Whenever we interact with other people, intentional or unintentional, we communicate; because of its abstract nature, the concept of communication is difficult to define. If one remembers Communication Theory as a Field (Craig 1999), we gain insight into the scientific fields of communication, on how diverse the fields of study actually are. With such diversity among theorists’ approaches to communication, it is even harder to get a single definition standing, at least within academia. The devil is in the details; however some argue that it is rather impractical to study a subject that isn’t well defined.
A First Look At Communication Theory (Griffin 2012) offers a working definition. (Griffin 2012:6) states “Communication is the relational process of creating and interpreting messages that elicit a response”. But does this definition of what communication is suffice in the light of what the different theorists argue it is? This will be the main focus of my paper. I find it most reasonable to approach this question with two communication theories with different fundamental approaches to communication.
In order to cover both the interpretive and objective theoretical approach, I will discuss the definition in relation to Constructivism and Semiotics.
The definition consists of five parts: messages, creation of Messages, interpretation of Messages, A Relational Process, and Messages that elicits a response (Griffin 2012:6-9). “Messages are the very core of communication study.” (Griffin 2012:6). The creation of messages is the implication that messages is usually not randomly generated (constructed, invented, planned, crafted, constituted, selected, or adopted (Griffin 2012:7)).
A message does not hold a meaning in and of itself; e.g. there is a differentiation between the words and the meaning. Communication is considered a process, because it functions in a contextual sense. In addition, it is a relational phenomenon because it involves two or more participants and affects their connection. And lastly, if a message fails to initiate any reactions, it would be ironic to call it communication according to Griffin.
Constructivism approaches communication from the psychological perspective, focusing on cognitive competence in interpersonal communication (Griffin 2012:98). The level of interactional competence is determined by the sophistication of the actor’s social perception skills, and their ability to analyze the social situation (the cognitive complexity of an actor (Griffin 2012:99)). The cognitive complexity is reflected in the communication process through the effectiveness of person-centered messages. “… the capacity to produce highly person-centered messages has been assessed by having participants generate messages in response to standard situations and then coding these messages within hierarchical schemes for the degree of person centeredness manifested.
For example, messages seeking to persuade others have been coded for the extent to which the goals and desires of the target are taken into account.” (Brant R. Burleson, Scott E. Caplan 1998:II,B) In a constructivist view, the communication process is more goal-oriented than relational. Constructing the message in a communicational context is in and of itself an intention to get an anticipated or desired reaction. “The perception and processing of others’ intentional efforts to convey some internal state–may be viewed as a special case of social perception” (Brant R. Burleson, Scott E. Caplan 1998:II,C). The addressed uses a received message as input in the process of structuring their response. The effectiveness of a response is directly correlated to the message’s goal related structure, and the cognitive complexity and perception skills of both addresser and addressed.
Semiotics is the study of signs; it involves the production and the analysis of socially attributed meaning to an object. The semiologist Roland Barthes focused his research on signs we use in communication (Griffin 2012:332). In Mythologies (Roland Barthes 2009) we see that Barthes’ perspective on communication is broader than the interpersonal level, focusing more on abstract connotations and mythical signs in a cultural context. He argues that reality is converted into speech through human history; therefore there are no eternal meanings (Roland Barthes 2009:132). Concordantly, the meaning of a sign can shift as time progresses, an original sign could become a denotation for something else through the semiotic process.
The creation of meaning of signs is then not only an individual process; it is also a conjunction and ongoing process of communication and human history. Barthes offers a semantic explanation, in his example of wrestling, to the reactions of the audience towards the wrestlers (Roland Barthes 2009:11-12). Arguing that, with French wrestling, different connotations around the mythical sign of “justice” were at interplay. So in the process of interpretation; Meaning can be implicit. Unconsciously perceived as connotative factor(s) to what is consciously noticed, and then reacted upon.
Directly applying the points of discussion
Extending the commonalities and differences between the two theoretical views, with Griffin’s definition, some points are very clear. Both view messages as the core instrument in communication and see it as a process. Both agree that if no reaction is elicited in any way, then the function of the message initially failed. The circumstances thereof are different in each point of view. However the aspects of messages in each theoretical view are defined in such a fashion; without a response of any kind, it would be a contradiction to refer to them as such (If we, of course, interpret messages that elicit a response to include apathetic responses). On the points of objection, it seems mostly to be a case of “weighing the words”, when viewed by either theoretical lens. As an example: on the point of a relational process, constructivists might prefer “goal-oriented” rather than relational. Or from Barthes’ perspective, adding a concept of creating meaning as a result of communication to the definition.
The outlined approaches in this paper of constructivism and semiotics, display clear differences in the assumptions, focus-points and explanations of communication. However their general outlook does not, in any significant way, object to Griffin’s working definition. I think this outcome qualifies the definition as sufficient, as a practical tool when studying communication. The evident boundary of my paper however, is the lack of other major theoretical lenses in the subject. Further work needs to be done in order to conduct a more unified definition.
Barthes, R. (2009). Mythologies. London: Vintage Classics. 3-14 and 131-144 Craig, R.T. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory, 9, 119-161. Griffin, E. (2011). A First Look at Communication Theory. 8th edition. New York: McGraw Hill. J. C. McCroskey, J. A. Daly, & M. M. Martin (Eds.). (1998). Communication and Personality: Trait Perspectives. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, pp. 233-286, Website: Presshttp://www.ic.arizona.edu/ic/wrightr/const/bu98b.htm#II.B.%20CC%20and%20%E2%82%ACMessage%20Production%E2%82%AC