Theories of Communication, Human Nature, and the World: Associations and Implications

By Edwards, Autumn; Shepherd, Gregory J. | Communication Studies, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Theories of Communication, Human Nature, and the World: Associations and Implications


Edwards, Autumn, Shepherd, Gregory J., Communication Studies


The whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the one which is true.

--William James (1898/1977, p. 349)

Metaphysical beliefs, beliefs about the underlying nature of things, are pragmatic in nature. They are working theories that provide guides for action and shape outcomes with varying degrees of desirability. Among the metaphysical beliefs commonly considered to influence individuals are those about the nature of humans (e.g., are they generally good?) and the nature of the world (e.g., is it generally just?). Less typically considered to be metaphysical or powerfully determining are beliefs about communication (see Shepherd, 1993, for one explanation of the de-ontological status of communication). It seems reasonable to wonder, however, whether metaphysical beliefs, worldviews, and communication attitudes are intertwined, and so this study examines the relationships among personal theories of communication (i.e., message design logics), privately-held philosophies of human nature, and key assumptions about the world.

THEORIES OF COMMUNICATION: MESSAGE DESIGN LOGIC

Defining communication sometimes seems to be the chief business of communication scholars, and it has persisted since Aristotle's time. Conceptions of communication are central to inquiry, value-laden and fluid. As Redmond (1995) states, "each existing definition tends to reflect a particular theoretical approach to the concept, and as theories change, so do definitions" (p. 4). The debate about how best to conceptualize communication affects interpretations of the field and discipline of communication (see Craig, 1993; Shepherd, 1993).

Conceptualizations of communication are important not merely to scholars, but to everyday actors. O'Keefe (1988), in her account of message variation, has noted that individuals possess implicit theories of communication, or message design logics. These are working models of what it means to communicate which help guide the process of message production and interpretation. Through interaction, individuals progressively accumulate and integrate knowledge about what communication is and what it can be used to accomplish. According to O'Keefe (1991), message design logics are distinct ways of thinking about communication situations, selecting thoughts for expression, and modifying expression to meet goals. A design logic is a description of the way thoughts, transformed as messages, relate to desired message outcomes. The variation in goals and goal management strategies observed in various studies (e.g., O'Keefe and Shepherd, 1987; 1989) arises from "differences in the very definition of communication that individuals construct and employ" (O'Keefe, 1988, p. 84). That is, "the message design logic model offers a theory of communication theories, an analysis of the alternative ways in which individuals (or communities) might constitute communication processes" (1988, p. 98).

According to O'Keefe (1988), there exist three general types of message design logic: Expressive, Conventional, and Rhetorical. Each of these implicit theories of communication is associated with a constellation of related beliefs and operations and is based on an individual's level of cognitive complexity. The three design logics are characterized by different premises about communication, which are manifested in messages of varying organization, content, and effectiveness (O'Keefe, 1988).

Expressive Design Logic

The Expressive design logic is the simplest form of message production and is based on the premise that "language is a medium for expressing thoughts and feelings" (O'Keefe, 1988, p. 85). Since Expressive communicators make no distinction between thought and expression, they "dump" their current mental states and assume that others do the same (O'Keefe & McCornack, 1987, p. …

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