Communication Theory

People have always communicated, but the process of communication became the subject of studies in the 20th century. The serious study of communication was triggered by the development of technologies. Communication research assigns communication as a central meaning to human experience.

The universal law of communication, proposed by S.F. Scudder (1980), states that all living creatures whether human beings, animals or plants, communicate in different ways. Some use speech, other sounds, body movements or gestures to communicate, and all living entities communicate.

Communication scholars are still not able to agree on a single definition of communication. Researcher Frank Dance published the first comprehensive book on communication theory and came to the conclusion that people are trying to make the concept of communication do too much work for them.

Leading communication scholar Em Griffin defined communication in A First Look at Communication Theory as the relational process of creating and interpreting messages that elicit a response.

Robert Craig suggests that communication is a practical discipline and theory is developed to help solve problems from the real world.

Communication represents a process involving two or three or more people. The way people interpret messages affects their relationship. Messages are the key subject of communication study. All communication theories deal with messages. People decode and encode messages based on the meanings they assign. Communicators usually consciously choose the form and substance of messages. The form and substance of a message provokes a response in the person or people it is directed at.

Communication theories use different methodology, pursue a variety of goals and aim investigation at different levels. Behavioral scientists have a scientific approach to communication, while scholars in the field of humanities use text interpretation as a means to approach communication.

Yale psychologist Carl Hovland (12 June 1912 – 16 April 1961) was one of the founders of experimental research on the effects of communication. He dedicated research to the relationship between communication stimuli, opinion change and audience predisposition. Hovland and his team concluded that any change to opinion is closely related to the source credibility. They studied two types of credibility: expertness and character. They found that expertness was more important for opinion shift; however, its effect was not long-lasting.

The cybernetic tradition views communication as information processing. Norbert Wiener (26 November 1894 – 18 March 1964), who is regarded as the originator of cybernetics, used the term cybernetics to describe the field of artificial intelligence. According to Wiener, communication is the link separating the parts of a system.

Claude Shannon (30 April 1916 – 24 February 2001), the founding father of the information theory, introduced the idea of communication as information processing. Shannon was not interested in the meaning of the message, but focused on the way of using maximal line capacity and reducing distortion at the same time. According to Shannon, less predictable messages give more information.

Until the 20th century the prevalent communication theory was Greek-Roman rhetoric. Under this theory, speech is the feature that distinguishes human beings from animals. The theory puts a great emphasis on oratorical training. Language has to be beautiful in order to cause an emotion, followed by an action. Only males were trained in rhetoric.

The semiotic theory defines communication as the process of sharing meaning through signs and words are considered a special type of signs. I.A. Richard, one of the pioneers in semiotics, suggested that words have no precise meaning. The meaning is not determined by a word or a symbol, but by people. Despite Richard's interest in language, a large number of scholars in semiotics concentrate on nonverbal communication.

Scholars from the socio-cultural tradition suggest that communication is the creation and enactment of social reality. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf are the forefathers of this tradition. They suggest that language produces reality and culture.

The critical tradition views communication as the process in which unjust discourse can be challenged. The theory was developed by the German Frankfurt School, which did not agree with Karl Marx's economic determinism. Critical scholars criticize some social characteristics such as the role of media in making people less sensitive to repression with the use of language to keep power imbalances. They also challenged the extensive use of empirical findings.

Communication is defined by phenomenologist scholars as the experience of self and others through dialogue. The phenomenological tradition is focused on the way people perceive and interpret their experience.

There are also several viewpoints through which communication can be studied. These are the mechanistic, critical, social, systemic and psychological.

Communication Theory: Selected full-text books and articles

Human Communication Theory and Research: Concepts, Contexts, and Challenges By Robert L. Heath; Jennings Bryant Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000 (2nd edition)
Message Production: Advances in Communication Theory By John O. Greene Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Building Communication Theories: A Socio/Cultural Approach By Fred L. Casmir Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994
Crafting Society: Ethnicity, Class, and Communication Theory By Donald G. Ellis Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999
An Integrated Approach to Communication Theory and Research By Michael B. Salwen; Don W. Stacks Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996
Health Communication: Theory and Practice By Dianne Berry Open University Press, 2007
Handbook of Political Communication Research By Lynda Lee Kaid Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Theory and Research in Mass Communication: Contexts and Consequences By David K. Perry Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002 (2nd edition)
Semiotics and Communication: Signs, Codes, Cultures By Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993
Librarian’s tip: Part I "Semiotic Theory and Communication Theory"
American Pragmatism and Communication Research By David K. Perry Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Pragmatism as a Way of Inquiring with Special Reference to a Theory of Communication and the General Form of Pragmatic Social Theory" and Chap. 10 "Intersections of Feminism and Pragmatism: Possibilities for Communication Theory and Research"
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.