Friday, May 27, 2011

What is Communication

What is Communication

I recently had the opportunity to survey various technical literatures for ideas about the nature of communication. My search started in linguistics, sending an inquiry to an email discussion list. I wanted to identify sets of assumptions that are explicitly stated and are used in building theories.

The overview that resulted has two kinds of parts. The first kind involves various alternative sets of assumptions found in the literature of linguistics, broadly conceived. The various positions within this set are comparable as alternatives, or in the terms of (Kuhn 1970), "commensurable." They form a single collection. There is a more encompassing view, introduced at the end of the paper, in which this collection of positions can be viewed as a single member of a larger collection of incommensurable views of communication. The larger collection is sometimes discussed under an umbrella term – "Communication Theory." This memo touches on both levels.

All who responded to my inquiry (including some rather notable responders), sent references and ideas that are found in some part of the literature of linguistics or closely related fields, including psychology and sociology. I read the references and noted the ideas. The first outcome, a genuine surprise, was the impression that the explicit identification of the nature of communication in the literature is very rare. The literature just seemed to have very few things to say on this particular topic.

To come to this conclusion I had to sort through various concepts. Communicating is seen as a process that predictably has certain kinds of effects. A major reason that people communicate is the aim of producing such effects. For cases in which the process of communication succeeds (i.e. produces the desired effects), the central issue concerning the nature of communication is to identify the nature of these effects, rather than how the effects were produced. We might ask: Are these effects in essence propositions in mind, acts, a shared body of knowledge, or something else?

This sparse characterization of the nature of communication effects stands in contrast to the abundant literature concerning the process of how communication is accomplished. The use of symbols, inference, lexical processes and resources, the formation and interpretation of sound patterns, discourse creation and comprehension, people affecting each other in interpersonal interaction, reading, writing, translation, grammar and a host of other topics each have an abundant literature that covers numerous alternative approaches. The distinction between What is Language and What is A Language is also elaborately discussed, and each one (in different places) is taken as logically prior to the other.

There is a widespread tendency to take the notion of communication for granted, in no need of identification. Similarly, the loaded terms "meaning" and "message" are often used without explanation. It is assumed that communication is easy and the concept of communication is unproblematic. Reddy, in The Conduit Metaphor, shows ways that these assumptions may fail (Reddy 1979). He discusses the common tacit assumptions that arise from the metaphor, including the notion that communication is typically simple and effortless. This assumption is seen as the source of destructive misunderstandings in ordinary interaction. It may be the source of misunderstandings in more technical studies as well.

Recognizing Reddy’s substantial contribution, it is still important to recognize a difference between two questions:
  1. What metaphors are commonly used as starting points in thinking about communication?
  2. What explicit or implicit assumptions are used in forming technical accounts of the nature of communication?
Reddy’s paper is principally about the metaphors, while the question under discussion is principally about theoretical assumptions.

There is a widespread tendency to see communication as exchange or transmission of ideas. Generally, the assumption is implicit. In non-technical contexts it has an established and often unquestioned place, at least in Western culture. In linguistics and other communication sciences the view of communication as exchange is also used, but there is also widespread dissatisfaction with this view.

The roots of the assumption can be traced back through Saussure and Locke, stopping (perhaps for convenience) at Plato. In the light of the narrowness of this assumption, and the flood of reactions against it, one wonders how it could have become so dominant. In this regard it has been genuinely helpful to consider the history of the assumptions. They are shaped not only by the technical issues, such as compatibility of assumptions or the derivation of one set of assumptions from another, but also by social and political factors, such as the conditions that led to the names of nations becoming names of languages.

Another aspect of this dominant view is that technical views of communication using language overwhelmingly focus on the middle regions of interactions, where the "meaning" and the "message" are. Examples include the part of a letter that occurs after the greeting and before the salutation, the part of a dialogue that occurs after the mutual greetings and before the leave taking, or even the part of an email message found after the subject line and before the signature block. In a letter "Dear John: I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. Love, Alice," focus is on "I hate you."

The assumptions that are most often used are commonly called "The Code Model". In my initial inquiry, I identified The Code Model as follows: "Communication is exchange of ideas, and those ideas can be represented as propositions. Further, exchange of an idea from one person to another takes place by encoding the proposition(s) in language, transmitting that encoded linguistic product to another person, and that person decoding the given language and thus recovering (a copy of) the proposition(s)." In this paper we are focusing on the idea exchange part and the possible role of propositions, rather than the role of any code in enabling exchange.

Many approaches to language would say that any sort of decoding is in general insufficient for interpreting or coming to understand an interval of language use that a person has received. Instead, inference of various sorts, including use of context, is seen as a necessary part of this interpretation step.

We should notice that addition of inference does not change the character of the expected result, although it may greatly expand the quantity and import of it. (Inference proceeds from propositions to propositions.) Rather, inference seems simply to change the means by which the result is found. Thus the posited nature of communication, exchange of ideas as represented by propositions, is unchanged.

Along with the focus on middle regions and on the role of propositions, there is a third aspect. This is a focus on language that is declarative or generally expository, along with a focus on how to determine what uses of language are warranted to be called true or false. In various approaches there is also recognition of propositional attitudes, which are stances taken by the language producers toward propositions.

A related issue arises with the use of any non-propositional construct that promises to do things comparable to the suggested roles of propositions. Use of prototypes rather than mathematical set theory is a starting point for one group of such approaches. Conceptually distinct, there are approaches to representation that make extensive use of the word "image." I don’t know whether the nature of communication has been identified explicitly in this literature.

There is another fundamentally different conception coming into more prominence. It involves shared conceptions, in contrast to exchange. It is easiest to explain using an example of dialogue. Suppose someone (A), who is engaged in dialogue with (B), attempts to communicate something (X) to B. They do so by bringing X from the status of being known by A into the status of being mutually known by both A and B. The activity of doing so is a joint activity, including not only the expression of X but also questions, clarifications, expressions of confirmation of understanding and more. Creating mutual knowledge is sometimes called grounding. There are (controversially) distinctive logical operations involved, such as a rule that that if (X is expressed by A, and B does not indicate any difficulty), then (X is grounded), i.e. mutually known by A and B. The participants each maintain an estimate of what is grounded relative to the other participants, and conversation typically operates in a way that makes these estimates converge.

In approaches with this sort of grounding, communication is creation of mutual knowledge, and what is communicated is simply what becomes grounded. There is much more to the subject than I am mentioning.

Another orientation to communication is based on speech acts. Speech act theory and various similar approaches expand the conception of the elementary units of communication so that communication is based on acts rather than propositions. Searle, for example, has said "The unit of linguistic communication is not ... the symbol, word or sentence, but rather the production ... of the symbol, word or sentence in the performance of a speech act." ((Searle 1969), p. 16, quoted in (Clark 1996), p. 137.) Searle’s view has been amended and revised in many ways, but the distinctive notion that the fundamental units of communication consist of acts has generally been retained. One kind of amendment, for dialogue, is to replace the speech act by an act that has two active participants, a "dialogue act."

Treatment of acts as fundamental may lead to a very different understanding of the nature of communication than those cited earlier. This orientation can be reconciled to either a mutual knowledge view or an exchange of ideas view. For example, (Clark 1996) uses both mutual knowledge and speech acts as basic. It is also possible to blend all three, using formal, propositional, truth-valued notations to deal simultaneously with grounding and speech acts. A surprisingly powerful scheme of this sort was presented in (Kamp 1999).

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this search is that it did not encounter, except implicitly, the notion of that which is communicated. In common understanding, after a dialogue is concluded or after a text has been read, the persons involved are affected. The use of language has communicated something. We can readily produce summary statements about what particular things have been communicated (i.e. that John will sell me his car for $3000 or that Gore advocates a selective tax cut.) Promises, beliefs, doubts, accusations or other effects are commonly recognized as representing, in summary form, results of interaction. Yet there seems to be little reflection in the literature of this notion, nor of how participants have been affected, nor of the connection between the words used and the effect produced. Surely this recognition is not really absent in the literature, but my expectation that I would find discussions of it was mistaken.

All of this study suggests to me that there might be a substantial gain from being explicit about these assumptions in our theories. Explicitly identifying such assumptions would help to clarify how they differ from the naive conceptions commonly used. It would also facilitate improvement of the sets of assumptions we use. Making assumptions explicit would illuminate in a new way how various frameworks differ, and it would strengthen the study of how communication happens.

After working through responders’ suggestions and others that came up in the process, I was nearly ready to accept that the state of the literature is as described above. But I was then led to a much broader view, in which definitions of communication are abundant. R. T. Craig’s paper, Communication Theory as a Field (Craig 1999), encompasses a much broader range of approaches, which Craig presents in distinct groups. These groups of approaches (in Kuhn’s terms again) are incommensurable. They function in isolation from each other. Craig characterizes various approaches under six collective terms: rhetorical, semiotic, phenomenological, sociopsychological, sociocultural and critical. He cites (Littlejohn 1992) as giving a schematic overview. (He also includes a seventh term "cybernetic," but that group, under his identification, does not deal substantively with the human source.)

Craig does not treat linguistics as one of the collections of approaches. The collection which is most similar to linguistics is called semiotics. However, semiotics is unrepresentative of linguistics today. He notes (p. 125) that most of these groups tend to define themselves partly by reaction and contrast with the dialectical opposite, the Code Model (which he calls the "transmission model").

In gathering these groups, Craig cites the literature richly. For example, he notes that (Dance 1970) analyzes ninety five definitions of communication from the 1950s and 1960s, and that (Anderson 1996) reviewed seven textbooks of communication theory and found 249 distinct theories mentioned, most only once. So, in this view, definitions of communication are abundant. Of course, it is unlikely that many of these definitions would be applicable as part of any sort of linguistic framework.

Many attempts at various sorts of reconciliation between theories or groups have been made, with discouraging results. Eclectic approaches (of building a theory by selecting parts from various sets) have also generally failed. Craig suggests (p. 135) that the various theoretical groupings are incommensurable because there are conflicts between their epistemologies. A finding in one cannot be seen as a finding in another.

So in Craig’s view, as seems quite credible, definitions of communication are abundant outside of the linguistic neighborhood. I commend his works to your attention; my representation of his paper has necessarily been extremely selective.

Since this is a conference submission, perhaps some personal reactions may be in order.

Imagine a situation in which the object of study is chess games rather than language, in which the rules are not provided but must be identified by study of game transcripts, and the study addresses not only the rules but why particular sorts of moves tend to be chosen. The rules might be fairly easy to discover, but the reasons for choices of moves, and the constraints on choices, might not.

Then imagine the effect of replacing the notion "Here is where they stopped" with clear notions of "Checkmate" and "This player wins" and "Each player wants to win." These are stronger notions of the outcomes of chess games, and of the basis on which players select moves. Making such information available would revolutionize the study.

There are analogies from this fictional exercise to the present. Study of language use is frequently without clear and satisfactory notions either of the outcomes or the status of language use as communication. The disciplines that are labeled as "linguistics" are collectively perhaps the only ones of the "communication sciences" that have the wide array of conceptual power tools necessary to take on a detailed scientific account of human communication. If linguistics does not produce a strong and credible account, perhaps no other discipline will.

Author anonymous


Clark, H. H. (1999). On the origins of conversation. Verbum, 21, 147-161.
Clark, H. H. (1996). Using language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harris, Roy (1980) The Language Makers. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
(Unavailable:) Harris, Roy, ed. -- a new book series 'Communication and Linguistic Theory" , including the first book, also by Harris, entitled "The Language Myth in Western Culture", forthcoming in 2001 from Curzon Press. (a paper by Brian MacWhinney on shared mental spaces (in contrast to exchanged things.)
Reddy, Michael J. (1979). The Conduit Metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language In A. Ortony (eds,). Metaphor and Thought Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 41.
Yokoyama, Olga, The Transactional Discourse Model in Discourse and Word Order, Benjamins, 1987.
Anderson, J. A. (1996). Communication Theory: epistemological foundations. New York: Guilford Press.
Craig, Robert T. (1999). Communication Theory as a Field. Communication Theory 9(2): 119-161.
Dance, F. E. X. (1970). The "concept" of communication. Journal of Communication 20: 201-210.
Harris, Roy, (1996), Signs, Language and Communication, Routledge, New York.
Kamp, Hans, (1999) oral presentation on advances in truth-valued representation of dialogues, Amstelogue: Workshop on the Semantics and Pragmatics of Dialogue, Amsterdam.
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Littlejohn, S. W. (1992). Theories of Human Communication. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Searle, John R. (1969). Speech Acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Searle, John R., (1992), Conversation Reconsidered, in (On) Searle on Conversation, Searle, John R., ed., Pragmatics and Beyond, New Series: vol. 21, John Benjamins.