Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Models of the Communication Process

Shannon's (1948) model of the communication process is, in important ways, the beginning of the modern field. It provided, for the first time, a general model of the communication process that could be treated as the common ground of such diverse disciplines as journalism, rhetoric, linguistics, and speech and hearing sciences. Part of its success is due to its structuralist reduction of communication to a set of basic constituents that not only explain how communication happens, but why communication sometimes fails. Good timing played a role as well. The world was barely thirty years into the age of mass radio, had arguably fought a world war in its wake, and an even more powerful, television, was about to assert itself. It was time to create the field of communication as a unified discipline, and Shannon's model was as good an excuse as any. The model's enduring value is readily evident in introductory textbooks. It remains one of the first things most students learn about communication when they take an introductory communication class. Indeed, it is one of only a handful of theoretical statements about the communication process that can be found in introductory textbooks in both mass communication and interpersonal communication.

Shannon's model, as shown in Figure 1, breaks the process of communication down into eight discrete components:.
  1. An information source. Presumably a person who creates a message.
  2. The message, which is both sent by the information source and received by the destination.
  3. transmitter. For Shannon's immediate purpose a telephone instrument that captures an audio signal, converts it into an electronic signal, and amplifies it for transmission through the telephone network. Transmission is readily generalized within Shannon's information theory to encompass a wide range of transmitters. The simplest transmission system, that associated with face-to-face communication, has at least two layers of transmission. The first, the mouth (sound) and body (gesture), create and modulate a signal. The second layer, which might also be described as a channel, is built of the air (sound) and light (gesture) that enable the transmission of those signals from one person to another. A television broadcast would obviously include many more layers, with the addition of cameras and microphones, editing and filtering systems, a national signal distribution network (often satellite), and a local radio wave broadcast antenna.
  4. The signal, which flows through a channel. There may be multiple parallel signals, as is the case in face-to-face interaction where sound and gesture involve different signal systems that depend on different channels and modes of transmission. There may be multiple serial signals, with sound and/or gesture turned into electronic signals, radio waves, or words and pictures in a book.
  5. A carrier or channel, which is represented by the small unlabeled box in the middle of the model. The most commonly used channels include air, light, electricity, radio waves, paper, and postal systems. Note that there may be multiple channels associated with the multiple layers of transmission, as described above.
  6. Noise, in the form of secondary signals that obscure or confuse the signal carried. Given Shannon's focus on telephone transmission, carriers, and reception, it should not be surprising that noise is restricted to noise that obscures or obliterates some portion of the signal within the channel. This is a fairly restrictive notion of noise, by current standards, and a somewhat misleading one. Today we have at least some media which are so noise free that compressed signals are constructed with an absolutely minimal amount information and little likelihood of signal loss. In the process, Shannon's solution to noise, redundancy, has been largely replaced by a minimally redundant solution: error detection and correction. Today we use noise more as a metaphor for problems associated with effective listening.
  7. receiver. In Shannon's conception, the receiving telephone instrument. In face to face communication a set of ears (sound) and eyes (gesture). In television, several layers of receiver, including an antenna and a television set.
  8. destination. Presumably a person who consumes and processes the message.
Like all models, this is a minimalist abstraction of the reality it attempts to reproduce. The reality of most communication systems is more complex. Most information sources (and destinations) act as both sources and destinations. Transmitters, receivers, channels, signals, and even messages are often layered both serially and in parallel such that there are multiple signals transmitted and received, even when they are converged into a common signal stream and a common channel. Many other elaborations can be readily described.. It remains, however, that Shannon's model is a useful abstraction that identifies the most important components of communication and their general relationship to one another. That value is evident in its similarity to real world pictures of the designs of new communication systems, including Bell's original sketches of the telephone, as seen in Figure 2.
Bell's Sketch of the Telephone
Figure 2: Bell's drawing of the workings of a telephone, from his original sketches (source: Bell Family Papers; Library of Congress; http://memory.loc.gov/mss/mcc/004/0001.jpg)
Bell's sketch visibly contains an information source and destination, transmitters and receivers, a channel, a signal, and an implied message (the information source is talking). What is new, in Shannon's model (aside from the concept of noise, which is only partially reproduced by Bell's batteries), is a formal vocabulary that is now generally used in describing such designs, a vocabulary that sets up both Shannon's mathematical theory of information and a large amount of subsequent communication theory. This correspondence between Bell's sketch and Shannon's model is rarely remarked (see Hopper, 1992 for one instance).
Shannon's model isn't really a model of communication, however. It is, instead, a model of the flow of information through a medium, and an incomplete and biased model that is far more applicable to the system it maps, a telephone or telegraph, than it is to most other media. It suggests, for instance, a "push" model in which sources of information can inflict it on destinations. In the real world of media, destinations are more typically self-selecting "consumers" of information who have the ability to select the messages they are most interested in, turn off messages that don't interest them, focus on one message in preference to other in message rich environments, and can choose to simply not pay attention. Shannon's model depicts transmission from a transmitter to a receiver as the primary activity of a medium. In the real world of media, messages are frequently stored for elongated periods of time and/or modified in some way before they are accessed by the "destination". The model suggests that communication within a medium is frequently direct and unidirectional, but in the real world of media, communication is almost never unidirectional and is often indirect.

Derivative Models of the Communication Process

One of these shortcomings is addressed in Figure 2's intermediary model of communication (sometimes referred to as the gatekeeper model or two-step flow (Katz, 1957)). This model, which is frequently depicted in introductory texts in mass communication, focuses on the important role that intermediaries often play in the communication process. Mass communication texts frequently specifically associate editors, who decide what stories will fit in a newspaper or news broadcast, with this intermediary or gatekeeper role. There are, however, many intermediary roles (Foulger, 2002a) associated with communication. Many of these intermediaries have the ability to decide what messages others see, the context in which they are seen, and when they see them. They often have the ability, moreover, to change messages or to prevent them from reaching an audience (destination). In extreme variations we refer to such gatekeepers as censors. Under the more normal conditions of mass media, in which publications choose some content in preference to other potential content based on an editorial policy, we refer to them as editors (most mass media), moderators (Internet discussion groups), reviewers (peer-reviewed publications), or aggregators (clipping services), among other titles . Delivery workers (a postal delivery worker, for instance) also act as intermediaries, and have the ability to act as gatekeepers, but are generally restricted from doing so as a matter of ethics and/or law.
Figure 3: An Intermediary Model.
Variations of Figure 3's gatekeeper model are also used in teaching organizational communication, where gatekeepers, in the form of bridges and liaisons, have some ability to shape the organization through their selective sharing of information. These variations are generally more complex in depiction and often take the form of social network diagrams that depict the interaction relationships of dozens of people. They network diagrams often presume, or at least allow, bi-directional arrows such that they are more consistent with the notion that communication is most often bidirectional.
The bidirectionality of communication is commonly addressed in interpersonal communication text with two elaborations of Shannon's model (which is often labeled as the action model of communication): the interactive model and the transactive model. The interactive model, a variant of which is shown in Figure 4, elaborates Shannon's model with the cybernetic concept of feedback (Weiner, 1948, 1986), often (as is the case in Figure 4) without changing any other element of Shannon's model. The key concept associated with this elaboration is that destinations provide feedback on the messages they receive such that the information sources can adapt their messages, in real time. This is an important elaboration, and as generally depicted, a radically oversimplified one. Feedback is a message (or a set of messages). The source of feedback is an information source. The consumer of feedback is a destination. Feedback is transmitted, received, and potentially disruptable via noise sources. None of this is visible in the typical depiction of the interactive model. This doesn't diminish the importance of feedback or the usefulness of elaborating Shannon's model to include it. People really do adapt their messages based on the feedback they receive. It is useful, however, to notice that the interactive model depicts feedback at a much higher level of abstraction than it does messages.
Cybernetic or Feedback Model
Figure 4: An Interactive Model:
This difference in the level of abstraction is addressed in the transactional model of communication, a variant of which is shown in Figure 5. This model acknowledges neither creators nor consumers of messages, preferring to label the people associated with the model as communicators who both create and consume messages. The model presumes additional symmetries as well, with each participant creating messages that are received by the other communicator. This is, in many ways, an excellent model of the face-to-face interactive process which extends readily to any interactive medium that provides users with symmetrical interfaces for creation and consumption of messages, including notes, letters, C.B. Radio, electronic mail, and the radio. It is, however, a distinctly interpersonal model that implies an equality between communicators that often doesn't exist, even in interpersonal contexts. The caller in most telephone conversations has the initial upper hand in setting the direction and tone of a a telephone callr than the receiver of the call (Hopper, 1992).In face-to-face head-complement interactions, the boss (head) has considerably more freedom (in terms of message choice, media choice, ability to frame meaning, ability to set the rules of interaction) and power to allocate message bandwidth than does the employee (complement). The model certainly does not apply in mass media contexts.
Transactional Model of Communication
Figure 5: A Transactional Model:
The "masspersonal" (xxxxx, 199x) media of the Internet through this implied symmetry into even greater relief. Most Internet media grant everyone symmetrical creation and consumption interfaces. Anyone with Internet access can create a web site and participate as an equal partner in e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, computer conferences, collaborative composition sites, blogs, interactive games, MUDs, MOOs, and other media. It remains, however, that users have very different preferences in their message consumption and creation. Some people are very comfortable creating messages for others online. Others prefer to "lurk"; to freely browse the messages of others without adding anything of their own. Adding comments to a computer conference is rarely more difficult than sending an e-mail, but most Internet discussion groups have many more lurkers (consumers of messages that never post) than they have contributors (people who both create and consume messages). Oddly, the lurkers sometimes feel more integrated with the community than the contributors do (Baym, 2000).

A New Model of the Communication Process

Existing models of the communication process don't provide a reasonable basis for understanding such effects. Indeed, there are many things that we routinely teach undergraduates in introductory communication courses that are missing from, or outright inconsistent with, these models. Consider that:
  • we now routinely teach students that "receivers" of messages really "consume" messages. People usually have a rich menu of potential messages to choose from and they select the messages they want to hear in much the same way that diners select entrees from a restaurant menu. We teach students that most "noise" is generated within the listener, that we engage messages through "selective attention", that one of the most important things we can do to improve our communication is to learn how to listen, that mass media audiences have choices, and that we need to be "literate" in our media choices, even in (and perhaps especially in) our choice of television messages. Yet all of these models suggest an "injection model" in which message reception is automatic.
  • we spend a large portion of our introductory courses teaching students about language, including written, verbal, and non-verbal languages, yet language is all but ignored in these models (the use of the term in Figure 5 is not the usual practice in depictions of the transactive model).
  • we spend large portions of our introductory courses teaching students about the importance of perception, attribution, and relationships to our interpretation of messages; of the importance of communication to the perceptions that others have of us, the perceptions we have of ourselves, and the creation and maintenence of the relationships we have with others. These models say nothing about the role of perception and relationshp to the way we interpret messages or our willingness to consume messages from different people.
  • we spend large portions of our introductory courses teaching students about the socially constructed aspects of languages, messages, and media use. Intercultural communication presumes both social construction and the presumption that people schooled in one set of conventions will almost certainly violate the expectations of people schooled in a different set of expectations. Discussions of the effects of media on culture presume that communication within the same medium may be very different in different cultures, but that the effects of the medium on various cultures will be more uniform. Existing general models provide little in the way of a platform from which these effects can be discussed.
  • when we use these models in teaching courses in both interpersonal and mass communication; in teaching students about very different kinds of media. With the exception of the Shannon model, we tend to use these models selectively in describing those media, and without any strong indication of where the medium begins or ends; without any indication of how media interrelate with languages, messages, or the people who create and consume messages.without addressing the ways in which they are . while these media describe, in a generalized way, media,
The ecological model of communication, shown in Figure 6, attempts to provide a platform on which these issues can be explored. It asserts that communication occurs in the intersection of four fundamental constructs: communication between people (creators and consumers) is mediated by messages which are created using language within media; consumed from media and interpreted using language.This model is, in many ways, a more detailed elaboration of Lasswell's (1948) classic outline of the study of communication: "Who ... says what ... in which channel ... to whom ... with what effect". In the ecological model , the "who" are the creators of messages, the "says what" are the messages, the "in which channel" is elaborated into languages (which are the content of channels) and media (which channels are a component of), the "to whom" are the consumers of messages, and the effects are found in various relationships between the primitives, including relationships, perspectives, attributions, interpretations, and the continuing evolution of languages and media.

Figure 6: A Ecological Model of the Communication Process

A number of relationships are described in this model:
  1. Messages are created and consumed using language
  2. Language occurs within the context of media
  3. Messages are constructed and consumed within the context of media
  4. The roles of consumer and creator are reflexive. People become creators when they reply or supply feedback to other people. Creators become consumers when they make use of feedback to adapt their messages to message consumers. People learn how to create messages through the act of consuming other peoples messages.
  5. The roles of consumer and creator are introspective. Creators of messages create messages within the context of their perspectives of and relationships with anticipated consumers of messages. Creators optimize their messages to their target audiences. Consumers of messages interpret those messages within the context of their perspectives of, and relationships with, creators of messages. Consumers make attributions of meaning based on their opinion of the message creator. People form these perspectives and relationships as a function of their communication.
  6. The messages creators of messages construct are necessarily imperfect representations of the meaning they imagine. Messages are created within the expressive limitations of the medium selected and the meaning representation space provided by the language used. The message created is almost always a partial and imperfect representation of what the creator would like to say.
  7. A consumers interpretation of a messages necessarily attributes meaning imperfectly. Consumers intepret messages within the limits of the languages used and the media those languages are used in. A consumers interpretation of a message may be very different than what the creator of a message imagined.
  8. People learn language by through the experience of encountering language being used within media. The languages they learn will almost always be the languages when communicating with people who already know and use those languages. That communication always occurs within a medium that enables those languages.
  9. People learn media by using media. The media they learn will necessarilly be the media used by the people they communicate with.
  10. People invent and evolve languages. While some behavior expressions (a baby's cry) occur naturally and some aspects of language structure may mirror the ways in which the brain structures ideas, language does not occur naturally. People invent new language when there is no language that they can be socialized into. People evolve language when they need to communicate ideas that existing language is not sufficient to.
  11. People invent and evolve media While some of the modalities and channels associated with communication are naturally occurring, the media we use to communicate are not.
A medium of communication is, in short, the product of a set of complex interactions between its primary consituents: messages, people (acting as creators of messages, consumers of messages, and in other roles), languages, and media. Three of these consituents are themselves complex systems and the subject of entire fields of study, including psychology, sociology, anthropology (all three of which study people), linguistics (language), media ecology (media), and communication (messages, language, and media). Even messages can be regarded as complex entities, but its complexities can be described entirely within the scope of languages, media, and the people who use them. This ecological model of communication is, in its most fundamental reading, a compact theory of messages and the systems that enable them. Messages are the central feature of the model and the most fundamental product of the interaction of people, language, and media. But there are other products of the model that build up from that base of messages, including (in a rough ordering to increased complexity) observation, learning, interpretation, socialization, attribution, perspectives, and relationships.

Discussion: Positioning the study of media in the field of communication

It is in this layering of interdependent social construction that this model picks up its name. Our communication is not produced within any single system, but in the intersection of several interrelated systems, each of which is self-standing necessarily described by dedicated theories, but each of which is both the product of the others and, in its own limited way, an instance of the other. The medium is, as McLuhan famously observed, a message that is inherent to every message that is created in or consumed from a medium. The medium is, to the extent that we can select among media, also a language such that the message of the medium is not only inherent to a message, but often an element of its composition. In what may be the most extreme view enabled by the processing of messages within media, the medium may also be a person and consumes messages, recreates them, and makes the modified messages available for further consumption. A medium is really none of these things. It is fundamentally a system that enables the construction of messages using a set of languages such that they can be consumed. But a medium is also both all of these things and the product of their interaction. People learn, create, and evolve media as a vehicle for enabling the creation and consumption of messages.
The same might be said of each of the constituents of this model. People can be, and often are, the medium (insofar as they act as messengers), the language (insofar as different people can be selected as messengers), or the message (one's choice of messenger can be profoundly meaningful). Fundamentally a person is none of these things, but they can be used as any of these things and are the product of their experience of all of these things. Our experience of messages, languages, media, and through them, other people, is fundamental in shaping who we become and how we think of ourselves and others. We invent ourselves, and others work diligently to shape that invention, through our consumption of messages, the languages we master, and the media we use.
Language can be, and often are, the message (that is inherent to every message constructed with it), the medium (but only trivially), the person (both at the level of the "language instinct" that is inherent to people (following Pinker, xxxxx) and a socialized semiotic overlay on personal experience), and even "the language" (insofar as we have a choice of what language we use in constructing a given message). Fundamentally a language is none of these things, but it can be used as any of these things and is the product of our use of media to construct messages. We use language, within media, to construct messages, such as definitions and dictionaries) that construct language. We invent and evolve language as a product of our communication.
As for messages, they reiterate all of these constituents. Every message is a partial and incomplete precis of the language that it is constructed with, the medium it is created in and consumed from, and the person who created it. Every message we consume allows us to learn a little more about the language that we interpret with, the medium we create and consume messages in, and the person who created the message. Every message we create is an opportunity to change and extend the language we use, evolve the media we use, and influence the perspective that consumers of our messages have of us. Yet fundamentally, a message is simply a message, an attempt to communicate something we imagine such that another person can correctly intepret the message and thus imagine the same thing.
This welter of intersecting McLuhanesque/Burkean metaphors and interdependencies provides a second source of the models name. This model seeks, more than anything, to position language and media as the intermediate building blocks on which communication is built. The position of language as a building block of messages and and communication is well understood. Over a century of study in semantics, semiotics, and linguistics have produced systematic theories of message and language production which are well understood and generally accepted. The study of language is routinely incorporated into virtually all programs in the field of communication, including journalism, rhetoric and speech, film, theater, broadcast media, language arts, speech and hearing sciences telecommunications, and other variants, including departments of "language and social interaction". The positioning of the study of media within the field of communication is considerably more tenuous. Many departments, including most of those named in this paragraph, focus almost entirely on only one or two media, effectively assuming the medium such that the focus of study can be constrained to the art of message production and interpretation, with a heavy focus on the languages of the medium and little real introspection about what it means to use that medium in preference to another or the generalized ways in which all media are invented, learned, evolved, socialized, selected or used meaningfully.
Such is, however, the primary subject matter of the newly emerging discipline of media ecology, and this model can be seen as an attempt to position media ecology relative to language and messages as a building block of our communication. This model was created specifically to support theories of media and position them relative to the process of communication. It is hoped that the reader finds value in that positioning.

Conclusion: Theoretical and Pedogogical Value

Models are a fundamental building block of theory. They are also a fundamental tool of instruction. Shannon's information theory model, Weiner's Cybernetic model, and Katz' two step flow each allowed allowed scholars decompose the process of communication into discrete structural elements. Each provides the basis for considerable bodies of communication theory and research. Each model also provides teachers with a powerful pedagogical tool for teaching students to understand that communication is a complex process in which many things can, and frequently do, go wrong; for teaching students the ways in which they can perfect different skills at different points in the communication process to become more effective communicators. But while Shannon's model has proved effective across the primary divides in the field of communication, the other models Katz' and Weiner's models have not. Indeed, they in many ways exemplify that divide and the differences in what is taught in courses oriented to interpersonal communication and mass communication.
Weiner's cybernetic model accentuates the interactive structure of communication. Katz' model accentuates its production structure. Students of interpersonal communication are taught, through the use of the interactive/cybernetic and transactive models that attending to the feedback of their audience is an important part of being an effective communicator. Students of mass communication are taught, through the intermediary/gatekeeper/two-step flow model, that controlled production processes are an important part of being an effective communicator. The difference is a small one and there is no denying that both attention to feedback and attention to detail are critical skills of effective communicators, but mass media programs focus heavily on the minutiae of production, interpersonal programs focus heavily on the munitiae of attention to feedback. Despite the fact that both teach both message production the languages used in message production, and the details of the small range of media that each typically covers, they discuss different media, to some extent different languages, and different approaches to message production. These differences, far more than more obvious differences like audience size or technology, are the divides that seperate the study of interpersonal communication from mass communication.
The ecological model of communication presented here cannot, by itself, remediate such differences, but it does reconsitute and extend these models in ways that make it useful, both pedogogically and theoretically, across the normal disciplinary boundaries of the field of communication. The author has made good use of the model in teaching a variety of courses within several communication disciplines, including on interpersonal communication, mass media criticism, organizational communication, communication ethics, communication in relationships and communities, and new communication technologies. In introductory Interpersonal Communication classes the model has shown considerable value in outlining and tying together such diverse topics as the social construction of the self, verbal and non-verbal languages, listening, relationship formation and development, miscommunication, perception, attribution, and the ways in which communication changes in different interpersonal media. In an Organizational Communication class the model has proved value in tying comtemporary Organizational models, including network analysis models, satisficing, and Weick's model to key organizational skills like effective presentation, listening, and matching the medium to the goal and the stakeholder. In a communication ethics class it has proved valuable in elaborating the range of participants in media who have ethical responsibilities and the scope of their responsibilities. In a mass media criticism class it has proved useful in showing how different critical methods relate to the process of communication and to each other. In each course the model has proved valuable, not only in giving students tools with which they can decompose communication, but which they can organize the course materials into a cohesive whole.
While the model was originally composed for pedagogical purposes, the primary value for the author has been theoretical. The field of communication encompasses a wide range of very different and often unintegrated theories and methods. Context-based gaps in the field like the one between mass media and interpersonal communication have been equated to those of "two sovereign nations," with "different purposes, different boundaries", "different methods", and "different theoretical orientations" (Berger and Chaffee, 1988), causing at least some to doubt that the field can ever be united by a common theory of communication (Craig, 1999). xxxxx The author repeatedly finds these gaps and boundaries problematic
It may be be that complex model of the communication process that bridges the theoretical orientations of interpersonal, organizational, and mass media perspectives can help to bridge this gap and provide something more than the kind of metamodel that Craig calls for. Defining media directly into the process of communication may help to provide the kind of substrate that would satisfy Cappella's (1991) suggestion we can "remake the field by altering the organizational format", replacing contexts with processes that operate within the scope of media. This perspective does exactly that. The result does not integrate all of communication theory, but it may provide a useful starting point on which a more integrated communication theory can be built. The construction of such theory is the author's primary objective in forwarding this model for your comment and, hopefully, your response.

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