction reciprocally changes the participants and leads to collective outcomes that would not otherwise have occurred, communication becomes a constitutive social process. Whether conceived on a transmission or a constitutive model, the problem of communication from a socio-psychological perspective is how to manage social interaction effectively in order to achieve preferred and anticipated outcomes. This requires an understanding, solidly grounded in scientific theory and research, of how the communication process works. Social scientific communication research has always been closely identified with social psychology.
Sociocultural communication theory, which derives from twentieth century sociological and anthropological thought, is a sixth tradition. Sociocultural theory conceptualizes communication as a symbolic process that produces and reproduces shared meanings, rituals, and social structures. That is, society exists not only by using communication as a necessary tool for transmitting and exchanging information. To communicate as a member of society is to participate in those coordinated, collective activities and shared understandings that constitute society itself. There is a tension in socio-cultural theory between approaches that emphasize macro-social structures and processes and those that emphasize micro-social interaction. On the macro side, structural and functionalist views emphasize the necessary role of stable social structures and cultural patterns in making communication possible. On the micro side, interactionist views emphasize the necessary role of communication as a process that creates and sustains social structures and patterns in everyday contexts of social interaction. From either view, communication involves the coordination of activities among social actors, and communication problems are directly manifested in difficulties and breakdowns of coordination. Communication problems have apparently become more pressing and difficult under modern conditions of societal diversity, complex interdependence, and rapid change. A reasonable conjecture from a socio-cultural point of view is that communication theory developed in modern society as a way of understanding and addressing this new condition in which communication seems to be at once the disease that causes most of our social problems, and the only possible cure.
A seventh tradition of communication theory is the critical tradition that defines communication as a reflexive, dialectical discourse essentially involved with the cultural and ideological aspects of power, oppression, and emancipation in society. Dialectic, like its counterpart rhetoric, was first conceptualized in ancient Greece. In the philosophical practice of Socrates as portrayed in Plato’s Dialogues, dialectic was a method of argumentation through question and answer that, by revealing contradictions and clarifying obscurities, led the interlocutors to higher truth. The dialectical materialism of Karl Marx (1818-1883) initiated the modern conception of dialectic as an inherently social process connecting political economy to cultural practice. In orthodox Marxist theory, ideology and culture were determined by class interests, and dialectic at the level of ideas primarily reflected the underlying struggle between economic classes. The goal of critical theory is then to promote emancipation and enlightenment by lifting ideological blinders that otherwise serve to perpetuate ignorance and oppression. Communication is systematically distorted by power imbalances that affect participation and expression, and critical theory can serve emancipatory interests by reflecting upon the sources of systematically distorted communication. Recent movements in the critical tradition such as postmodernism and critical cultural studies tend to reject both Marxist economic determinism as well as Habermas’s universalistic ideal of communicative action, but continue to conceptualize communication in ways that emphasize ideology, oppression, critique, and reflexivity. Postmodernist cultural critique primarily addresses ideological discourses of race, class, and gender that suppress differences, preclude or devalue the expression of certain identities, and limit cultural diversity. In postmodernist theory, ideal communication is not, as it was for Plato, a dialectical discourse that leads the way to higher, universal truths. Postmodernism nevertheless implies a similar model of communication: that of a dialectical (that is, critical) discourse that can, if only in limited ways, liberate the participants and expand human possibilities.
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Other than the seven traditions of communication theory, there are a number of modern theories which have greatly influenced mass communication. Communication can range from very subtle processes of exchange, to full conversations and mass communication. In the modern era, mass media plays a big role as a result of technological advancement. Propagated through mass media are a number of theories. Agenda setting theory describes a very powerful influence of the media – the ability to tell us what issues are important. Agenda setting postulates that communication has two main elements; awareness and information. Therefore in the public discourse, communication via mass media exerts its influence on public perception of various issues. These may range from politics, economy, and other public matters. Nonetheless, the theory is based on reasoning that: the press and the media do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it; media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues. Agenda-setting theory therefore seems quite appropriate to help us understand the pervasive role of the media (for example on political communication systems).
Another notable viewpoint of mass communication in the modern times is the Uses and Gratification theory. This theory explains the uses and functions of the media for individuals, groups, and society in general. In order to explain how individuals use mass communication to gratify their needs, it seeks to: Establish what people do with the medial; discover underlying motives for individuals’media use; identify the positive and the negative consequences of individual media use. At the core of uses and gratifications theory lies the assumption that audience members actively seek out the mass media to satisfy individual needs. Consequently, a medium will be used more when the existing motives to use the medium leads to more satisfaction.
The seven traditional theories and the two exemplified mass communication theories include the most prominent intellectual sources that currently influence communication theory but do not, of course, cover the field exhaustively. Ideas about communication are too numerous, diverse, and dynamically evolving to be captured entirely by any simple scheme. The field could certainly be mapped in other ways that would distinguish the main traditions differently. Moreover, no matter how the theories may be defined, they will not be found to have developed independently of one another. Contemporary theory draws from all of the traditions in various ways but is often hard to classify neatly in any one of them. Blends and hybrid varieties are common. Poststructuralist theory, for example, draws from both semiotics and phenomenology, is often regarded as a kind of rhetorical theory, and has significantly influenced recent socio-cultural and critical theory. Similarly, traces of every other tradition of communication theory can be found recent rhetorical theory. The academic discipline of communication studies has become like a cauldron in which ideas from across the traditions of communication theory are mixed and stirred in different combinations to make intellectual stock for current debates.
In light of these trends in society, it is not surprising that speech and eventually rhetoric increasingly were thought to fall naturally under the general heading of communication. Beginning in the 1960s, communication gradually displaced speech in the titles of academic departments, professional organizations, and scholarly journals, and the speech curriculum was accordingly transformed around a new focus on the theory and practice of communication. As communication became the accepted name of the field as a whole, communication studies ceased to be identified exclusively with the behavioral and social sciences. Although the old tensions between scientific and humanistic approaches continued in new forms in communication departments, and rhetoric itself rose to prominence as an interdisciplinary field, rhetorical studies became, among other things, a branch of communication studies, and rhetorical theory became a tradition of communication theory.
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