Communication Theory and Philosophy

Communication Theory and Philosoph

1. Introduction

In their wanderings over a vast terrain which is at the same time living room and wasteland of modern and contemporary history of ideas, the authors have tried to discover what has been made of a concept which has become so influential. We are not what interested in tracing discourse in communications theory. We hope that we made this clear. For one thing, that would not be to our knowledge feasible within the compass of two philosophers. For another, that leaves untouched ills of our and others present and to come. Nor are we particularly interested in what people have thought about what they have thought was happening when they were communicating. That is to say, we are not particularly interested in attempts to splice discourses on communication to theories and concrete practices of communication, be these the practices of one’s own personal life or those of the church, state or syndicate. In as much as some of these attempts have pulled in with the concepts of communication and communications theory some behavior and/or some discourses which we value, we importantly fancy that it would be wise to look into the statuses of communication concepts and theories and see whether these can bear the weight which is now being imposed upon them.

The notion of ‘communication’ is one of the most intensely used expressions in the modern era, be it in examining the affairs of world politics, the daily events and assorted or the revival of olden times in the media of mass communications. Whether it spells out everything and anything under the sun, including fuzzy and vague thinking, or is precise and rigorous, every part of human intellectual life seems to feel the need to use the concept ‘communication’, and the concept is used frequently to assert the importance or otherwise of the intellectual work in question.

2. Key Concepts in Communication Theory

Robert T. Craig, in his essay ‘Communication Theory as a Field,’ explains communication theory as a ‘theoretical field of research, which studies the process of human communication.’ There is a general similarity between how theory is viewed as a science (logical thought process); however, the focus is on the communication process itself and not the development of a theory to understand it. He goes on to give a simplistic model of a ‘sending device’ which encodes a message, which is transmitted via a channel, to a receiving device that decodes the message. This model, and his article, specifically speak about the field of mass communication, and he goes on to explain that there are various sub-processes within the communication process that different theories will reflect on. His model is used mostly as a device to explain the differences in theories to communication students.

While the words ‘communication theory’ represent a vague concept for many people, it has a distinct meaning within the field in the discipline of communication. Traditionally, the term ‘theory’ prescribes a system of the development of logical thought, formed by a consistent set of principles. A theory is always created and collected in an effort to explain, predict, or understand a phenomenon. Thus, communication theories are understood as a set of statements that describe, explain, and predict human communication. They are usually more systematic and specific than common sense understandings and have been generated in response to a unique set of circumstances. This may involve a particular person forming an explanation in response to an event (stimulus from the outside) or, more usually, the theory has been guided by previously existing research.

3. Theories of Communication

Shannon’s theorem gives a precise rendition of what it means for an input to “have a specified want,” and the engineer is interested in transforming this information to use the best commands to change the behavior of the system. This can also be called “given some of the possible things, find the best next thing to do.” The theory provides more powerful ways to apply logic and calculation to determine the best action or message.

This theory is greatly useful for understanding as a system and control engineer’s point of view. It is identical to an engineer designing the input/output characteristics of an electrical circuit. The behavior or messages are inputs, and the system is represented by the channel through which the message travels and outputs. The engineer wants to control the behavior of the system so that the message system has desired characteristics at the output.

The mathematical theory of communication is a way to model information in terms of probability. It was developed by Shannon. Shannon showed that information could be converted to a number of signs or symbols, and later on, he developed the famous Shannon inference and code theorem. He adopted it in the context of data compression, channel coding, etc.

There are many ways to define information in information theory. This paper mainly focuses on digital information. Digital information always has a finite number of different messages. It treats messages like real numbers and talks about the probability of various ways they could occur. Digital information can be represented by a sequence of binary digits (bits). A bit is the amount of data obtained by flipping a coin one time.

Information theory evolved from a communication system (Shannon and Weaver model) to make human communications more understandable, like the telegraph, etc. This theory was proposed by Bell Telephone Company Labs by scientists and electronic engineers. Information is the key idea of this theory. It states that to predict the behavior of a system, information should be present. Its major components are source, transmitter, channel, receiver, and destination.

4. Philosophical Perspectives on Communication

One way in which the field of communication might be said to be going beyond the model of “common sense” is in its increasing emphasis on the philosophical aspects of communication processes. Of central importance has been the resurgence of interest in the nature and function of theory as a specific form of human communication. This theme is central in the work of those writers critical of the scientific orientation of communication research who argue that the theory-practice relationship in communication is problematic because of the narrow and empirical way in which “theory” is conceived by practitioners. Camp has written extensively on the distinction between the narrow technical-rational orientation of most communication research and the more general humanistic idea of theory as a form of imaginative construction embracing the full range of human concerns. A similar point is made by Shotter. He argues that in order to create change in the present world we need a theory that enables us to imagine and describe that world in a different way to the present and one that has the potential to enable us to ‘reconstruct it into another order’. At present to move beyond the empirical and technocratic theories of communication he states that we need a deeper more sustained conversation about the nature of theory and theory-building in the field. Foss too has written on this topic and has identified a trend he regards as “linguistic turn” in communication theory where theory is viewed as a way of talking about things rather than a means of understanding and controlling them. This shift to a more reflexive and self-critical standpoint in theory building provides a clear line of connection with post-modernist writings on communication and offers an alternative to the dominant mode of philosophy of science in communication as in other fields. This is a movement of great significance to communication research but it is arguable that the full implications of the “philosophy of theory” and “theory of theory” for communication research are yet to be realized at a substantive level. The respective roles of theory and metatheory in the communication discipline is a question worthy of serious attention.

5. Applications of Communication Theory and Philosophy

One of the richest seams of application has been the attempt to utilise theories of message production and processing to inform health education and promotion. These efforts have involved using extant theories to inform development of persuasive health messages and campaign materials, and testing effects of such messages with an eye to verifying or refining theory and developing a more cumulative knowledge base. Elaboration likelihood model and related research on heuristics has informed development of messages designed to change attitudes and behaviour. For example, Sherman and Chassin (2017) used dual process models of persuasion to inform development of messages aimed at curbing drinking and driving, and tested efficacy of the messages in field experiments. Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) model was widely used in development of early health communication campaigns, and the importance of health communication has recently led to development of theories specific to addressing health issues, such as the risk perception attitude framework.

A brief review of communication theory helps us see where and when it has been applied in the communication discipline. A large portion of theories are built from, and reflective of, the environment in which they were created. This is true for developmental and social psychological traditions. For example, Primavera and Dillman (1984) developed the theory of question and questionnaire design in the face-to-face context of surveys. This theory, which resulted in a book primarily addressed to survey researchers and questionnaire designers, addressed communication in a verbal, dyadic form. However, there are many contexts and applications of communication theory for which much more can and should be done. The point is especially apparent in consideration of how communication theory has informed communication skills training in areas such as problem solving, decision making, and questioning.

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