Theories of Human Communicaton

When studying human communication, many methods of study can be employed. There are multiple theories from different paradigms that can be used to look at any communication event. These paradigms from which the theories come are the Anglo-American paradigm and the Continental paradigm. Under the Anglo-American paradigm, there are Laws, Rules, and Systems theories. Under the Continental paradigm, there are Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, and Critical Theories. In my opinion, the Continental paradigm, and specifically phenomenology, works best for understanding communication. Through this essay, I hope to explain each of the theories from both paradigms and to demonstrate why phenomenology is the best single method and theory for the study of human communication, as well as explain why no single method of study should be employed, but rather a combination of all of the theories is necessary for sudying human communication.

In order to discuss which theory best fits communication studies, one must first understand each of the theories. The first of the theories I will discuss is the Laws Theory under the Anglo-American paradigm. Charles Berger says that the “basic aim of scientific theory is to provide explanations for observed phenomena” (7). He also states that “If a theory can provide a complete explanation for a phenomenon, it can predict the phenomenon” (Berger 7). This is the basis for the Laws Theory. Dray says that “explanation is achieved, and only achieved, by subsuming what is to be explained under a general law” (qtd. in Berger 8). Under the Covering Law Model described by Dray, there are three explanations. These include the Deductive-Nomological, Deductive-Statistical, and Inductive-Statistical Explanations. The Deductive-Nomological Explanation is divided into the explanandum, which is what the experiment is about, and the explanans, which are the tools and conditions used for the experiment. The explanans is then divided into a statement which contains facts and conditions which are necessary for the explanandum to occur and a statement which expresses a general law. This explanation deals with universal laws (Berger 8). The second explanation is the Deductive-Statistical Explanation. This explanation deals with statistical laws, which “allow us to predict particular collections of events” and is “deductive in nature” (Berger 10). The third explanation is the Inductive-Statistical Explanation. This explanation, according to Berger, attempts to “explain a particular event by employing statistical laws in the explanans” (11). It says that if the premises of a system are true, then its conclusion must be true as well. In other words, the Laws Theory asserts that human communication should be studied just as other hard sciences, such as biology or mathematics, are studied. It also says that human communication can be explained under general laws. All communication follows specific laws and can generate predictions regarding future communication events according to this theory.

Another theory under the Anglo-American paradigm is the Rules theory. The Rules theory is based on the “idea that people operate by rules in language, discourse, and social action” (Littlejohn 84). Shimanoff says that in order for communication to take place, “individuals must share rules for using symbols” (qtd in Littlejohn 84). Rules theorists also believe that actions are intentional. They also tend to believe that “social behavior is structured and organized” (Littlejohn 84). Additionally, there are three approaches to rules. The first of these is the rule-following approach, which says that rules can be seen as “observed behavioral regularities” (Litlejohn 85). The second approach is the rule-governed approach. This approach says that rules should be seen as what should or should not be done in order to achieve a goal. This deals with socially acceptable ways of accomplishing goals. The third approach is the rule-using approach, which is more complex than the other two. This approach acknowledges choices while still saying that rules govern society. It says that people choose which rules to follow and which rules to ignore (Littlejohn 85).

One of the most dominant ways rules are used is through language, such as through the use of grammar. Rules theorists often examine speech acts through the Speech-Act Theory, which says that a speech act implies intentionality. A speech act has meaning. This includes multiple types of speech acts, including an utterance act which is simply the pronunciation of the words, a propositional act which involves stating something the speaker believes to be true, an illocutionary act which is said to fulfill an intention or make a promise, and a perlocutionary act which is meant to affect the receiver’s behavior (Littlejohn 86). Rules theory states that two individuals should share the same rules for symbols and that messages should contain three central properties. These include “relatively independent signs and symbols,” “language as a formal code,” and “relatively interconnected discourse structures” (Littlejohn 83). There are exceptions to all rules, but rules theorists say that human communication follows set rules, but that these rules are weaker than laws.

The third theory under the Anglo-American paradigm is the Systems theory. According to Peter Monge, systems are “interlinked sets of components hierarchically organized into structural wholes which interact through time and space” (20). These systems can be open or closed systems, cybernetic systems, or structural-functional systems. In order to put this theory to use, certain aspects of the system must be identified or determined for it to be classified as an open system. First, the person conducting the analysis of a system must identify all of the components of the system. He or she must then specify how each component of the system relates with other components. After that, he or she must determine what the system is designed to do and how it behaves. He or she must then explain the inputs and outputs of the environment, focusing on how the environment affects the system. This includes both physical and mental aspects of the environment. Finally, the analyst must determine the system’s evolution, taking into account both the history and future of the system. A closed system, on the other hand, has no contact with the environment and thus does not exist in real life because communication does not exist in a vacuum (Monge 22).

Cybernetic systems involve goals set in a control center. The control center then exerts its influence over the system. Feedback is then sent to the control center regarding information affecting the part of the system which is being controlled. The control center then conducts a comparator test, which yields an error signal. Finally, the control center takes corrective action when necessary (Monge 22).

To conduct a Structural-Functional System analysis, the analyst must first identify the system as a whole. Then a property of the system which is essential for the system to survive is identified. The environment surrounding the system must then be identified. The range of the property necessary for the continuation of the system must be specified next. Finally, the analyst must detail how the parts of the system operate together (Monge 22).

These three theories are supported by the Anglo-American paradigm of communication. This paradigm involves numerical analysis of communication events (Class Notes 1/27/11). It also relies on pure experience, which says that “everything that is not verifiable through the senses is left out” (Class Notes 1/20/11). This paradigm holds to traditional ideals of theories. It relies on the scientific method and says that the hypothesis used in the study must be falsifiable (Littlejohn 25). This paradigm is useful in predicting future communication events, but does not leave room for much interpretation. It deals with surface-level communication. It sort of questions the idea of humans having free will, which I dislike. The opposing viewpoint, the Continental paradigm, addresses free will differently, though. This paradigm explores how choices are made and whether we determine our choices or our choices determine us. This paradigm is also much more interpretive than the Anglo-American paradigm. It provides a much deeper understanding of communication. It also uses alternative ideals of theories. Alternative ideals of theories include concepts such as “action is voluntary,” “knowledge is created socially,” “theories reflect the settings and times in which they are created,” “theories affect the ‘Ëœreality’ they are covering,” and “theories are value-laden” (Littlejohn 28). These theories do not create one uniform Truth, but instead allow for multiple truths. I believe that communication is not a hard science, and it is not necessary to reach one single agreement on the meaning of any particular message, because messages have different meanings for all senders and receivers. To attempt to force communication into a box where there is only one Truth destroys the true essence of communication. I prefer this group of theories because they make more sense to me for studying human communication. Communication is vastly different from other sciences, and must be treated as such.

The first theory in the Continental paradigm is Phenomenology. According to Littlejohn, phenomenology is “the study of the knowledge that comes from consciousness, or the way you come to understand objects and events by consciously experiencing them” (Littlejohn 199). He also says that “how you relate to an object determines its meaning for you” (Littlejohn 200). In order to conduct a phenomenological study, the critic must go through three steps; description, reduction, and interpretation. In the description section, the critic should attempt to describe the content and context of the phenomenon. The critic must also bracket out her or his biases in this section. In reduction, the critic must reduce the phenomenon down to its most important, essential parts through imaginative free variation, revelatory phrases, or a hermeneutic circle. Finally in interpretation, the critic should provide a brief discussion of her or his findings in the analysis. Littlejohn states that in phenomenology, the “conscious experience of the individual provides an eye to truth” (Littlejohn 220).

In addition, phenomenology can be broken down into classical, social, and hermeneutic phenomenology. In classical phenomenology, critics must bracket out their biases in order to reach the true essence of a message. Husserl, a classical phenomenologist, believed that, “no conceptual scheme outside of direct experience is adequate for uncovering truth” (Littlejohn 200). Social phenomenology recognizes that critics cannot escape their biases. It recognizes that there is a need to become aware of biases, but it also states that these biases cannot be erased. Littlejohn says that, according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a social phenomenologist, “things do not exist in and of themselves” (Littlejohn 202). This means that critics must recognize their biases but also must recognize that these biases actually give meaning to communication phenomena. Finally, hermeneutic phenomenology says that reduction does not lead to truth. Instead, Heidegger, a hermeneutic phenomenologist, said that “what is most important in human life is the natural experience that inevitably occurs by merely existing in the world” (Littlejohn 204). Phenomenology allows critics to examine multiple parts of a communication phenomenon and to go deeper into the meaning of the phenomenon than other theories we have studied this semester.

The second theory of the Continental paradigm is Hermeneutics. Hermeneutics is the study of understanding, especially that of interpreting action and text. It originated from studying the Bible. This theory includes textual hermeneutics and social or cultural hermeneutics. Textual hermeneutics says that the text “has meanings of its own apart from what any author, speaker, or audience member might mean by it” (Littlejohn 208). Removing the text from the situation in this way is called distanciation. This means that multiple meanings are possible, depending on who reads the text. Cultural hermeneutics, however, involves trying to understand the actions of a group. Thick description involves interpreting behaviors from an insider’s point of view whereas thin description involves describing the behaviors without much interpretation. Ethnography also studies culture from an outsider’s point of view, and performance ethnography involves studying a culture by becoming part of the group. In either cultural hermeneutics or textual hermeneutics, the hermeneutic circle is used to determine meaning. The hermeneutic circle involves analyzing specific parts of a text or event, using these specific parts to determine the overall meaning, and going back and forth from specific to general meaning (Littlejohn 204-215).

In hermeneutics, there are also two types of understanding. The first is understanding, which sees action “as a mere physical occurrence” (Polkinghorne 215). The second is Understanding, which “allows meaning to be known” (Polkinghorne 215). This provides a deeper meaning for a text or action. In order to conduct a hermeneutic analysis, the analyst must first begin with a guess as to the meaning of the text. He or she must then accept the autonomy of the text. He or she must then search for an interpretation that makes the text reasonable. Next, he or she must gain familiarity with the object. A hermeneutic circle is then conducted. Finally, the analyst must show the meaning the text has in terms of the present situation (Class Notes 3/31/11). Texts can also be objective, subjective, or intersubjective, which means that language has meaning both for the individual as well as for a shared group of people.

The third and final category under the Continental paradigm is Critical Theories. All critical social sciences share three essential features. Critical social scientists believe that it is necessary to “understand the lived experience of real people in context,” “examine social conditions and uncover oppressive power arrangements,” and “make a conscious effort to fuse theory and action” (Littlejohn 225). Critical theories involve both structuralism and post-structuralism. Structuralism is “a critique of an imagined structure of social arrangements that truly exist outside human perception and endure over time” (Littlejohn 227). This includes the Marxist theory, which asserts that communication establishes both meaning as well as creates both power and domination. It also says that “the dominant language defines and perpetuates the oppression of marginalized groups” (Littlejohn 228). Additionally, Marxism says that critics are required to create a language which will allow competing ideologies to be heard while revealing the dominant ideology. In an ideal speech situation, anyone should be able to say anything they want while power is distributed equally to all of society.

On the other hand, Poststructuralism “denies the existence of any true enduring social arrangements” (Littlejohn 234). This is part of postmodernism, which teaches that oppressive structures do not last, and that struggles are not set in stone, but are fluid struggles between interests and ideas. Feminism falls under poststructuralism. Feminism “explores the meaning of gender in society,” with gender being a social construct rather than a person’s biological sex (Littlejohn 239). This is divided into Liberal Feminism and Radical Feminism. Liberal feminism simply involves advocacy of equal rights for both men and women. Radical feminism, however, takes this idea much further and completely rejects a patriarchal society. This type of feminism goes to the root of the problem and suggests that a new social structure should be formed. Radical feminists reject anything, such as the idea of competition, that seems to be a male ideal. In the Inclusion stage of feminism, there would be more recognition for women’s contributions to society. In the Revisionist stage, the definitions used for communication are challenged (Littlejohn 239-246).

In my opinion, I believe that the best way to study human communication is to use a combination of all of the theories and to tailor any study to the specific communication event based on the research question (hypothesis). However, I do think that the most appropriate method for most human communication studies is phenomenology. To me, phenomenology makes the most sense of any of the theories. More specifically, I would consider myself a social phenomenologist. Since social phenomenologists not only recognize that people have biases, but also realize that people cannot completely erase their biases, I find myself agreeing with this perspective.

In order to determine which theory is best, I had to determine if each theory generally meets its goals. I also had to determine if the theory was as simple as it could be. I had to determine if everything in the theory is necessary as well (Class Notes 1/27/11). However, I must also recognize that “questioning a theory’s usefulness is wiser than questioning its truthfulness” (Littlejohn 22). I also examined these theories based on their dealing with the problems tackled by discourse analysis as outlined by Scott Jacobs. The first of these is the problem of meaning, which question how humans understand a message. The second is the problem of action, which involves knowing how to communicate in order to accomplish a task or get something done. The third is the problem of coherence, which involves making communication sensible and logical (Littlejohn 83-84). Each theory must be useful in terms of dealing with each of these problems in order to be successful in discourse analysis. These criteria posed a difficult task for me because I can see usefulness in each theory. The main goal of each theory is to analyze human communication, which they all are able to do, although they analyze them quite differently. The Anglo-American theories are meant to understand observations as well as make predictions about the future of the communication event being studied. All of the Anglo-American theories accomplish these goals. The Continental theories attempt to analyze the meaning of communication events, which they do successfully. Therefore, each of the theories can be useful depending upon what the researcher wants to know by looking at communication.

All of these theories can get very technical and branch off into several sub-theories, so none of them are perfect. None of the theories are as simple as they could be or contain only the necessities of the theories. Each of the theories is flawed. I do believe that all of the theories make communication sensible and logical and all could potentially help to accomplish a task or get something done. However, I feel that only the Continental paradigm theories provide meanings for messages. The Anglo-American paradigm only notices patterns and makes predictions for these patterns, but the Continental theories actually provide meaning for communication. Therefore, I feel that the Continental theories are more useful in discourse analysis based on Scott Jacob’s outline.

If I had to choose one theory that I recognize as the best theory for the study of human communication, I would choose phenomenology. Phenomenology seems to be much simpler than the other theories and is easier to understand. It also is an existentialist theory, which addresses free will. This theory recognizes that humans have free will and that we have choices. The laws theory says that humans communicate under a set of laws, the rules theory says that communication is guided by general rules, and critical theories say that things such as culture, gender, or the economy guide our choices. I like phenomenology because it does not define human communication in these strict terms. I like to think that humans are able to make their own decisions based on their own personalities, life experiences, and biases. I think that communication is formed in much the same way. However, laws, rules, and critical theories seem to oppose this viewpoint, so I disagree with them. I also like that phenomenology looks at both the sender and receiver in order to determine meaning. Hermeneutics seems to focus on the receivers of messages, but communication is not possible without both the sender and the receiver. I also do not like the idea of distanciation because I do not think texts should be removed from the situation in which they were created. These situations provide context for the text, so it does not make sense to me to look at something within context, but to remove it from its situation, which provides part of the context.

Although hermeneutics does look at texts within context, it does not do a great job of allowing analysts to realize their biases. In phenomenology, analysts must become aware of their biases in order to determine the true meaning of a text. Although I do not believe that biases can be bracketed out completely, I do find it useful to realize my biases when looking at the meaning of a message. This helps me to gain a deeper understanding of a message. This is why I would consider myself a social phenomenologist.

I also feel that phenomenology is a better theory than systems theory because systems theory leaves many questions unanswered. It merely describes a communication event and places that event within an open, closed, cybernetic, or structural-functional system. However, I do not think that all communication events can be neatly placed in one of these systems, so the theory does not carry over into all areas of communication. For example, systems theory is useful in providing analysis of a group, but phenomenology is much better for analysis of an event such as a movie. It also does not provide meaning for the communication event being studied. Phenomenology does provide meaning, though, so I feel that it is a much more descriptive theory and provides a much deeper look into the communication event than the Anglo-American theories.

Although I prefer phenomenology above the other theories, I do not recognize it as a complete way of studying communication. It is best to involve all of the theories and to pick and choose which theory works best for each individual situation. Denzin says, “No single method is uniformly superior; each has its own special strengths and weaknesses” (qtd. In Polkinghorne 253). I agree with this statement because I do find both strengths and weaknesses in each theory. I find each theory useful for different situations, but I do not find any of the theories useful for every situation. For example, rules theory may be great for conversation analysis in ways that theories such as systems theory may not be, but rules theory would not be as successful in studying a song or poem as phenomenology because the rules for grammar are changed in these events. None of the theories mentioned are complete methods for studying communication, and in order to get the entire picture, researchers would benefit from using each of the theories.

Denzin also suggests using different types of triangulation in order to form a complete picture of human communication. The first of these is theoretical triangulation, which involves using several different theoretical views in order to analyze one set of data. The second is data triangulation, which involves using “multiple sampling strategies” in order to gather data (Polkinghorne 253). The third is investigator triangulation, which involves combining the results of multiple observers. The fourth is methodological triangulation, which is then divided into within-method and between-method. Within-method involves using “varieties of the same method” (Polkinghorne 254). Between-method involves using several different methods in order to study a single problem. Polkinghorne also says that “the very nature of the subject matter of human science suggests the value of combining the results of several systems of inquiry in order to gain a fuller understanding of topics under investigation” (Polkinghorne 255). I agree whole-heartedly with this statement. In order to gain a broad understanding of human communication, researchers must recognize the value in all of the theories. They must also be able to use each of these theories in a combination which will provide the best possible understanding as well as Understanding of a message. This is the only way to gain a full perspective of human communication.

In conclusion, I find value in each theory from both the Anglo-American and Continental paradigms. These include Laws, Rules, and Systems theories, as well as Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, and Critical theories. However, I prefer the Continental paradigm. Although only choosing one of these theories and methodologies to use in communication studies is a difficult task, I do feel that phenomenology provides the best methodology and theoretical backing for understanding symbols and messages. However, in order to answer every question we can about human communication, each of the above-mentioned theories must be used. Human communication is not a hard science, and so I believe that it is perfectly acceptable to use methods other than the Scientific Method in order to study it. Furthermore, I believe that is not only possible, but necessary to do so. By using each theory from the Anglo-American and Continental paradigms, researchers can understand human communication on a surface level, predict future communication events, and give meaning to messages as well as fully Understand them.

Works Cited

Berger, Charles R. “The Covering Law Perspective as a Theoretical Basis for the Study of Human Communication.” Communication Quarterly 25.1 (1997): 7-18. Print.
Class Notes. Communication Theory. Spring 2011.
Littlejohn, Stephen. Theories of Human Communication. 6th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999. 83-100, 199-224. Print.
Monge, Peter R. “The Systems Perspective as a Theoretical Basis for the Study of Human Communication.” Communication Quarterly 25.1 (1997): 19-29. Print.
Polkinghorne, Donald. Methodology for the Human Sciences: Systems of Inquiry. Albany, NY. SUNY Press, 1983. 215-256. Print