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Communication Theory As a Field. Prof. Robert T. Craig University of Colorado at Boulder Presented to the Russian Communication Association St. Petersburg – 13 June 2006. Introduction. Thank you for allowing me to speak today. It is a great honor.

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communication theory as a field

Communication Theory As a Field

Prof. Robert T. Craig

University of Colorado at Boulder

Presented to the Russian Communication Association

St. Petersburg – 13 June 2006

  • Thank you for allowing me to speak today. It is a great honor.
  • My article, “Communication Theory as a Field” (1999; Russian translation, 2003) is available for you to download from the Web:
    • (English)
    • (Russian)
  • I will summarize the main points of that article and some current thoughts on the subject.
  • Although it draws on ancient as well as modern intellectual traditions, communication theory has only recently become a distinct field of study.
  • In the 20th century, “communication” became an important category in society:
    • The growing power of mass communication and propaganda raised many questions.
    • New professions and industries (media, advertising, public relations, etc.) developed.
    • “Better communication” became the answer to social problems and the key to personal success and happiness.
  • By mid-century, communication was a topic of interest in many academic disciplines.
    • “Communication research” was an interdisciplinary field of social science.
    • The term “communication theory” originated in the 1940s in electrical engineering (information and cybernetics).
    • Social scientists soon expanded “communication theory” to include ideas from cybernetics, social psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, semantics, etc.
  • Now, communication has been established as an academic discipline (courses, textbooks, journals), but “communication theory” remains largely as it was: a collection of ideas without unity.
  • Communication theory can and should become “a coherent field of metadiscursive practice, a field of discourse about discourse with implications for the practice of communication”
  • The goal is “dialogical-dialectical coherence”: not a unified theory, but rather a debate about the practical implications of different theories.
  • The field should be based on two principles:
    • The constitutive metamodel: Theories of communication constitute “communication” as an object of study.
    • Theory as metadiscursive practice: Theories of communication are ways of communicating about communication for practical purposes.
principle 1 the constitutive metamodel
Principle #1: The Constitutive Metamodel
  • The constitutive model of communication: Communication is not only the transmission of information. It is the process by which we constitute a common reality (factual truths, moral norms, group and personal identities, etc.)
  • The reflexive paradox: “Communication” therefore exists as an element of our common reality only as it is constituted in communication.
  • The constitutive metamodel: Theories of communication are specific ways of communicating about communication, thereby constituting the reality of communication.
principle 2 theory as metadiscourse
Principle #2:Theory As Metadiscourse
  • Practical metadiscourse (communication about communication) is a necessary element of communication. For example: saying “please explain” or “I understand” influences a conversation differently.
  • Theoretical metadiscourse: Communication theory is a technical practice of metadiscourse.
    • Theory is communication about communication, but more technically systematic than practical metadiscourse.
    • For example, theories of hermeneutics (interpretation) are systematic, technical extensions of metadiscourse like “please explain” and “I understand”
    • Theories are useful for reflecting on practical problems—that is, they are useful in practical metadiscourse—but only as they are relevant to practice.
theory as metadiscourse continued
Theory As Metadiscourse (Continued)
  • A theory is “relevant” to practice if:
    • Plausible: conforms to common beliefs about communication
    • Interesting: challenges common beliefs about communication
  • For example, the theory of rhetoric is:
    • Plausible because it conforms to common beliefs like “communication is an art that can be learned,” and
    • Interesting because it challenges common beliefs like “the best communication is natural, sincere, and artless”
  • Theories differ practically when they are plausible and interesting in different (possibly contradictory) ways.
    • For example: Buber’s theory of “dialogue” assumes, in contrast to rhetoric, that the best communication is artless.
traditions of communication theory
Traditions of Communication Theory
  • There are several traditions of communication theory
  • Table 1: Traditions of theory are distinguished by:
    • Specific ways of defining communication and problems
    • Specific vocabulary for metadiscourse
    • Plausibility: popular beliefs confirmed
    • Interestingness: popular beliefs challenged
  • Table 2: Topoi (issues) for theoretical debate: How each tradition criticizes each tradition (including self-criticism from within the tradition)
seven traditions
Seven Traditions
  • Rhetorical:Communication is the practical art of discourse.
  • Semiotic: Communication is mediation by signs.
  • Phenomenological: Communication is the experience of dialogue with others.
  • Cybernetic: Communication is the flow of information.
  • Socio-psychological: Communication is the interaction of individuals.
  • Socio-cultural: Communication is the production and re-production of the social order.
  • Critical: Communication is a process in which all assumptions can be challenged.
further thoughts
Further Thoughts
  • Myers (2001) argued that this concept of theory is relativistic.
    • I replied that theories can be evaluated practically (Craig 2001).
  • Russill (2005) proposed pragmatism as an 8th tradition, and argued that my model of the field is essentially pragmatist.
    • I replied that I largely agree! (Craig 2006)
  • My current work investigates:
    • The interaction of theoretical and practical metadiscourse, for example in public arguments about “dialogue.”
    • Other traditions of communication theory that I failed to include, such as Asian traditions.
  • Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory, 9, 119-161.
  • Craig, R. T. (2001). Minding my metamodel, mending Myers. Communication Theory, 11, 133-142.
  • Craig, R. T. (2006). Pragmatism in the field of communication theory. Paper presented to the International Communication Association, Dresden.
  • Myers, D. (2001). A pox on all compromises: Reply to Craig (1999). Communication Theory, 11, 231-240.
  • Russill, C. (2005). The Road Not Taken: William James's Radical Empiricism and Communication Theory. The Communication Review, 8(3), 277-305.