Chapter 1: Introducing Communication

Dr. Amy M. Corey

Communication is the process of creating, interpreting, and negotiating meaning. Communication can be verbal, nonverbal, or textual. It can be aural, visual, or even physical. Although communication occurs in a variety of different ways, it is always a learned behaviour. While most human beings are born with the physical abilities to speak, to hear, to see, and so on, people must learn to communicate through codes, symbols, and systems of language. In this way, communication is a collective practice in which people use symbols to generate and interpret meaning.

Models of Communication

In order to explain the social process of communication, scholars have developed several models. The three most well known models for communication are Linear, Interactional, and Transactional. As West & Turner (2007) explain, each model sheds light on the development of communication, but emphasizes different parts of the communication process. The models provide pictures, or visual representations, of complex interactions. They are useful because they simplify the basic structure of communication and can help us to understand that structure not just verbally, but also visually. Most importantly, they identify the various elements of communication and serve as a kind of map to show how different parts of the communication process are interrelated.

Linear Models

Originally developed by Shannon & Weaver in 1948, this model describes communication as a linear process. (See Figure 1.1.) This model describes how a sender, or speaker, transmits a message to a receiver, or listener. More specifically, the sender is the source of the message. A message may consist of the sounds, words, or behaviours in a communication interaction. The message itself is transmitted through a channel, the pathway or route for communication, to a receiver, who is the target or recipient of the message. There may be obstacles in the communication process, or noise. Noise refers to any interference in the channel or distortion of the message. This is a fairly simple model in which a message is simply passed from sender to receiver.

Shannon and Weaver Model

Figure 1.1:
Shannon and Weaver Model

While the linear model was highly influential during the mid-20th century, this model is perhaps too simple. Its limitations are easy to see if you pause to think about the beliefs about communication, or assumptions, made in this model. First, this model assumes that communication only goes in one direction. Here, a person can be a sender or receiver, but not both. This is problematic because communication in action is more dynamic than the linear model suggests. In action, communication involves a give and take between senders and receivers in which listeners are not simply passive receptacles for a sender’s message. This model is also limited because it provides only one channel for only one message. Finally, it implies that messages themselves are clear-cut with a distinct beginning and a distinct end. However, communication is rarely, if ever, as neat and tidy as a linear model would suggest.

Interactional Models

In the move to a more dynamic view of communication, interactional models follow two channels in which communication and feedback flow between sender and receiver. Feedback is simply a response that a receiver gives to a sender. (See Figure 1.2.) Feedback can be verbal (i.e. “yes”) or nonverbal (i.e. a nod or smile). Most importantly, feedback indicates comprehension. It can help senders know if their message was received and understood. By focusing on flow and feedback, interactional models view communication as an ongoing process.

Interactional Model

Figure 1.2:
Interactional Model

The final feature of this model is the field of experience. The field of experience refers to how environment, experiences, culture, and even heredity can influence how a sender constructs a message. Keep in mind that each person brings a unique field of experience to an interaction. Likewise, each communication interaction is unique. While the interactional model is more dynamic than the linear model, it still contains some limitations. For instance, this model implies that while people can be both senders and receivers, they cannot do so simultaneously. In lived communication, roles are not quite so clear-cut and in fact are much more fluid.

Transactional Models

The transactional is the most dynamic of communication models. One notable feature of this model is the move from referring to people as senders and receivers to referring to people as communicators. This implies that communication is achieved as people both send and receive messages. (See Figure 1.3.) Fundamentally, this model views communication as a transaction. In other words, communication is a cooperative action in which communicators co-create the process, outcome and effectiveness of the interaction. Unlike the linear model in which meaning is sent from one person to another, also unlike the interactional model in which understanding is achieved through feedback, people create shared meaning in a more dynamic process in the transactional model.

Transactional Model

Figure 1.3:
Transactional Model

This model also places more emphasis on the field of experience. While each communicator has a unique field of experience, they must also inhabit a shared field of experience. In other words, communicators must share at least some degree of overlap in culture, language, or environment if people are to communicate at all. This model also recognizes that messages will influence the responses, or subsequent messages, produced in the communication interaction. This means that messages do not stand alone, but instead are interrelated. The principle of interrelation states that messages are connected to and build upon one another. The transactional model forms the basis for much communication theory because (1) people are viewed as dynamic communicators rather than simple senders or receivers, (2) there must be some overlap in fields of experience in order to build shared meaning, and (3) messages are interdependent.

Sidebar 1.1: Research Resources

The transactional understanding of shared meaning has informed variety of communication theories. In general terms, a theory comprises a way of seeing, interpreting, and explaining. A theory is a framework for understanding. It illuminates social practices and helps to make sense of the everyday life-world. Durham & Kellner (2001) suggest that we consider a theory as “a way of seeing, an optic, that focuses on specific subject matter” (3). Think about a theory as an optic or a technology that enhances vision. Just as there are many different communication theories, there are also many different visual technologies. Sunglasses, contacts, or even virtual reality goggles each us help to see in a certain way. For instance, when you put on a pair of glasses, it will cause you to see in a particular way, focusing things near or far depending on the type of lens. In this way, every different theory will require a different way of seeing the world of communication. The most important part of this metaphor is that a particular theory will bring specific aspects of communication into focus yet may blur others. As you work through this book, pay attention to the ways in which a particular perspective illuminates certain elements while leaving others in shadow. Also think about how exploring different theories will provide a more comprehensive look at communication while also allowing you to select those that will be of greatest use for your interests in communication studies.

Theories of Meaning and Representation

Focus: Relationships between signs, meanings, and language systems


Semiotics (or semiology) is the study of signs. In its most basic definition, a sign is anything that carries meaning. In this sense, a sign represents or stands for something other than itself. Semiotics was pioneered by the French philosopher

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). Saussure studied signs scientifically by breaking them down into two parts: a signifier and a signified. A signifier is the actual form of the sign. It may appear as words, images, sounds, etc. For example, as a signifier, the word rose designates a particular flower. The image in Table 1.1 also designates this flower. These are examples of signifiers, or the form that a sign may take.

In contrast, a signified is the meaning that is associated with the form of the signifier. The signified is the meaning that is triggered in your head when you think of the red rose. Think for a moment. What does a red rose signify? Does it “mean” something different than a yellow rose, for example? In many cultures, a red rose signifies passion, whereas a yellow rose signifies friendship. Passion (or friendship), as a conceptual meaning, is the signified. Signifieds are mental representations. Mental representations are never purely individual, but instead comprise “shared conceptual maps” (Hall, 1997, p. 17). Conceptual maps provide a common reference point that enable people to interpret and understand one another.

Photograph from Photographer Carlos Quintero.

Table 1.1:
Signifier: A Rose is a Rose is a Rose. Which one is “Real”?

If a sign consists of both a signifier and a signified, what, then, is the relationship between them? The relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. In other words, there is no necessary connection between a signifier and a signified. There is no “natural” reason that red signifies passion whereas yellow signifies friendship. There may be a connection between the parts of a sign, but the connection is socially, not naturally, determined. In this sense, there is nothing inherent in the colour yellow that connects it to friendship. According to semiotics, all meanings are associations.

Another example of the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified can be found in the word tree. As an English language signifier, tree designates a plant with a wooden trunk, branches, and leaves. However, in Spanish, árbol is the word, or signifier, used to designate the very same signified. Arbre is the French signifier. The same signified can have many different signifiers. Here, the use of different languages also points out that there is no inherent connection between a signifier and a signified. Meanings are associations that are culturally determined.

Furthermore, meanings are always relational. We understand meaning based on similarities to and differences from other signs within a system of signs. Take for example a traffic light. (See Figure 1.6.) “GO” is associated with green whereas “STOP” is associated with red. Hall (1997) explains that in part, this is understood through difference; go is not stop just as green is not red. And of course, there is nothing inherent in the colour green that connects it to the action “GO.” In fact, the colour blue could just as easily designate “GO”. This is a symbolic connection.

Figure 1.6: Meanings are Relational. When ‘green’ means “GO!”

Scholars who study semiotics are interested in both symbolic difference and symbolic association. They study how the placement of signs constructs connections between otherwise unassociated meanings. Most importantly, they point out that a sign’s meaning always depends on its context, or the environment of other signs surrounding it. One of the main areas in which the concept of semiotic association is applied lies in the critique of advertisements. Take for example advertisements for beer. In print, online, and on television, beer ads often use images of slender, beautiful, sexually available women. Visually, these ads juxtapose images of sexuality with images of alcohol. By surrounding signs for alcohol with signs of sexuality, a semiotic association is created between the alcohol and sexual satisfaction. In fact, scholars such as Berger (2007) suggest that consumers never actually purchase the advertised products, but instead consumers purchase the ideas, or associated meanings, present in the advertising image. Using the concept of semiotic association, Berger argues that consumers purchase the promise of sexual satisfaction rather than the actual, particular brand of beer.

Semiotics also offers a detailed vocabulary for understanding and differentiating signs. Much of this vocabulary was developed by 20th century American philosopher C.S. Peirce. He developed definitions and charted the differences between different types of signs. He defined an iconic sign as one that bears a resemblance to what is depicted. A photograph of a rose is considered an iconic sign because it bears a resemblance to a rose (Table 1.1). Likewise, a drawing of a rose is also iconic (Table 1.1). Symbolic signs, like traffic lights discussed above have no necessary relationship between signifier and signified. Symbolic signs carry arbitrary meaning. Finally, unlike a symbolic sign, an indexical sign holds an inherent relationship between a sign and its meaning. For example, if you were to see smoke coming from a mountain ridge, it would indicate that there is a fire. In this sense, it can be said that smoke indexes fire.


The semiotic tradition has had a tremendous impact on larger theories of representation. In his influential work in this area, Stuart Hall (1997) explains this is because, “in language, we use signs and symbols – whether they are sounds, written words, electronically produced images, musical notes, even objects – to stand for or represent to other people our concepts, ideas, and feelings” (Hall, 1997, p. 1, emphasis added). According to Hall, (1 representation is a central communication process by which people make and share meanings, and (2 language is a significant system of representation.

Hall explained this concept in three major approaches, or paradigms, of representation: Reflective, Intentional, and Constituitive. First, the Reflective Paradigm draws upon the metaphor of a mirror. In this view, language functions like a mirror to reflect meanings that exist in objects and in the environment. A key assumption to this approach is that there is one true and unchanging meaning present in an object. Here, meaning is a product of the object itself. This is also called an essentialist viewpoint, or “the conventional view…that ‘things’ exist in the material and natural world; that their material or natural characteristics are what determines or constitutes them; and that they have a perfectly clear meaning, outside of how they are represented” (Hall, 1997, p. 5, emphasis original). However, the Reflective Paradigm is problematic because it focuses on meanings that are simply and objectively observed by people rather than the meanings that are created and exchanged between people.

The second approach is the Intentional Paradigm. According to this view, “words mean what their author intends them to mean” (Hall, 1997, p. 25). An author imposes his or her unique meaning on an audience through the use of language. It is important to keep in mind that while as individual speakers or authors, we each use language to convey unique messages; there is no guarantee that a message will be heard or understood as intended. One of the problems with the intentional approach to representation is that there is no way to account for the fact that different listeners or readers may interpret a sentence, poem, or even a work of art differently.

Finally, Hall explains the constituitive paradigm. Developing the semiotic standpoint, he states that objects, people, and things in and of themselves do not carry meaning. Instead, human beings construct meaning for the environment, events, and objects. This paradigm is closely associated with social constructionism, or the view that reality is a product of communication. How reality is understood at a given social, historical moment is determined by the conventions of communication unique to that moment. Simply put, reality is socially constructed through ongoing and interconnected patterns of representation.

In the constituitive paradigm, “we must not confuse the material world, where things and people exist, and symbolic practices and processes through which representation, meaning and language operate” (Hall, 1997, p. 25). To be clear, constructionists do not deny the physical existence of the world. Instead, they argue that the physical world does not exist meaningfully until it has been represented. Constructionists also recognize that signs always have a material dimension. For instance, there is a material quality to images or letters on paper or as digital impulses on screen or that sounds arise from vocal chords to form speech. The key difference for constructionists lies in that the material world does not present itself objectively to human beings. Rather, we come to know and to understand only through our communication with others.

Systems and Interactional Theories

Focus: Relationships between social structures and social interaction

General Systems Theory

General Systems Theory (GST) is used to study the nature of complex systems. Systems themselves are collections of different elements that work together to form a cohesive unit. GST is applied in a variety of different fields from technology and natural sciences to social sciences. In communication studies, GST has a range of applications, especially in interpersonal and organizational settings. In this view, families and corporations are perfect examples of systems. They are each made up of different elements such as members of a family or divisions of a corporation that interact to form a single unit, or system. GST focuses on how an individual system structures the communication within that system.

In The Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967), Watzlawick, Bavelas, & Jackson emphasize that although every system is unique, all systems consist of two components: objects and attributes. An object refers to the parts of a system. Objects may be members of a family or divisions of a corporation, as noted above. Attributes refer to the qualities of the objects. For instance, individual characteristics or personalities are attributes. Most importantly, the interaction among the objects forms a series of relationships. Relationships tie the individual objects in a system together.

In addition to objects, attributes, and relationships, other fundamental properties of open systems include: wholeness, interdependence, nonsummativity, equifinality, feedback, and circularity. Wholeness refers to the idea that any one part of the system cannot be understood on its own, but only in relation to the other parts of the system. Systems cannot be understood as pieces, but only as a unit. For example, we can learn more about the Sinto family by analyzing their interactions together rather than simply analyzing Pat’s communication behaviours alone. In this way, “family members are not isolated persons, but their relationships among one another must be taken into account in order to fully understand the individuals and the family as a unit” (Littlejohn, 1992, p. 40). Secondly, the parts of a system are interdependent. The concept of wholeness implies that if there is a change or disruption in one part of the system, it will affect the whole system. So, if Pat begins to drink heavily, it will have an impact not only on Pat’s behaviour, but also on the entire Sinto family. In the systems view, Pat’s drinking cannot be isolated because members of a family are interdependent. Nonsummativity names the idea that a system is irreducible. In other words, a system is always more than the sum of its parts. A family as a unit has more value than the total of its individual members. Equifinality refers to the ability of a system to achieve the same goal through different means “because it is the nature of the organization which is determinate” (Watzlawick et al., 1967, p. 127, emphasis added). Essentially, the principle of equifinality offers different explanations for the same outcome. As parents, Pat and Terry Sinto may use a variety of different methods to secure the obedience of their children, Chris and Jessie. Discussion, discipline, or even bribery can all be used to achieve the same result. Likewise, if corporate management wants to increase profit in an organizational system, they may cut budget expenses or increase sales. Either method could achieve the same goal.

Feedback is the information or input received by the system. A system will use the input to self-regulate. Negative feedback helps a system to adapt and to make adjustments. For instance, if Chris and Jessie don’t do household chores, Pat and Terry could use discussion to provide feedback. When Chris and Jessie receive the feedback, they can then make the necessary adjustments to the system (i.e. do the chores). This is considered negative feedback not because it is necessarily harsh or bad, but because it causes a change within the system. In contrast, positive feedback will keep a system going with no change. So, when Chris and Jessie do not do household chores and still receive an allowance, they are receiving positive feedback. As positive feedback, the allowance communicates that there is balance within the system and that no changes need to be made.

Circularity names the principle that systems develop patterns of recurring communication. Recurring patterns in turn structure the communication process for that system. GST brings into focus a cyclical model in which systems are self-perpetuating. Here, a system creates communication, and communication in turn sustains the system. For instance, when Pat begins to drink heavily, Terry complains and nags. When Terry complains and nags, Pat begins to drink heavily. The cycle of drinking/complaining/complaining/drinking forms a self-continuing system. Circularity implies a causal and continuous relationship. (See Figure 1.7.)

Circularity in General Systems TheoryFigure 1.7: Circularity in General Systems Theory
Symbolic Interactionism

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is largely credited with developing Symbolic Interactionism (SI). Although Mead published very little during his lifetime, a collection of his lectures titled Mind, Self, and Society (1934) was published posthumously. This work laid the foundations for SI. SI was named by Mead’s student Herbert Blumer, and continued to be developed throughout the 20th century. SI has been extremely influential in communication studies as well as in sociology. Because it has been so influential, its applications vary widely. Although approaches may vary, the major principles of SI concern (1) the role of symbols, (2) the role of self concept, and (3) the relationship between symbols, self, and society.

(1) Symbols play a significant role in human life and behaviour

SI states that all human life is mediated by symbols and that it is the use of symbols that defines the human experience. In this way, humanity has a symbolic source, not merely a biological one. Thus it can be said that human beings are not born, but instead are made. Secondly, just as humanity is a process, so too, is society itself. Society is the product of human beings using symbols.

(2) Self concept is a significant factor in human life and behaviour

SI emphasizes the importance of agency. Agency is defined as an individual’s ability to act within a social system. It implies that an individual has some degree of choice or independence. SI brings into focus the idea that human beings are actively involved in shaping their own behaviour. Secondly, SI is concerned with the ways in which individuals develop self concept. Self concepts are the “relatively stable set of perceptions people hold about themselves” (West & Turner, 2007, p. 99). They are self-formed identities that develop over time in interaction with others. Self concepts, in turn, provide important motives for behaviour. An individual’s beliefs, values, feelings, and evaluations of themselves affect how they interact with others. Individuals will interpret, monitor and guide their own behaviour according to their ideas and perceptions of themselves.

(3) The relationships between symbols, self, and society

People and groups are influenced by social processes. Simply put, social norms constrain individual behaviour. While individuals have some degree of agency, as noted above, there is always a tension between individual freedoms and societal restraints. Finally, SI argues that social norms and even social structures are created through interaction. Society is neither fixed nor unchanging, but instead is a product of symbolic interaction that is subject to interpretation and (re)construction.

Lively’s (2009) case study used SI to analyze the professionalism of paralegal assistants in private law firms. Drawing from Becker (1970), Lively focused on the way that “the symbol ‘profession’ organizes the way individuals think about work; ‘professional’ and ‘professionalism’ constitute symbols that organize how individuals think about their own and others’ behaviour or status in the workplace…” (Lively, 2009, p. 346). She analyzed how paralegal assistants actively construct professional images of themselves. They do so through a common concept of professionalism, which is defined through displays of competence (knowledge and skills necessary to perform job tasks) and demeanor (appearance, attitude, and manner). Symbolically, the degree of adherence to professionalism affected the paralegal’s self concepts. The degree of adherence to professionalism also constructed a specific corporate culture in private law firms. SI analysis emphasized that the paralegals have a degree of agency, or control over their own behaviour. At the same time, they are also constrained by the norms of professional behaviour in their firm. In the case of paralegal professionalism, people are using symbols to (1) develop a sense of self, (2) to interact with others (e.g. attorneys, paralegals, and clients), and (3) to construct meaning and culture within the law firm itself.

Dr. Mark D. Johns – A Symbolic Interactionism Scholar

People and groups are influenced by symbols and social processes. At the same time, social structure is created through symbolic interaction of people and groups. While this may sound similar to GST, there are important differences between the two theories. At base, GST brings into focus the structure of a system and analyzes how the structure determines behaviour. It is based on the idea that human behaviour is a product of the system to which it belongs. SI inverts that formula and seeks to explain how symbol use creates social structures. In SI, social structures are products, not determinants of interaction

Critical and Cultural Studies
Focus: Relationships between culture, power, and social difference

Critical and Cultural Studies comprise a branch of theory that explores the relationships between culture and power. Research here is based on the ideas that (1) power permeates all social relationships and (2) power finds a material form in cultural practices and artefacts. Power implies access to and control of both people and resources. Power may refer to the control of government, institutions, and even social groups, but for Critical and Cultural research, the concept of power is much more complex. Power refers to any “…social relations of difference and struggle over resources of a material or cultural character” (Casey, Casey, Calvert, French, & Lewis, 2008, p. 216). By referring to the struggle over not just material resources, such as land or money, but also cultural resources, such as meaning and language, these theories bring communication and representation into focus. Secondly, Critical and Cultural Studies point out that “power is not something that is imposed from the top of society down onto its oppressed bottom layers. Power is everywhere…” (Rose, 2007, p. 143). Consequently, a great deal of this research focuses on every day, often taken for granted practices. Forms of popular culture, various media texts, subcultures, and visual images make up the artefacts and data that these researchers analyze. Finally, as Casey et al. point out, the social relations of difference are key to Critical and Cultural Studies because this research also seeks to understand the various ways in which social groups are oppressed. Social groups are often oppressed along lines of class, gender, race, age, and ethnicity. Research here seeks to bring oppression to light in order to analyze and abolish it. It is not just academic, but also practical and political. In this way, Critical and Cultural Studies are dedicated to using scholarship for progressive social change.

Critical Theory

A great deal of work in this area has been influenced by the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883). Class was the form of social difference that most interested him. He considered class division as the most fundamental organizing factor in capitalist society. Marxist theories analyze how people are divided into classes, and how the capitalist ruling class (bourgeoisie) dominates and exploits its workers (proletariat). While class divisions and economic systems are central to understanding Marx, it is also important to distinguish Marxism as a theory from political and economic systems of Communism. Politically, a Communist state relies on a single-party system. Economically, it is based on nationalized industries and the state ownership of property. Communism is a form of government and an economic system that is more narrowly defined than Marxism. Marxist theory is a philosophy that provides a critical analysis of capitalism as well as a theory for social change. In communication studies, Marxist thought has a much wider range of applications, especially because Marx himself was not only concerned with economic production, but also with the production and control of ideas.

For Marx, those who control the means of production control much more than economic flows, they also control the flow of culture, ideas, and values in society. In The German Ideology (1845), Marx writes that “the ideas of the ruling class are, in every age, the ruling ideas: i.e. the class which is the dominant material force in society, is at the same time its dominant intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal has control at the same time over the means of mental production…” (Marx, 1845/1963, p. 93). Simply put, those who control economic production also control cultural production. Because ‘the one who pays the piper calls the tune,’ capitalist forms of culture, art, and media become the bearers of capitalist ideology.

Developing Marxist thought in the 20th century were scholars from The Frankfurt School for Social Research (f. 1923). Scholars such as Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), and Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) were also concerned with the production and distribution of culture and ideology. They argue that public discourse has been eclipsed by private industry and that consumer goods have come to dominate people’s consciousness. Making a distinction between true needs and false needs, they consider unnecessary consumer goods to be false needs. They considered true needs to be the deep, essential needs of human beings. Human beings need to be independent, autonomous, creative participants in the life-world. People need to have a voice in the public sphere and to be active in their own government. However, capitalism has remained strong by inculcating desires for unnecessary cultural commodities. You need only walk into a local Super-Mart to see what the Frankfurt School theorists mean. Take, for example, the dozens of different brands, varieties, and even scents of air fresheners available. Or conduct a web search, where examples of unnecessary commodities abound online. They argue that the proliferation of commodities is distracting and prevents people from fulfilling their true needs for autonomy and creativity. True needs are eclipsed by false needs. Under capitalism, freedom of choice is reduced to the freedom to choose between consumer goods, not between political or economic systems. In this way, the right to make political choices has become less important than the right to make consumer choices.

These theorists were also concerned with the transformation of culture into industry. The process of commodifiction names how a piece of culture such as music or a work of art can become a product whose value lies only in its price rather than in its artistic quality. Some theorists, like Theodor Ardorno, were particularly concerned with popular music. For him, popular music was a product to be bought and sold rather than an authentic work of art or a creative expression. He argued that this was an effect of the mass production techniques used after the industrial revolution. If popular music was to be produced in a standardized way, it would lose its unique artistic qualities. He also argued that by using assembly-line techniques, the production of a musical album was no different than the production of a bar of soap or an automobile. While mass production ensured that a greater number of units could be purchased at a lower price, Adorno argued that profit motives would have negative effects on the artistry of popular music, and culture in general.

He also regarded mass production as a dangerous development because it threatened to break down the traditional cultural hierarchy. This hierarchy values High Culture such as fine art or opera because it is exclusive and refined. It also values Low Culture such as folk music or mendhi (henna tattoos) because they are produced for small, local communities and are therefore unique and authentic. However, these forms of culture have lost their inherent value as they have become mass-produced. For example, Frankfurt School theorists would argue that Vincent Van Gough’s “The Starry Night” is a work of fine art (an example of High Culture). However, it is degraded when reproduced onto thousands of coffee mugs or refrigerator magnets. Likewise, mendhi has been practiced in many Eastern cultures for centuries (an example of Folk or Low Culture). It, too, has lost unique cultural value because thousands of identical stencils for henna tattoos can now be easily purchased nearly anywhere in the West. Both of these examples show a concern for culture and commodification.

From Critical Theory to Cultural Studies

Marxist and Frankfurt School theories are successful in analyzing the relationships between culture and economy. Clearly, this line of research remains focused on class hierarchy as the most important feature of social difference. However, Critical Theory may not adequately address other categories of social difference such as gender, race, or sexuality. Cultural Studies picks up here by bringing into focus other features of social difference. Additionally, Cultural Studies does not simply critique the dominant or “ruling” ideology, but instead, looks at the struggle between different ideologies. The assumption made here is that society is comprised of different social groups who vie for power through cultural resources. The struggle does not occur on a grand battlefield, but instead the struggle occurs in people’s everyday practices and forms of popular culture. For instance, television viewing, cinema, web surfing, and subcultures of music and fashion are important elements of daily life in many Western cultures. Cultural Studies does not view these as “innocent” amusements, but instead brings into focus the struggles between culture, entertainment, power, and ideology.

Cultural Studies also brings into focus cultures of resistance. For instance, in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), Dick Hebdige analyzed the punk rock movements of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Britain. Viewed in mainstream society as a social problem, Hebdige instead looked at the aggressive, even anarchist bases of punk as an important cultural expression of disenfranchised youth. He argued that punk must be seen in the social context of economic decline and racial unrest. Instead of condemning punk as a menace to society, he explored the complex and dynamic practices by which British youth expressed their disillusion through creating unique styles of music and fashion. Through punk, British youth created a means not just to mark a distinctive identity, but also a political position against the status quo.

Other case studies concerning musical subcultures have focused on diaspora, or the spread of large group migrations as people move outside of their traditional homelands. For instance, Bennett (2002, 2001/2005) analyzed how East Indian youth transformed bhangra, a form of Punjabi folk music. As many Indian families settled in large Western cities including Toronto, London, and New York, they were forced to negotiate tensions between tradition and assimilation. Indian diasporic youth responded by mixing the traditional bhangra style with other genres of music such as techno, pop, rap, and reggae. These practices created “…a means for young Asians to construct new identities which both reflect their cultural roots while at the same time articulating new cultural sensibilities based on their experiences growing up in Britain” (Bennett, 2001/2005, p. 105), Canada, and U.S.A, respectively. By creating a new musical subculture, East Indian youth found a way of honouring their heritages while also carving out an identity distinct to a younger generation.

Ethnicity and identity are important topics in this field. Cultural Studies research also focuses on how people use popular culture to create, or even claim, identity. Claiming generally refers to white middle class youth who take up cultural practices that are outside of their own ethnic upbringing. For example, many teens have adopted an ethnic identity through the music, dance, fashion, and slang popular in hip-hop and Latino cultures. Nell Bernstein (2006) calls the phenomena “goin’ gangsta” or “choosin’ cholita.” The phenomena have even been parodied on television programs such as The Simpsons and South Park as well as in films such as Malibu’s Most Wanted. For many teens, ethnicity is the “spice” that livens up the dish of mainstream white culture. bell hooks (1999) has called this process “eating the Other.” Here, white youth metaphorically consume Other cultures when claiming an ethnic identity. This line of thought analyzes white privilege and takes a critical stance on power and racism.

These examples of Cultural Studies research focus on subculture and resistance, as well as power and ethnicity. Yet other research in Cultural Studies has been heavily influenced by Feminist Theory. These studies bring issues of gender and sexuality into focus. Much work here examines negative or narrowly stereotyped representations of women in television, film, advertisements, and other forms of popular culture. For instance, in Dreamworlds: Desire, Sex, and Power (1991, 1995, 2008), Sut Jhally analyzed the ways in which women are portrayed in music video. In a detailed investigation, he identified the roles of women as highly sexualized and argued that through these representations women are symbolically annihilated. Symbolic annihilation refers to the ways in which women are absent, trivialized, or otherwise marginalized. His critique seeks to open a dialogue about these issues and to combat stereotypes. As this body of work continues to grow, greater attention is also being paid to issues of masculinity. (See Chapter 4: Gendered Communication) Ultimately, this branch of Cultural Studies works to open up definitions of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality as well as to work toward creating a more democratic space of representation.

Wrapping It Up

The world of communication is dynamic, complex, and diverse. Its different elements, environments, and expressions will be explored throughout this book. As you work through the various chapters, remember the optical metaphor discussed earlier. Each chapter will provide a unique way of seeing communication by bringing specific aspects into focus. In doing so, the chapters will help you to expand your horizons by illuminating different communication contexts and features. The more perspectives you explore, the better able you will be to develop a richer and more comprehensive understanding of human communication.


Shared Conceptual Maps

Groups of mental labels that describe how mental labels are grouped together or classified. While mental labels do exist inside an individual’s head, they also must be socially determined. In this way, shared conceptual maps provide a common reference point that enable people to think individually yet also to interpret and understand one another collectively.

Critical Theory

This is a branch of research that focuses on the relationships between culture and power. Critical Theory is based in Marxist philosophy and analyzes the control and circulation of ideas within capitalist societies. This research identifies the relationships between culture and economy and focuses on class as the most important feature of social difference.

Cultural Studies

While related to Critical Theory, Cultural Studies also focuses on other features of social difference such as gender, race, sexuality, and ethnicity. This research is concerned with the process in which different social groups vie for power through cultural resources.

General Systems Theory (GST)

GST is used to study the nature of complex systems. It explores the structure of a system by charting out how a system is organized. It views a system as a whole (rather than a sum of its parts) that is circular or self-perpetuating. GST brings into focus the structure of a system and analyzes how the structure determines behaviour. It is based on the idea that human behaviour is a product of the system to which it belongs.

Interactional models of communication

This model follows two channels in which communication and feedback flow between sender and receiver. This model adds the concept of field of experience to the communication process.

Linear model of communication

This model is credited to Shannon & Weaver (1949), and includes a sender (source of message) and receiver. It is a one-way path for communication.

Paradigms of representation

A paradigm is a major approach, or a comprehensive set of ideas that make up a way of viewing the world. The three paradigms of representation are Reflective, Intentional, and Constituitive. Each makes up a unique way of viewing the process of meaning-making.


The study of signs. A sign is anything that stands for something else. Semiotic studies are concerned with the relationship between a sign and its meaning. They take a sign apart to see how meanings are associated with signs and how systems of signs shape the social construction of meaning.

Transactional Models

These models move away from referring to people as senders and receivers to referring to people as communicators. Fundamentally, this model views communication as a transaction – a cooperative action in which communicators co-create the process, outcome and effectiveness of the interaction.

Understanding This Chapter

  1. One of the basic tenets of communication theory is that one “cannot, not communicate.” Do you think this is true? Why or why not?
  2. There are three basic models of communication discussed in this chapter. Do you think that it is time to develop a fourth model? Perhaps one that addresses the interactivity of digital and internet communication? What would it look like? Can you draw it?
  3. Is Marxist theory still relevant to today’s society? Why or why not?
  4. Multiple Online Games like Fortnite are virtual worlds where people congregate and interact using avatars. If you were to analyze Fortnite using “Semiotics” would you classify the avatars as signifiers? signifieds? signs? symbols? Perhaps they are none of these?



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For Further Reading

Anderson, J.A. (1996). Communication theory: Epistemological foundations. New York: Guilford Press.

Audi, R. (Ed.) (1995). The Cambridge dictionary of philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. A. Lavers (trans.) London: Paladin Books.

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Bennett, A. (2000). Popular music and youth culture: Music, identity and place. London: Macmillan.

Berger, P.L., & Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor Books.

During, S. (2005). Cultural studies. New York: Routledge.

Griffin, E. M. (2009). A First look at communication theory (7th ed.) New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hall, S. (1986). On postmodernism and articulation: An interview with Stuart Hall. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 10, (2), 45-60.

Hoggart, R. (1958). The uses of literacy. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Manis, J., & Meltzer, B. (Eds.) 1978. Symbolic Interaction Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Strinati, D. (1995/2001). An Introduction to theories of popular culture. London and New York: Routledge.

von Bertalanffly, L. (1968). General systems theory: Foundations, development, applications. New York: Braziller.

Williams, R. (1976). Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana.

About the Author

Amy M. Corey holds a doctorate in Communication Studies from the University of Denver. Her research focuses on Culture and Communication and she has published critical work on popular culture and online interaction. She teaches a variety of courses, including Communication Theory and Research.



The Evolution of Human Communication: From Theory to Practice Copyright © by Tess Pierce. All Rights Reserved.

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