Jacobsons Model Of Communication Essay

Communication Models


What is a Model?

The Advantages of Models

Limitations of Models

Classical Communication Models

Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric

Aristotle’s model of proof

Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation

Early Linear Models

The Shannon-Weaver Mathematical Model, 1949

Berlo’s S-M-C-R, 1960

Schramm’s Interactive Model, 1954

Non-linear Models

Dance’s Helical Spiral, 1967

Westley and MacLean’s Conceptual Model, 1957

Becker’s Mosaic Model, 1968

Multidimensional Models

Ruesch and Bateson,Functional Model, 1951

Barnlund’s Transactional Model, 1970

Suggestions for Communication Models

Systemic Model of Communication, 1972

Brown’s Holographic Model, 1987

A Fractal Model

Suggested Readings


Although adapted and updated, much of the information in this lecture is derived from C. David Mortensen, Communication: The Study of Human Communication (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1972), Chapter 2, “Communication Models.”

A.    What is a Model?

1.     Mortensen: “In the broadest sense, a model is a systematic representation of an object or event in idealized and abstract form. Models are somewhat arbitrary by their nature. The act of abstracting eliminates certain details to focus on essential factors. . . . The key to the usefulness of a model is the degree to which it conforms--in point-by-point correspondence--to the underlying determinants of communicative behavior.”

2.     “Communication models are merely pictures; they’re even distorting pictures, because they stop or freeze an essentially dynamic interactive or transactive process into a static picture.”

3.     Models are metaphors. They allow us to see one thing in terms of another.

B.    The Advantages of Models

1.     They should allow us to ask questions.

Mortensen: “A good model is useful, then, in providing both general perspective and particular vantage points from which to ask questions and to interpret the raw stuff of observation. The more complex the subject matter—the more amorphous and elusive the natural boundaries—the greater are the potential rewards of model building.”

2.     They should clarify complexity.

Models also clarify the structure of complex events. They do this, as Chapanis (1961) noted, by reducing complexity to simpler, more familiar terms. . . Thus, the aim of a model is not to ignore complexity or to explain it away, but rather to give it order and coherence.

3.     They should lead us to new discoveries-most important, according to Mortensen.

At another level models have heuristic value; that is, they provide new ways to conceive of hypothetical ideas and relationships. This may well be their most important function. With the aid of a good model, suddenly we are jarred from conventional modes of thought. . . . Ideally, any model, even when studied casually, should offer new insights and culminate in what can only be described as an “Aha!” experience.

C.    Limitations of Models

1.     Can lead to oversimplifications.

“There is no denying that much of the work in designing communication models illustrates the oft-repeated charge that anything in human affairs which can be modeled is by definition too superficial to be given serious consideration.”

Some, like Duhem’s (1954), believe there is no value in models at all:

We can guard against the risks of oversimplification by recognizing the fundamental distinction between simplification and oversimplification. By definition, and of necessity, models simplify. So do all comparisons. As Kaplan (1964) noted, “Science always simplifies; its aim is not to reproduce the reality in all its complexity, but only to formulate what is essential for understanding, prediction, or control. That a model is simpler than the subject-matter being inquired into is as much a virtue as a fault, and is, in any case, inevitable [p. 280].” So the real question is what gets simplified. Insofar as a model ignores crucial variables and recurrent relationships, it is open to the charge of oversimplification. If the essential attributes or particulars of the event are included, the model is to be credited with the virtue of parsimony, which insists-where everything is equal-that the simplest of two interpretations is superior. Simplification, after all, is inherent in the act of abstracting. For example, an ordinary orange has a vast number of potential attributes; it is necessary to consider only a few when one decides to eat an orange, but many more must be taken into account when one wants to capture the essence of an orange in a prize-winning photograph. abstracting. For example, an ordinary orange has a vast number of potential attributes; it is necessary to consider only a few when one decides to eat an orange, but many more must be taken into account when one wants to capture the essence of an orange in a prize-winning photograph.

Models can miss important points of comparison.Chapanis (1961), “A model can tolerate a considerable amount of slop [p. 118].”

2.     Can lead of a confusion of the model between the behavior it portrays

Mortensen: “Critics also charge that models are readily confused with reality. The problem typically begins with an initial exploration of some unknown territory. . . .Then the model begins to function as a substitute for the event: in short, the map is taken literally. And what is worse, another form of ambiguity is substituted for the uncertainty the map was designed to minimize. What has happened is a sophisticated version of the general semanticist’s admonition that “the map is not the territory.” is not pink because it appears that way on the map, and is not up because it is located near the top of a map.

“The proper antidote lies in acquiring skill in the art of map reading.”

3.     Premature Closure

The model designer may escape the risks of oversimplification and map reading and still fall prey to dangers inherent in abstraction. To press for closure is to strive for a sense of completion in a system.

Kaplan (1964):

The danger is that the model limits our awareness of unexplored possibilities of conceptualization. We tinker with the model when we might be better occupied with the subject-matter itself. In many areas of human behavior, our knowledge is on the level of folk wisdom ... incorporating it in a model does not automatically give such knowledge scientific status. The majority of our ideas is usually a matter of slow growth, which cannot be forced.... Closure is premature if it lays down the lines for our thinking to follow when we do not know enough to say even whether one direction or another is the more promising. Building a model, in short, may crystallize our thoughts at a stage when they are better left in solution, to allow new compounds to precipitate [p. 279].

One can reduce the hazards only by recognizing that physical reality can be represented in any number of ways.

D.    Classical Communication Models

1.     Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric. Ehninger, Gronbeck and : One of the earliest definitions of communication came from the Greek philosopher-teacher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.).

a.      “Rhetoric” is “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Rhetoric 1335b).

b.     Aristotle’s speaker-centered model received perhaps its fullest development in the hands of Roman educator Quintilian (ca. 35-95 A.D.), whose Institutio Oratoria was filled with advice on the full training of a “good” speaker-statesman.



2.     Aristotle’s model of proof. Kinnevay also sees a model of communication in Aristotle’s description of proof:

a.      Logos, inheres in the content or the message itself

b.     Pathos, inheres in the audience

c.      Ethos, inheres in the speaker

3.     Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation. Lloyd Bitzer developed described the “Rhetorical Situation,” which, while not a model, identifies some of the classical components of a communication situation (“The Rhetorical Situation,” Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1 (Winter, 1968):1-15.).

Bitzer defines the “rhetorical situation” as “a complex of persons, events, objects, and relations presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action so as to bring about significant modification of the exigence.”

See more of Bitzer's approach here.

E.    Early Linear Models

1.     The Shannon-Weaver Mathematical Model, 1949

a.      Background

i.       Claude Shannon, an engineer for the Bell Telephone Company, designed the most influential of all early communication models. His goal was to formulate a theory to guide the efforts of engineers in finding the most efficient way of transmitting electrical signals from one location to another (Shannon and Weaver, 1949). Later introduced a mechanism in the receiver which corrected for differences between the transmitted and received signal; this monitoring or correcting mechanism was the forerunner of the now widely used concept of feedback (information which a communicator gains from others in response to his own verbal behavior).

b.     Strengths

i.       This model, or a variation on it, is the most common communication model used in low-level communication texts.
ii.     Significant development. “Within a decade a host of other disciplines—many in the behavioral sciences—adapted it to countless interpersonal situations, often distorting it or making exaggerated claims for its use.”
iii.   “Taken as an approximation of the process of human communication.”
iv.   Significant heuristic value.
1.)   With only slight changes in terminology, a number of nonmathematical schemas have elaborated on the major theme. For example, Harold Lasswell (1948) conceived of analyzing the mass media in five stages: “Who?” “Says what?” “In which channel?” “To whom?” “With what effect?” In apparent elaboration on Lasswell and/or Shannon and Weaver, George Gerbner (1956) extended the components to include the notions of perception, reactions to a situation, and message context.
v.     The concepts of this model became staples in communication research
1.)   Entropy-the measure of uncertainty in a system. “Uncertainty or entropy increases in exact proportion to the number of messages from which the source has to choose. In the simple matter of flipping a coin, entropy is low because the destination knows the probability of a coin’s turning up either heads or tails. In the case of a two-headed coin, there can be neither any freedom of choice nor any reduction in uncertainty so long as the destination knows exactly what the outcome must be. In other words, the value of a specific bit of information depends on the probability that it will occur. In general, the informative value of an item in a message decreases in exact proportion to the likelihood of its occurrence.”
2.)   Redundancy-the degree to which information is not unique in the system. “Those items in a message that add no new information are redundant. Perfect redundancy is equal to total repetition and is found in pure form only in machines. In human beings, the very act of repetition changes, in some minute way, the meaning or the message and the larger social significance of the event. Zero redundancy creates sheer unpredictability, for there is no way of knowing what items in a sequence will come next. As a rule, no message can reach maximum efficiency unless it contains a balance between the unexpected and the predictable, between what the receiver must have underscored to acquire understanding and what can be deleted as extraneous.”
3.)   Noise-the measure of information not related to the message. “Any additional signal that interferes with the reception of information is noise. In electrical apparatus noise comes only from within the system, whereas in human activity it may occur quite apart from the act of transmission and reception. Interference may result, for example, from background noise in the immediate surroundings, from noisy channels (a crackling microphone), from the organization and semantic aspects of the message (syntactical and semantical noise), or from psychological interference with encoding and decoding. Noise need not be considered a detriment unless it produces a significant interference with the reception of the message. Even when the disturbance is substantial, the strength of the signal or the rate of redundancy may be increased to restore efficiency.”
4.)   Channel Capacity-the measure of the maximum amount of information a channel can carry. “The battle against uncertainty depends upon the number of alternative possibilities the message eliminates. Suppose you wanted to know where a given checker was located on a checkerboard. If you start by asking if it is located in the first black square at the extreme left of the second row from the top and find the answer to be no, sixty-three possibilities remain-a high level of uncertainty. On the other hand, if you first ask whether it falls on any square at the top half of the board, the alternative will be reduced by half regardless of the answer. By following the first strategy it could be necessary to ask up to sixty-three questions (inefficient indeed!); but by consistently halving the remaining possibilities, you will obtain the right answer in no more than six tries.”
vi.    Provided an influential yet counter-intuitive definition of communication.
      From Littlejohn, Stephen W. Theories of Human Communication. Second Ed. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1983, p 116.
      Information is a measure of uncertainty, or entropy, in a situation. The greater the uncertainty, the more the information. When a situation is completely predictable, no information is pres­ent. Most people associate information with certainty or knowledge; consequently, this definition from information theory can be con­fusing. As used by the information theorist, the concept does not refer to a message, facts, or meaning. It is a concept bound only to the quantification of stimuli or signals in a situa­tion.
      On closer examination, this idea of informa­tion is not as distant from common sense as it first appears. We have said that information is the amount of uncertainty in the situation. An­other way of thinking of it is to consider infor­mation as the number of messages required to completely reduce the uncertainty in the situa­tion. For example, your friend is about to flip a coin. Will it land heads up or tails up? You are uncertain, you cannot predict. This uncertainty, which results from the entropy in the situation, will be eliminated by seeing the result of the flip. Now let’s suppose that you have received a tip that your friend’s coin is two headed. The flip is “fixed.” There is no uncertainty and therefore no information. In other words, you could not receive any message that would make you predict any better than you already have. In short, a situation with which you are com­pletely familiar has no information for you [emphasis added].
vii. See Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949). For a number of excellent brief secondary sources, see the bibliography. Two sources were particu­larly helpful in the preparation of this chapter: Allan R. Broadhurst and Donald K. Darnell, “An Introduction to Cybernetics and Information Theory,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 51 (1965): 442-53; Klaus Krippendorf, “Information Theory,” in Communication and Behavior, ed. G. Hanneman and W. McEwen (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1975), 351-89.

c.      Weaknesses

i.       Not analogous to much of human communication.
1.)   “Only a fraction of the information conveyed in interpersonal encounters can be taken as remotely corresponding to the teletype action of statistically rare or redundant signals.”
2.)   “Though ’s technical concept of information is fascinating in many respects, it ranks among the least important ways of conceiving of what we recognize as “information.” “
ii.     Only formal—does not account for content
1.)   Mortensen: “Shannon and Weaver were concerned only with technical problems associated with the selection and arrangement of discrete units of information—in short, with purely formal matters, not content. Hence, their model does not apply to semantic or pragmatic dimensions of language. “
2.)   Theodore Roszak provides a thoughtful critique of ’s model in The Cult of Information. Roszak notes the unique way in which defined information:

Once, when he was explaining his work to a group of prominent scientists who challenged his eccentric definition, he replied, “I think perhaps the word ‘information’ is causing more trouble . . . than it is worth, except that it is difficult to find another word that is anywhere near right. It should be kept solidly in mind that [information] is only a measure of the difficulty in transmitting the sequences produced by some information source” [emphasis added]

3.)   As Roszak points out, ’s model has no mechanism for distinguishing important ideas from pure non-sense:

In much the same way, in its new technical sense, information has come to denote whatever can be coded for transmission through a channel that connects a source with a receiver, regardless of semantic content. For ’s purposes, all the following are “information”:

E = mc2

Jesus saves.

Thou shalt not kill.

I think, therefore I am.

Phillies 8, Dodgers 5

‘Twas brillig and the slithy roves did gyre and gimble in the wabe.

And indeed, these are no more or less meaningful than any string of haphazard bits (x!9#44jGH?566MRK) I might be willing to pay to have telexed across the continent.

As the mathematician Warren Weaver once put it, explaining “the strange way in which, in this theory, the word ‘information’ is used .... It is surprising but true that, from the present viewpoint, two messages, one heavily loaded with meaning and the other pure nonsense, can be equivalent as regards information” [emphasis added].

iii.   Static and Linear
1.)   Mortensen: “Finally, the most serious shortcoming of the Shannon-Weaver communication system is that it is relatively static and linear. It conceives of a linear and literal transmission of information from one location to another. The notion of linearity leads to misleading ideas when transferred to human conduct; some of the problems can best be underscored by studying several alternative models of communication.”

2.     Berlo’s S-M-C-R, 1960

a.      Background

i.       Ehninger, Gronbeck and : “The simplest and most influential message-centered model of our time came from David Berlo (Simplified from David K. Berlo, The Process of Communication (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960)):”
ii.     Essentially an adaptation of the Shannon-Weaver model.

b.     Significant after World War II because:

i.       The idea of “source” was flexible enough to include oral, written, electronic, or any other kind of “symbolic” generator-of-messages.
ii.     “Message” was made the central element, stressing the transmission of ideas.
iii.   The model recognized that receivers were important to communication, for they were the targets.
iv.   The notions of “encoding” and “decoding” emphasized the problems we all have (psycho-linguistically) in translating our own thoughts into words or other symbols and in deciphering the words or symbols of others into terms we ourselves can understand.

c.      Weaknesses:

i.       Tends to stress the manipulation of the message—the encoding and decoding processes
ii.     it implies that human communication is like machine communication, like signal-sending in telephone, television, computer, and radar systems.
iii.   It even seems to stress that most problems in human communication can be solved by technical accuracy-by choosing the “right” symbols, preventing interference, and sending efficient messages.
iv.   But even with the “right” symbols, people misunderstand each other. “Problems in “meaning” or “meaningfulness” often aren’t a matter of comprehension, but of reaction, of agreement, of shared concepts, beliefs, attitudes, values. To put the com- back into communication, we need a meaning-centered theory of communication.”

3.     Schramm’s Interactive Model, 1954

a.      Background

Wilbur Schramm (1954) was one of the first to alter the mathematical model of Shannon and Weaver. He conceived of decoding and encoding as activities maintained simultaneously by sender and receiver; he also made provisions for a two-way interchange of messages. Notice also the inclusion of an “interpreter” as an abstract representation of the problem of meaning.
(From Wilbur Schramm, “How Communication Works,” in The Process and Effects of Communication, ed. Wilbur Schramm (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1954), pp. 3-26):

b.     Strengths

i.       Schramm provided the additional notion of a “field of experience,” or the psychological frame of reference; this refers to the type of orientation or attitudes which interactants maintain toward each other.
ii.     Included Feedback
1.)   Communication is reciprocal, two-way, even though the feedback may be delayed.

a.)   Some of these methods of communication are very direct, as when you talk in direct response to someone.

b.)   Others are only moderately direct; you might squirm when a speaker drones on and on, wrinkle your nose and scratch your head when a message is too abstract, or shift your body position when you think it’s your turn to talk.

c.)   Still other kinds of feedback are completely indirect.

2.)   For example,

a.)   politicians discover if they’re getting their message across by the number of votes cast on the first Tuesday in November;

b.)   commercial sponsors examine sales figures to gauge their communicative effectiveness in ads;

c.)   teachers measure their abilities to get the material across in a particular course by seeing how many students sign up for it the next term.

iii.   Included Context
1.)   A message may have different meanings, depending upon the specific context or setting.
2.)   Shouting “Fire!” on a rifle range produces one set of reactions-reactions quite different from those produced in a crowded theater.
iv.   Included Culture
1.)   A message may have different meanings associated with it depending upon the culture or society. Communication systems, thus, operate within the confines of cultural rules and expectations to which we all have been educated.
v.     Other model designers abstracted the dualistic aspects of communication as a series of “loops,” (Mysak, 1970), “speech cycles” (Johnson, 1953), “co-orientation” (Newcomb, 1953), and overlapping “psychological fields” (Fearing, 1953).

c.      Weaknesses

i.       Schramm’s model, while less linear, still accounts for only bilateral communication between two parties. The complex, multiple levels of communication between several sources is beyond this model.

F.     Non-linear Models

1.     Dance’s Helical Spiral, 1967

a.      Background

i.       Depicts communication as a dynamic process. Mortensen: “The helix represents the way communication evolves in an individual from his birth to the existing moment.”
ii.     Dance: “At any and all times, the helix gives geometrical testimony to the concept that communication while moving forward is at the same moment coming back upon itself and being affected by its past behavior, for the coming curve of the helix is fundamentally affected by the curve from which it emerges. Yet, even though slowly, the helix can gradually free itself from its lower-level distortions. The communication process, like the helix, is constantly moving forward and yet is always to some degree dependent upon the past, which informs the present and the future. The helical communication model offers a flexible communication process” [p. 296].

b.     Strengths

i.       Mortensen: “As a heuristic device, the helix is interesting not so much for what it says as for what it permits to be said. Hence, it exemplifies a point made earlier: It is important to approach models in a spirit of speculation and intellectual play.”
ii.     Chapanis (1961) called “sophisticated play:”
The helix implies that communication is continuous, unrepeatable, additive, and accumulative; that is, each phase of activity depends upon present forces at work as they are defined by all that has occurred before. All experience contributes to the shape of the unfolding moment; there is no break in the action, no fixed beginning, no pure redundancy, no closure. All communicative experience is the product of learned, nonrepeatable events which are defined in ways the organism develops to be self-consistent and socially meaningful. In short, the helix underscores the integrated aspects of all human communication as an evolving process that is always turned inward in ways that permit learning, growth, and discovery.

c.      Weaknesses

i.       May not be a model at all: too few variables.
Mortensen: “If judged against conventional scientific standards, the helix does not fare well as a model. Indeed, some would claim that it does not meet the requirements of a model at all. More specifically, it is not a systematic or formalized mode of representation. Neither does it formalize relationships or isolate key variables. It describes in the abstract but does not explicitly explain or make particular hypotheses testable.”
ii.     Generates Questions, but leaves much unaswered.
Mortensen: “For example, does not the helix imply a false degree of continuity from one communicative situation to another? Do we necessarily perceive all encounters as actually occurring in an undifferentiated, unbroken sequence of events? Does an unbroken line not conflict with the human experience of discontinuity, intermittent periods, false starts, and so forth? Is all communication a matter of growth, upward and onward, in an ever-broadening range of encounters? If the helix represents continuous learning and growth, how can the same form also account for deterioration and decay? What about the forces of entropy, inertia, decay, and pathology? And does not the unbroken line of a helix tacitly ignore the qualitative distinctions that inevitably characterize different communicative events? Also, what about movements which we define as utterly wasted, forced, or contrived? Along similar lines, how can the idea of continuous, unbroken growth include events we consider meaningless, artificial, or unproductive? Countless other questions could be raised. And that is the point. The model brings problems of abstraction into the open. “rtificial, or unproductive? Countless other questions could be raised. And that is the point. The model brings problems of abstraction into the open. “

2.     Westley and MacLean’s Conceptual Model, 1957

a.      Background

i.       Westley and MacLean realized that communication does not begin when one person starts to talk, but rather when a person responds selectively to his immediate physical surroundings.
ii.     Each interactant responds to his sensory experience (X1 . . . ) by abstracting out certain objects of orientation (X1 . . . 3m). Some items are selected for further interpretation or coding (X’) and then are transmitted to another person, who may or may not be responding to the same objects of orientation (X,b),


A conceptual model of communication. (Reprinted with permission from Westley and MacLean, Jr., 1957.)

(a) Objects of orientation (X1 ... X) in the sensory field of the receiver (B) are trans­mitted directly to him in abstracted form (XZ ... X3)after a process of selection from among all Xs, such selection being based at least in part on the needs and problems of B. Some or all messages are transmitted in more than one sense (X3m, for example).


(b) The same Xs are selected and abstracted by communicator A and transmitted as a message (x') to B, who may or may not have part or all of the Xs in his own sensory field (X1b). Whether on purpose or not, B transmits feedback (fBA) to A.


(c) The Xs that B receives may result from selected abstractions which are transmitted without purpose by encoder C, who acts for B and thus extends B's environment. C's selections are necessarily based in part on feedback (fBC) from B.


(d) The messages which C transmits to B (x") represent C's selections both from the messages he gets from A (x') and from the abstractions in his own sensory field (X3c, X4), which may or may not be in A's field. Feedback moves not only from B to A (fBA) and from B to C (fBC) but also from C to A (fCA). Clearly, in mass communication, a large number of Cs receive from a very large number of As and transmit to a vastly larger number of Bs, who simultaneously receive messages from other Cs.


b.     Strengths

i.       Accounts for Feedback
ii.     Accounts for a sensory field or, in Newcomb’s (1953) words, “objects of co-orientation.”
iii.   Accounts for non-binary interactions—more than just two people communicating directly.
iv.   Accounts for different modes. E.g. interpersonal vs. mass mediated communication.

c.      Weaknesses

i.       Westley and MacLean’s model accounts for many more variables in the typical communication interaction. It is, however, still two-dimensional. It cannot account for the multiple dimensions of the typical communication event involving a broad context and multiple message.

3.     Becker’s Mosaic Model, 1968

a.      Background

i.       Mortensen: “Becker assumes that most communicative acts link message elements from more than one social situation. In the tracing of various elements of a message, it is clear that the items may result in part from a talk with an associate, from an obscure quotation read years before, from a recent TV commercial, and from numerous other dissimilar situations—moments of introspection, public debate, coffee-shop banter, daydreaming, and so on. In short, the elements that make up a message ordinarily occur in bits and pieces. Some items are separated by gaps in time, others by gaps in modes of presentation, in social situations, or in the number of persons present.”
ii.     Mortensen: “Becker likens complex communicative events to the activity of a receiver who moves through a constantly changing cube or mosaic of information . The layers of the cube correspond to layers of information. Each section of the cube represents a potential source of information; note that some are blocked out in recognition that at any given point some bits of information are not available for use. Other layers correspond to potentially relevant sets of information.”

b.     Strengths (from Mortensen)

i.       It depicts the incredible complexity of communication as influenced by a constantly changing milieu.
ii.     It also accounts for variations in exposure to messages. In some circumstances receivers may be flooded by relevant information; in others they may encounter only a few isolated items. Individual differences also influence level of exposure; some people seem to be attuned to a large range of information, while others miss or dismiss much as extraneous.
iii.   Different kinds of relationships between people and messages cut through the many levels of exposure. Some relationships are confined to isolated situations, others to recurrent events. Moreover, some relationships center on a particular message, while others focus on more diffuse units; that is, they entail a complex set of relationships between a given message and the larger backdrop of information against which it is interpreted.
iv.   It may be useful to conceive of an interaction between two mosaics. One comprises the information in a given social milieu, as depicted in the model; the other includes the private mosaic of information that is internal to the receiver. The internal mosaic is every bit as complex as the one shown in the model, but a person constructs it for himself.

c.      Weaknesses

i.       Even though this model adds a third dimension, it does not easily account for all the possible dimensions involved in a communication event.

G.   Multidimensional Models

1.     Ruesch and Bateson,Functional Model, 1951

a.      Mortensen: “Ruesch and Bateson conceived of communication as functioning simultaneously at four levels of analysis. One is the basic intrapersonal process (level 1). The next (level 2) is interpersonal and focuses on the overlapping fields of experience of two interactants. Group interaction (level 3) comprises many people. And finally a cultural level (level 4) links large groups of people. Moreover, each level of activity consists of four communicative functions: evaluating, sending, receiving, and channeling. Notice how the model focuses less on the structural attributes of communication-source, message, receiver, etc.—and more upon the actual determinants of the process.”

b.     Mortensen: “A similar concern with communicative functions can be traced through the models of Carroll (1955), Fearing (1953), Mysak (1970), Osgood (1954), and Peterson (1958). Peterson’s model is one of the few to integrate the physiological and psychological functions at work in all interpersonal events.”

2.     Barnlund’s Transactional Model, 1970

a.      Background

i.       Mortensen: “By far the most systematic of the functional models is the transactional approach taken by Barnlund (1970, pp. 83-102), one of the few investigators who made explicit the key assumptions on which his model was based.”
ii.     Mortensen: “Its most striking feature is the absence of any simple or linear directionality in the interplay between self and the physical world. The spiral lines connect the functions of encoding and decoding and give graphic representation to the continuous, unrepeatable, and irreversible assumptions mentioned earlier. Moreover, the directionality of the arrows seems deliberately to suggest that meaning is actively assigned or attributed rather than simply passively received.”
iii.   “Any one of three signs or cues may elicit a sense of meaning. Public cues (Cpu) derive from the environment. They are either natural, that is, part of the physical world, or artificial and man-made. Private objects of orientation (Cpr) are a second set of cues. They go beyond public inspection or awareness. Examples include the cues gained from sunglasses, earphones, or the sensory cues of taste and touch. Both public and private cues may be verbal or nonverbal in nature. What is critical is that they are outside the direct and deliberate control of the interactants. The third set of cues are deliberate; they are the behavioral and nonverbal (Cbehj cues that a person initiates and controls himself. Again, the process involving deliberate message cues is reciprocal. Thus, the arrows connecting behavioral cues stand both for the act of producing them-technically a form of encoding-and for the interpretation that is given to an act of others (decoding). The jagged lines (VVVV ) at each end of these sets of cues illustrate the fact that the number of available cues is probably without limit. Note also the valence signs (+, 0, or -) that have been attached to public, private, and behavioral cues. They indicate the potency or degree of attractiveness associated with the cues. Presumably, each cue can differ in degree of strength as well as in kind. “t each end of these sets of cues illustrate the fact that the number of available cues is probably without limit. Note also the valence signs (+, 0, or -) that have been attached to public, private, and behavioral cues. They indicate the potency or degree of attractiveness associated with the cues. Presumably, each cue can differ in degree of strength as well as in kind."

b.     Strengths

Mortensen: “The assumptions posit a view of communication as transactions in which communicators attribute meaning to events in ways that are dynamic, continuous, circular, unrepeatable, irreversible, and complex.”

c.      Weaknesses

Mortensen: “The exception is the assumption that communication describes the evolution of meaning. In effect, the model presupposes that the terms communication and meaning are synonymous and interchangeable. Yet nowhere does the model deal in even a rudimentary way with the difficult problem of meaning. The inclusion of decoding and encoding may be taken as only a rough approximation of the “evolution of meaning,” but such dualistic categories are not particularly useful in explaining the contingencies of meaning.”

H.    Suggestions for Communication Models

1.     A Systemic Model of Communication, 1972

a.      Background

Some communication theorists have attempted to construct models in light of General Systems Theory. The “key assumption” of GST “is that every part of the system is so related to every other part that any change in one aspect results in dynamic changes in all other parts of the total system (Hall and Fagen, 1956). It is necessary, then, to think of communication not so much as individuals functioning under their own autonomous power but rather as persons interacting through messages. Hence, the minimum unit of measurement is that which ties the respective parties and their surroundings into a coherent and indivisible whole.”

b.     A Systemic Communication Model would have to address the following axioms by Watzlawick and his associates (1967).

i.       The Impossibility of Not Communicating
Interpersonal behavior has no opposites. It is not possible to conceive of non-behavior. If all behavior in an interactional situation can be taken as having potential message value, it follows that no matter what is said and done, “one cannot not communicate.” Silence and inactivity are no exceptions. Even when one person tries to ignore the overtures of another, he nonetheless communicates a disinclination to talk.
ii.     Content and Relationship in Communication
All face-to-face encounters require some sort of personal recognition and commitment which in turn create and define the relationship between the respective parties. “Communication,” wrote Watzlawick (1967), “not only conveys information, but ... at the same time . . . imposes behavior [p. 51].” Any activity that communicates information can be taken as synonymous with the content of the message, regardless of whether it is true or false, valid or invalid. . . . Each spoken word, every movement of the body, and all the eye glances furnish a running commentary on how each person sees himself, the other person, and the other person’s reactions.
iii.   The Punctuation of the Sequence of Events
Human beings “set up between them patterns of interchange (about which they may or may not be in agreement) and these patterns will in fact be rules of contingency regarding the exchange of reinforcement” [pp. 273-274].
iv.   Symmetrical and Complementary Interaction
A symmetrical relationship evolves in the direction of heightening similarities; a complementary relationship hinges increasingly on individual differences. The word symmetrical suggests a relationship in which the respective parties mirror the behavior of the other. Whatever one does, the other tends to respond in kind. Thus, an initial act of trust fosters a trusting response; suspicion elicits suspicion; warmth and congeniality encourage more of the same, and so on. In sharp contrast is a complementary relationship, where individual differences complement or dovetail into a sequence of change. Whether the complementary actions are good or bad, productive or injurious, is not relevant to the concept.

2.     Brown’s Holographic Model, 1987

a.      Background

i.       Rhetorical theorist, William Brown, proposed “The Holographic View of Argument” (Argumentation, 1 (1987): 89-102).
ii.     Arguing against an analytical approach to communication that dissects the elements of communication, Brown argued for seeing argument or communication as a hologram “which as a metaphor for the nature of argument emphasizes not the knowledge that comes from seeing the parts in the whole but rather that which arises from seeing the whole in each part.”
iii.   “The ground of argument in a holographic structure is a boundaryless event.”

b.     A model of communication based on Brown’s holographic metaphor would see connections between divided elements and divisions between connections.

3.     A Fractal Model

a.      Background

i.       Polish-born mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot, while working for IBM in the 1960s and 70s, became intrigued with the possibility of deriving apparently irregular shapes with a mathematical formula. "Clouds are not spheres," he said, "mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line." So if these regular geometric forms could not account for natural patterns, what could?
ii.     To solve the problem, Mandelbrot developed the fractal, a simple, repeating shape that can be created by repeating the same formula over and over.

“I coined fractal from the Latin adjective fractus. The corresponding Latin verb frangere means ‘to break’: to create irregular fragments. It is therefore sensible—and how appropriate for our needs!—that, in addition to ‘fragmented’ fractus should also mean ‘irregular,’ both meanings being preserved in fragment.” Benoit Mandelbrot

iii.   Fractal shapes occur everywhere in nature: a head of broccoli, a leaf, a snowflake—almost any natural form. See http://math.bu.edu/DYSYS/explorer/index.html.
iv.   Mandelbrot’s discovery changed computer graphics—by using fractal formulas, graphic engines could create natural-looking virtual landscapes. More importantly, fractal formulas can account for variations in other natural patterns such as economic markets and weather patterns.

v.     Fractals allow for almost infinite density. For example, Mandelbrot considered the deceptively simple question: “How long is the coast line of ?” A typical answer will ignore inlets and bays smaller than a certain size. But if we account for these small coastline features, and then those smaller still, we would soon find ourselves with a line of potentially infinite and constantly changing length. A fractal equation could account for such a line.
vi.  Fractal geometry is in some ways related to chaos theory, the science of finding pattern in apparently random sequences, like a dripping faucet or weather patterns. Chaos theory has been applied to computer-generated landscapes, organizational structures (http://www.cio.com/archive/enterprise/041598_qanda_content.html), and even washing machines. Of course, it has also been applied to economics and the stock market, in particular:
      The stock markets are said to be nonlinear, dynamic systems. Chaos theory is the mathematics of studying such nonlinear, dynamic systems. Does this mean that chaoticians can predict when stocks will rise and fall? Not quite; however, chaoticians have determined that the market prices are highly random, but with a trend. The stock market is accepted as a self-similar system in the sense that the individual parts are related to the whole. Another self-similar system in the area of mathematics are fractals. Could the stock market be associated with a fractal? Why not? In the market price action, if one looks at the market monthly, weekly, daily, and intra day bar charts, the structure has a similar appearance. However, just like a fractal, the stock market has sensitive dependence on initial conditions. This factor is what makes dynamic market systems so difficult to predict. Because we cannot accurately describe the current situation with the detail necessary, we cannot accurately predict the state of the system at a future time. Stock market success can be predicted by chaoticians. Short-term investing, such as intra day exchanges are a waste of time. Short-term traders will fail over time due to nothing more than the cost of trading. However, over time, long-term price action is not random. Traders can succeed trading from daily or weekly charts if they follow the trends. A system can be random in the short-term and deterministic in the long term (http://www.duke.edu/~mjd/chaos/chaos.html).
vii. One key premise in both chaos theory and fractals is "sensitive dependence on initial conditions." One early chaos theorist studying weather patterns stumbled on this when he was using a simple computer program to plot the course of only 12 weather variables. The computer printout ran out of paper, so he noted the status of the variables at an earlier point, stopped the process, replaced the paper and restarted the process at the earlier point. Even though the variables started at the same point, the patterns quickly diverged, demonstrating the similar or even identical initial conditions can lead to radically different outcomes (This story is in James Gleick, Chaos: Making A New Science).

This phenomenon led researchers to talk about "the butterfly effect" to illustrate how a very small change can produce significant changes in a system. The butterfly effect refers to the fact that a butterfly flapping its wings over Beijing can result in a change in the weather patterns in New York two months later.

b.     Applying Fractals to Communication

i.       Like Dance’s Helix, seeing communication as a fractal form allows us to conceptualize the almost infinite density of a communication event.
ii.     Margaret J. Wheatley has attempted to apply Fractal theory and the science of chaos to management. (Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organization from an Orderly Universe.: Berrett-Kohler Publishers, 1992.) You can read some of Wheatley's ideas here.
iii. The significance of this for the topic at hand is this: First, the patterns of complexity in natural systems, of which human beings are a part, is profoundly complex and not easily captured in any formula. Therefore, any predictions about the outcome of these systems are necessarily limited because of the difficulty of being sensitive to initial conditions. A model of communication drawn from fractals and chaos theory would have to reflect this complexity and respond to variations in initial conditions.
iv.   In addition, if we marry the fractal to other mathematical constructs, we can develop an even richer heuristic.
1.)   The mathematician Rudy Rucker, in a way that only mathematicians can, said “Life is a fractal in Hilbert space.” (Mind Tools: The Five Levels of Mathematical Reality (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1987) 248.)
2.)   Hilbert Space is a theoretical multi-dimensional space. Rucker is saying that life is an infinitely variegated entity that exists in multiple dimensions.
3.)   So, we can borrow Rucker’s phrase and say that communication is a fractal in Hilbert space.


1.     Barnlund, D. C. Interpersonal Communication: Survey and Studies. : Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

2.     Chapanis, A. “Men, Machines, and Models,” American Psychologist, 16:113131, 1961.

3.     Deutsch, K. “On Communication Models in the Social Sciences,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 16:356-380, 1952.

4.     Gerbner, G. “Toward a General Model of Communication,” Audio-Visual Communication Review, 4:171-199, 1956.

5.     Kaplan, A. The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science. : , 1964.

6.     Lackman, R. “The Model in Theory Construction,” Psychological Review, 67:113-129, 1960.

7.     Sereno, K. K., and Mortensen, C. D. Foundations of Communication Theory. : Harper & Row, 1970.

8.     Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J., and Jackson, D. Pragmatics of Human Communication. : Norton, 1967.

Models of the Communication Process

Davis Foulger
Research Consultant
Evolutionary Media*
Adjunct Associate Professor
Brooklyn College/CUNY

Draft: February 25, 2004

(additional papers by Davis Foulger)


We teach the same models of communication today that we taught forty years ago. This can and should be regarded as a mark of the enduring value of these models in highlighting key elements of that process for students who are taking the process apart for the first time. It remains, however, that the field of communication has evolved considerably since the 1960's, and it may be appropriate to update our models to account for that evolution. This paper presents the classic communication models that are taught in introducing students to interpersonal communication and mass communication, including Shannon's information theory model (the active model), a cybernetic model that includes feedback (the interactive model, an intermediary model (sometimes referred to as a gatekeeper model of the two-step flow), and the transactive model. It then introduces a new ecological model of communication that, it is hoped, more closely maps to the the range of materials we teach and research in the field of communication today. This model attempts to capture the fundamental interaction of language, medium, and message that enables communication, the socially constructed aspects of each element, and the relationship of creators and consumers of messages both to these elements and each other.


While the field of communication has changed considerably over the last thirty years, the models used in the introductory chapters of communication textbooks (see Adler, 1991; Adler, Rosenfeld, and Towne, 1996; Barker and Barker, 1993; Becker and Roberts, 1992; Bittner, 1996; Burgoon, Hunsaker, and Dawson, 1994; DeFleur, Kearney, and Plax, 1993; DeVito, 1994; Gibson and Hanna, 1992; Wood, 2002) are the same models that were used forty years ago. This is, in some sense, a testament to their enduring value. Shannon's (1948) model of the communication process (Figure 1) provides, in its breakdown of the flow of a message from source to destination, an excellent breakdown of the elements of the communication process that can be very helpful to students who are thinking about how they communicate with others. It remains, however, that these texts generally treat these models as little more than a baseline. They rapidly segue into other subjects that seem more directly relevant to our everyday experience of communication. In interpersonal communication texts these subjects typically include the social construction of the self, perception of self and other, language, nonverbal communication, listening, conflict management, intercultural communication, relational communication, and various communication contexts, including work and family. In mass communication texts these subjects typically include media literacy, media and culture, new media, media industries, media audiences, advertising, public relations, media effects, regulation, and media ethics.

There was a time when our communication models provided a useful graphical outline of a semesters material. This is no longer the case. This paper presents the classic models that we use in teaching communication, including Shannon's information theory model (the active model), a cybernetic model that includes feedback (the interactive model, an intermediary model (sometimes referred to as a gatekeeper model of the two-step flow), and the transactive model. Few textbooks cover all of these models together. Mass Communication texts typically segue from Shannon's model to a two-step flow or gatekeeper model. Interpersonal texts typically present Shannon's model as the "active" model of the communication process and then elaborate it with interactive (cybernetic) and transactive models. Here we will argue the value of update these models to better account for the way we teach these diverse subject matters, and present a unifying model of the communication process that will be described as an ecological model of the communication process. This model seeks to better represent the structure and key constituents of the communication process as we teach it today.

Shannon's Model 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.

Figure 1: Shannon's (1948) Model of the communication process.

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. A 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. A 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. A 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.

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.

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.

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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*an earlier version of this paper was written, published on the web, and used in teaching classes in Interpersonal Communication, while the author was a visiting professor at Oswego State University/SUNY Oswego. It has subsequently evolved into one of the most viewed papers on my web sites, and is routinely viewed many hundreds of times a month.

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