Constructivist Communication Theory?
Report from Germany
Nothing is so practical as a good theory! Habermas’ Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns
Kurt Lewin (1981) and Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962)
have been a guide for many Nordic scholars. Al-
This article aims to offer a short overview about the though the latter especially still seems important to-
current debate and theories on communication, me- day, Nordic communication research appears to
dia and culture in Germany. The background for the have turned its interest towards French and British
article is provided by the author’s three-month re- sources of inspiration since the 1980s.
search visit at the “Institut fur Kommunikations- There is probably a variety of reasons for the
wissenschaft und Publizistik” at the University of lack of contact between Nordic and German com-
Münster, which had the purpose to underpin the munication research. One explanation might be the
foundations of the author’s Ph.D.-dissertation about growing linguistic distance: German researchers do
media discourse analysis of the constructions of not publish in English at the same rate as the decline
Germany and Germans in the Danish media1 . This in the use of the German language as a communica-
research in particular aimed to define a perspective tion device in scientific and academic fields. An-
for interpretation in this dissertation, which appears other reason might be the special tradition and his-
to be an alternative to both positivist quantitative tory of German communication research, including
content analysis and qualitative content analysis a very narrow self-perception as “Zeitungswissen-
from the perspective of ideological criticism. schaft”, preventing a more distinct international ori-
Besides my personal interests, I think there is a entation for many years.
variety of reasons, why other Nordic scholars Still, the lack of reception and recognition is re-
should also be interested in German communication markable and even questionable, due to the fact that
research. Both my research visit and this article are German communication research especially in the
furthermore based on my observation of a reciprocal 80s and 90s has had a face lift and new conditions
lack of contact between German and Scandinavian of existence, and thus can offer remarkable progress
media and communication researchers and institu- in both theoretical and applied studies2 . The growth
tions which especially during the 80s and 90s had and differentiation of German communication re-
appeared to be increasing. Surely, we all know search has among other things resulted in an exten-
Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Schweigespirale (1974). sion of the objects of research as well as in an inten-
Surely Gerhard Maletzkes Psychologie der Massen- sified discussion about the theoretical and methodi-
kommunikation (1972) has had a broad reception cal foundations of communication studies.
also in the Nordic countries. In particular Jürgen One final reason for an increased interest in Ger-
man communication research is the correspondence
between central topics in current Nordic and Ger-
Institute for Intercultural Communication and Man- man discussions concerning communication and
agement, Copenhagen Business School, Dalgas media research. The plenary sessions at the 13th
Have 15, DK-2000 Frederiksberg, email@example.com Nordic Conference for Mass Communication Re-
search (Jyväskylä 1997) had two topics for a self- in Denmark and the other Nordic countries: target
critical discussion about the methodological founda- group orientation came into the centre of research
tions of communication research and the ability of interests, which again found its expression in an ex-
Nordic communication research to cope with a new tensive growth of reception studies on micro-level.
mediascape changed by technological progress. However, since the early 1990s at least three areas
Keynote speakers mourned about a proclaimed of concern pressed on the research agenda, needing
conformism in current Nordic communication and discussion and demanding explanation. These areas
media studies, partly resulting from thinking in tra- of concern are:
ditional Cartesian dualisms (Ekecrantz, 1997:11-12)
1. The technological developments, which have re-
and from reading and using the same books (Kivi-
sulted in a new mediascape, where traditional
kuru, 1997:6; Gripsrud, 1997:21). Other keynote
mass media increasingly become replaced by an
speakers (e.g. Jensen, 1997; Fornäs, 1997) asked for
ongoing differentiation of the media system.
a new orientation in communication studies regard-
This does not mean that traditional mass media
ing the technological development and its conse-
no longer exist – but their role in society as pub-
quences for communication by bridging between the
lic space for discussion and debate is changed in
research on information technology, communica-
step with the increase of new (multiple) media
tion, media and culture.
channels. This development is a growing chal-
German communication and media studies have
lenge for all media and communication research-
been confronted with the same kind of questions.
ers and for the diverse theories, models, methods
By presenting the German debate it is my hope that
and criteria for evaluation in mass media re-
Nordic scholars will be inspired to have a look into
widely unknown and unperceived books as well as
methodical attempts to enable communication stud- 2. The blind alley of reception and effect studies:
ies to escape from stated conformism, inner self- Despite intensified efforts during the last two
limitation and lack of diffusion of central concepts decades, the results of these studies are rather
and ideas into and from other scientific disciplines. modest and rarely reach out for more than singu-
The central questions, topics as well as new ideas lar case studies. This, sometimes by proponents
and concepts in the German debate could be highly of reception studies even proudly presented
interesting and relevant for Nordic communication self-limitation, is making it difficult for media
and media research in general, and especially for and communication scholars to gain public ac-
those scholars who for many years have been in- ceptance for their research.
spired by critical theory and its perspective on com-
3. The schism between theory and practice in com-
munication research in principle which, from a
I will begin this project by outlining the develop-
theoretical and analytical point of view argues
ment in German social philosophy and its affect on
for a non-linear understanding of communica-
the field of German communication studies since
tion (e.g. based on semiotic approaches), but
the late 1970s and early 1980s when the majority of
which is difficult to apply in practical planning
Nordic scholars moved their eyes towards Britain.
of communication. Thus one is usually forced to
fall back on the same linear communication
“Stocktaking”: About the Apparent models which are in principle based on the old
Wretchedness of Communication Research Lasswell-formula. These are the same models
that have just been criticised from an analytical
German media and communication studies have ba-
point of view.
sically divided into two historical poles of develop-
ment: on the one hand the Noelle-Neumann-school, In Germany these areas of concern and interest
which has always been strongly influenced by raised a debate about the question, whether German
American positivism and pragmatism. The other communication research is able to cope with the de-
pole – with Adorno, Lazarsfeld, Krakauer, Marcuse, velopments described above. This debate even
Löwenthal or later Habermas as prominent leading broke through the isolation and closed circles of
figures – is the tradition based on critical theory, academic conferences and journals, entering into
which has also been very influential in the Nordic Germany’s leading weekly Die Zeit in 1997. The de-
countries. bate in Die Zeit started with the critique of a retired
During the 80ies German communication re- positivist colleague on current communication re-
search was marked by the same main tendencies as search, where he demanded a renewed self limita-
tion on a core field of interest. In reply to this cri- 1. Step: The Debate between Habermas
tique, a number of Germany’s leading communica- Luhmann
tion researchers answered, that the discipline is
well-equipped to meet the challenges of the future, Looking back on Max Weber’s analysis of moder-
although they acknowledged the dangers in the dif- nity, three concepts characterising social life in mo-
ferentiation of the discipline which make it more in- dernity can be seen in the focus of today’s reading
calculable and confused. Nevertheless, as an indica- (Kneer, 1996:33-34). These are: rationality – which
tion of the dynamics and yielding capacity several is the central concept in Habermas’ theoretical
researchers focused on the discussion of a new work; disciplining – which is the central concept in
constructivist approach to communication. This dis- Foucault’s analysis of power in discourses; and fi-
cussion is acknowledged as the most fruitful contro- nally, differentiation (pluralism) – which is the cen-
versy that German communication research has ever tral concept in Luhmann’s system theory. From this
experienced by most scholars, regardless of whether perspective the three perhaps most fruitful and
they agree with this approach. widely discussed contributions on the grand theory
level of social science of this century can be seen as
putting one of Max Weber’s central aspects of mo-
Towards a Constructivist Science dernity respectively into the centre of their consid-
of Media Culture erations. At the same time Habermas, Foucault and
Since the beginning of the 1980ies constructivist Luhmann share the belief that communication is the
and systemic theories and concepts have experi- key concept in their theoretical buildings to social
enced a broad spreading and reception in several analysis.
scientific disciplines. However, especially in Nordic While a growing influence of Foucault’s discurs-
media and communication research the diffusion of ive thinking could be observed in the Nordic coun-
the constructivist innovation has still not achieved tries during the 1980ies, scientific debate in Ger-
its comprehensive breakthrough3 . many was characterised by the showdown between
Constructivist approaches share the view of the Habermas’ and Luhmann’s view on communication
world as a phenomenon constituted through indi- in particular. As a consequence of this controversy,
viduals (and communication of) socio-cultural a considerable part of German communication re-
potentials of meaning and experiences (cf. Reckwitz search today has based its work on a systemic and/or
& Sievert, 1997:5). It is not a homogeneous ap- constructivist perspective.
proach, but rather differentiated into a variety of By claiming that counter-power can display lo-
different schools of thought and direction4 . In rela- cally by the actions of agents, Foucault adopts a
tion to the field of communication and media re- somewhat middle position between the agents’ the-
search and with regard to the debate in Germany, orist Habermas and the system theorist Luhmann,
two protagonists of constructivist research are of regarding the definition of the relationship between
particular interest. These are Niklas Luhmann, subject and society as well as between action and
whose contributions to systemic constructivism on structure. The German debate between followers of
the level of grand theory is well-known, and Sieg- Habermas on the one hand and supporters of Luh-
fried J. Schmidt, who has been working on a further mann on the other hand was in this sense a debate
development and application of constructivism in between radical poles. The disagreement between
communication theory on the level of middle range the scholars was mainly about a) the definition of
theory. communication and b) the relationship between the
The debate about the apparent wretchedness of individual and the social. These two main topics of
communication research can fundamentally be the debate will be illuminated below:
drawn back to the general discourse about the con-
cept of communication in sociology and social phi- a) The Definition of Communication
losophy. Thus – and with regard to the prominence Habermas views communication as proof that hu-
of Habermas’ approach to communication in the man and social understanding in principle is possi-
Nordic countries – the German Habermas-Luhmann ble. Luhmann, however, claims that communication
debate in the early 80ies can serve as a starting point is an inconsistent event which produces and repro-
for the understanding of the sprouts towards a duces the social. While Habermas is afraid of distor-
constructivist modelling of communication. tions in communication by strategic actions, Luh-
mann sees communication in mortal danger, be- which only one of many possibilities becomes
cause communicants believe to have understood reality (Luhmann, 1975:9).8
each other. Furthermore, whereas Habermas hopes
for understanding by communicative actions, While Jürgen Habermas thinks about communica-
Luhmann views mutual understanding in and by tion as an action and thus defines communication as
communication as an exception from the general a transmission of information, Luhmann defines
impossibility to reach such an understandings5 . communication as a self-referential system. Only
Luhmann (1987:32ff.) thinks that the evolution- communication can communicate (Luhmann, 1988:
ary differentiation of society constantly changes the 884 If.) – with regard to the role of agents, this ulti-
meaning of the single sub-systems in favour of the mately means also that the rational perspective on
media system. Thus media6 gain a growing influence understanding of mediated messages has to be
on socialisation processes and on the production of modified. As we already know from reception re-
individual and social meanings. Modern society is, search, understanding of information does not de-
according to Luhmann, a functionally differentiated pend on a variety of aspects. Thus, the establish-
system, which is constituted by a number of sub- ment of meaning and cognition has, according to
systems (such as science, politics, families) that are Luhmann, to be viewed as construction of reality
partly independent from each other. All these and not as a reflection of reality.
sub-systems are organised according to their own
rules and work on the basis of different mechanisms b) The Individual and the Social
of integration. There is, in contrast to Habermas, no Habermas determines the relationship between the
universality, but a pluralism and variety of different unique (individual) and the common (society) as a
possibilities of choice and selection. As a con- relationship, where rationality is the bridging con-
sequence the meaning of systems can only be identi- cept to define the unique in the common and the
fied in differentiation and selection among different common in the unique. The individual – the unique
possibilities, which is based on border drawing – is underlying social norms. These norms are the
processes in communication between different so- universal rules for the ideal speech situation.
cial systems. Thus communication gets the most Luhmann calls this view naive, because individuals
prominent placement in Luhmann’s theory. Indeed, in his opinion cannot have both a personal and a so-
Luhmann believes that the modern (world-) society cial identity. To him individuals construct reality
and its deepening complexity can only be integrated subjectively. Complying with this understanding,
communicatively by the mass media (cf. Holzer, there are as many realities as cognitive systems. The
1994: 177). viability of these realities can only be tested in con-
The distinction between psychic and social sys- crete self-realisation, but not in proportion to or
tem serves as a key to understanding Luhmann’s compared with a given reality or certain universal
concept of systems. While psychic systems are con- rules, which are independent from the individuals
stituted by conscious connections of minds, social constructions of reality. Communication is not due
systems are based on communicative connections to social norms and rules, but depends on the selec-
which establish borders of meaning potentials that tion of information (cf. Rasmussen, 1993).
cannot be explained comprehensively (Luhmann, The differences between Luhmann and Haber-
1991:9, 18)7 . Both types of systems are established mas have finally consequences for the evaluation of
through co-evolution, in which the one system must communication: To Luhmann inter-subjective un-
be seen as the surroundings of the other (ibid.:92). derstanding is based on both consensus and conflict
Both systems generate and process meaning, but (Luhmann, 1996). Habermas, on the other hand, ad-
they do it in a different manner: psychic systems are vocates the ideal speech situation based on
closed systems because consciousness can only inter-subjective consensus. He distinguishes com-
think but not communicate. Only communication – municative actions aiming at consensus from strate-
social systems – can communicate: gic and conflict orientated actions and ignores in
this way that his own theory results from disagree-
As soon as any communication between hu- ments with other theories (cf. Cederstrøm, 1993:
man beings takes place, social systems arise. 117) .
Because with each communication begins a As mentioned earlier, Luhmann sees the mass
story, which differentiates itself by selections media as playing a central role in the interplay be-
which are interrelated to each other and in tween systems. The self-reference of communica-
tion is founded on an arsenal of topics and concepts “Radical Constructivism” had a decisive influence
which have been established in and by earlier com- in sketching out the ground pillars of such a media
munication. On this background, culture can be de- cultural science. Thus, the central ideas and con-
fined as a knowledge about orientations that directs cepts in “Radical Constructivism” will be presented
processes of selection. All this leads towards new in the next passage.
central questions in media and communication re-
2. Step: Perspectives on Communication
How do the mass media construct reality? Or, in Radical Constructivism
to put it in another way (and related to self-
Referring to Niklas Luhmann’s system theory and
reference): How can we (e.g. as sociologists)
inspired by several other constructivist thinkers
describe the reality as their construction of
(e.g. Carl Friedrich von Weizäcker, Gerhard Roth,
reality? This does not mean: How do the mass
Heinz von Foerster, Ernst von Glasersfeld), a group
media distort reality in the way they reflect
of researchers around Siegfried J. Schmidt devel-
it? This would presuppose an ontological, a
oped a new approach to communication based on
real, an objective access to reality that can be
constructivism. In this approach Schmidt et. al. at-
recognised without construction. . . Scientists
tempt to apply Luhmann’s rather abstract and ge-
can, of course, be of the opinion that they
neralised concept of self-reference on the middle
know the reality better than the one shown in
range level of empirical communication research
the mass media that is obliged to
popularisation. Yet this can only mean that
The first programmatic introduction to commun-
one is comparing its own construction with
ication science or media culture science was a series
another one (Luhmann, 1996:20).
of educational programmes on German radio about
It is not the task of communication and media re- media, communication and constructions of reality
search to criticise communication from the perspec- (DIFUT, 1991/1992), followed by the comprehen-
tive of questionable universal rules, but rather to ob- sive publication Die Wirklichkeit der Medien
serve and analyse media constructions of reality as (Merten, Schmidt & Weißenborn, 1994). The very
well as those collective and social schemes of un- idea of this introduction is to view the media and
derstanding that are behind these constructions communication in general as mediators in an almost
(Luhmann, 1996:193). Cognitive schemes are the symbiotic relationship between the individual and
instruments of oblivion and learning and make the social, where cognitive schemes play the crucial
structural coupling of mass media communication in role in mediation processes:
circular processes possible. The understanding of
mass media depends on cultural schemes, (re-)pro- As socialised members of societies and
duced by the media self. cultures, cognitive systems acquire experien-
When communication is no longer seen as the ces in consensual domains with other living
transmission of information, the classical models systems. These consensual domains consti-
and theories of communication deriving from the tute, and are in turn maintained by language
positivist or the critical tradition must obviously be and collective knowledge in the symbolic ord-
re-evaluated from the constructivist perspective. ers of a culture which constitutes, and is in
This perspective basically distinguishes between turn maintained by communication. The ope-
three historical stages of development for media ration called “construction of realities” thus
theories (e.g. Hünneken, 1995). The first stage pro- takes place in individual cognitive systems
duced theories about the single media (e.g. film according to the socio-cultural orientations
theory, radio theory, theories of the press). The sec- which regulate, reproduce and evaluate
ond stage contained communication theories taking communication and interaction...Media serve
account of the immediate context of a communica- as instruments of socialisation and have an
tive event (e.g. the division between mass and inter- important impact on the staging and commun-
personal communication). The third stage, of icating of emotions. We learn from the media
course, comprehends system theoretical media theo- how to live and how to die. Media shape the
ries emphasising the global question about the me- relationship between culture and memory,
diated conditions for social actions and social real- between social and cultural differentiation and
ity. This group of theories is holistically orientated de-differentiation (Schmidt, 1997a).
and can be labelled as “media culture science”.
Radical Constructivism’s most important argument flected in stimulus-response approaches. In addi-
for an orientation towards cognitive systems in me- tion, reception studies, which in their most outraged
dia and communication research is, that both social version divide the different parts of communications
and media realities are subjective constructions, processes totally from each other and thus unable to
making the repetition of phenomenological pro- explain the co-relationship between communicative
cesses impossible. Thus social reality cannot be rec- agents qua media offers, also appear on this back-
ognised, and social phenomena, such as commun- ground as a reductive perspective.
ication processes, cannot be understood qua linear The constituting principles of stimulus-response
or causal models of transmission, but only by using thinking – “proportionality”9 , “causality”10 and
circular models based on selection (distinction) and “transitivity”11 become in a constructivist approach
self-reference (self-organisation). The analysis of a to communication replaced by the principles of se-
social system (e.g. the media) can only be done in lectivity, reflexivity and emergens. Emergens can be
deference to other social systems. Finally, the analy- understood as a process, in which new qualities
sis of media offers cannot – as in the hermeneutic arise on macro-level because of interactions on
and the semiotic tradition – be done on their own micro-level. These new qualities cannot be ex-
conditions per se, but only in consideration of and plained by the individual aspects characteristic in
deference to the concrete systemic context media of- terms of transmission or causality, but are neverthe-
fers (Schmidt 1997b.3£). less a result of the interplay between these indi-
The context orientation of these basic assump- vidual aspects. For that reason understanding pre-
tions become obvious in the definition of cognition, supposes a reflexivity, making allowance for those
communication, culture and media as dimensional processes of selection that constitute communica-
sub-systems, which constantly determine, condition tion (Schmidt, 1997b: 15).
and influence each other (Schmidt, 1996:7). Conse- Many media practitioners love to define them-
quently, each communication analysis has to take selves as the fourth power in state. According to
account of each of those four dimensions and with their self-images they believe in their duty and abil-
regard to topics like informational content, knowl- ity to mediate real and concrete information (trans-
edge, understanding, sense and meaning. Such a ho- mission, factual reports) about persons, things and
listic analytical design requires also both a struct- actions to their audience (proportionality), which
ural and a genealogical/historical perspective. Not through these reports obtain an idea about what is
to be understood as if each communication analysis going on in the world (causal effect). A construct-
has to comprehend an extensive analysis of each ivist approach on communication views the role of
single aspect of each of the four dimensions. Instead the media differently: Media mediate in first place
each communication analysis has to argue for and (selected) meanings to meet certain already existing
reflect on its selective processes on each of the di- expectations in their audience. These meanings
mensions. from media offers and expectations of the audience
An understanding of communication as the are melted together to ideas, images and schemes of
transmission of information and reproduction of in- things (emergens). In this way the media establish
tended meanings is on the background of these as- relations between the expectations on the part of the
sumptions and this analytical design no longer pos- audience and those fictional images they produce.
sible. The ideas of causality and linearity lying be- Thus talking about the reflection of social reality in
hind classical communication models are replaced mass media cannot be the point. Indeed, media is at
by the concepts of plurality and diversity as the best only able to produce a communicative coher-
jumping-off point of any analytical reflection. Not ence between social and media reality. Still, this
misunderstandings, but rather the analysis of how kind of coherence will always at least be partly
communication succeeds at all despite the inde- based on fiction.
pendence and closure of systems – becomes the fo-
cus of communication research. To produce a media offer that is able to gain
Merten (1993:189ff.) argues that the linear un- consent the product has to comply with social
derstanding of communication can be referred back expectations to semiotic operations, i.e. it has
to Aristoteles, whose ideas have been based on ab- to take account of common conventions and
solute and classifying categories instead of relative common sense knowledge. This normative
and relational categories. Aristotelian Rhetoric in- knowledge is – from an evolutionary point of
troduced intentions and causality into our under- view social knowledge resulting from
standing of communication and both aspects are re- communication, which – from a structural
point of view – is constantly tested and re- The coupling between cognition, media, commun-
assured in communication (Schmidt, 1996:5). ication and culture lead necessarily to an under-
standing of media and communication science as
Media please and satisfy the cultural expectations of media culture science, which has the task to study
their audience by using cognitive schemes and im- the complex inter-relationship and interaction be-
ages they produce by themselves. Here we find the tween the four dimensions cognition, communica-
structural coupling between cognition, media, com- tion, culture and media. These four dimensions can-
munication and culture – and the very difference in not, of course, be dealt with equally comprehen-
relation to classical understanding of media and so- sively, extensively and thoroughly as is usual in the
ciety. In summing up, we can with reference to already existing specific branches and disciplines of
Merten (1993:194f.) underline four advantages of science. Thus selections have to be made with refer-
such an approach to communication: ence to knowledge, understanding, information and
sense. An analysis in media culture science compre-
1) Systems are based on reflexive structures. This hends i.e. selective partial analysis of the cognitive,
enables the analyst to work without causal as- cultural, structural and mediating aspects of com-
sumptions (non-causality problem). munication and their interplay. See Figure 1.
According to Schmidt (1997b:42) such a media
2) Systems can exist in different states (e.g. as or-
culture science focuses on four global areas of inter-
ganisms, technical systems, organisations and in-
est, namely media epistomology, media history, me-
stitutions). Findings and insights on one state
dia culture history and research on intercultural
can be fruitful for all other states (heuristic po-
communication. These areas of interest can be de-
scribed in detail as follows:
3) Systems in different states can be related to each
• Media epistomology, studies diachronic and
other (relational potential).
synchronic possibilities for cognitive and com-
4) Communication stimulates and stabilises all other municative constructions of reality in specific
social systems – and societal systems in particu- media systems or media networks and hybrids.
lar (emergens potential).
media history media offers media institutions media technique
biotic aspects social structures
biography <->psycho- COGNITION COMMUNICATION agency
socio-cultural aspects Common sense
social history history of
natural history of culture social history of culture
Source: Schmidt, 1997b:5.
• Media history studies the history of communica- Leipzig (founded in 1916). Bentele, who is also the
tion, technology and mentality with topics such chairman of the German Association for Commun-
as “war and media technology”, “media and ication, distinguishes basically between a realist and
economy” and “media and the public space”. a constructivist perspective in the current paradigm
of communication research (Bentele, 1993:156ff.).
• Media culture history studies (re-)constructions
The realist position considers the comparison be-
of co-evolution of the media, of communication
tween social reality and journalistic description of
and of cultural programmes as instruments of so-
social reality as possible, whereas the constructivist
cial reproduction. Typical topics of this research
perspective denies that social reality is the ground-
are the history of media art or “media and mod-
ing for journalistic work. According to Bentele, this
position is a challenge for all research, and he criti-
• Research on intercultural communication stud- cises it in order to create simplified polarizations
ies the interaction between cultures, cultural dif- that are even trivial and inconsistent. Trivial he calls
ferentiation, colonisation, identities, etc. the constructivist assumption that all differentia-
tions are not real, but the working result of the ana-
These four global areas, which anticipate the agenda lyst; inconsistent he calls the claim of the construct-
of future research in media culture science and are a ivist school to present a “true” or “right” theory,
consequence of the theoretical assumptions of Radi- whereas this very perspective at the same time de-
cal Constructivism, have, of course, raised an in- nies truth or objectivity as criteria for human cogni-
tense debate. After all, such a frame for future re- tion (ibid.:162). On the background of his critique,
search also delimits the area of media and commun- Bentele presents his own “reconstructivist” ap-
ication studies. In the following section I will give a proach:
critical review of the main arguments in this debate.
Radical Constructivism, applied in commun-
ication science, (cf. Merten/Schmidt/Wei-
3. Step: The Debate about a Constructivist schenberg, 1994) rejects the possibility of
Approach on Communication distortions between social reality and the re-
presentation of it in the media with the cen-
Three types of reactions on constructivist ideas can
tral argument that reality (not only media real-
be identified among German communication and
ity) is a – although not any – subjective con-
media researchers: most German scholars appear to
struction and that social reality cannot be
find this new theoretical perspective that convincing
recognised. From a re-constructivist ap-
so they have chosen to work from this platform on
proach in communication research against
their own. The most negative reaction came from
such a position can be argued: Both levels of
the well established centre of communication re-
reality, the directly accessible social reality
search at the University of Mainz which tradition-
and the likewise directly accessible media
ally was orientated towards American research and
reality (...) can be compared with each other,
which also for years had been the basis of the school
so that there can be drawn conclusions re-
of research around Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Here
garding common and similar structures, regar-
most scholars with professor Hans Mathias Kep-
ding deviations, differences and contradict-
linger insist that media have to transmit reality to
ions between these two levels of reality (Ben-
their audience. This group of scholars meets – al-
though under different political conditions – critical
researchers from the political left insisting on the Bentele also claims that Radical Constructivists nar-
critical ideological perspective in communication row the possibility to criticise journalists because
analysis. Meanwhile, both positions appear to be they, as a result of their basic assumptions, necessar-
rather weak in the scientific discourse. ily reject a distinction between entertainment and
Another position is a more moderate critique high quality journalism (ibid.:161ff.). His own
which attempts to incorporate some of the central re-constructivist approach should be understood as
ideas of the constructivist approach into the tradi- a mediating perspective between the realist and the
tional understanding of communication and the role constructivist position that
of mass media in modern society. Perhaps the most
prominent representative for such a position is ... on the one hand certainly does not theo-
Günter Bentele, professor at Germany’s oldest insti- retically assume representations and neither
tute for communication studies at the University of misunderstands the normative aim that news
have to depict reality adequately and cultural patterns. These schemes and patterns direct
equivalently, but on the other side neither falls individual receptions of media offers and are – from
for a naive constructivism, not seeing at the an analytical point of view – mediating concepts be-
ultimate end that news despite and through all tween the dualism between micro and macro as well
subjective aspects and rules of constructions as between the clean-cut analytical separation of the
describes reality (ibid.: 166). basic elements of communication (text production,
the text itself, text reception).
According to Bentele, such a perspective on com- Furthermore, the schism between linear models
munication enables the analyst of public commun- of communication from the text producers point of
ication processes to take account of the fundamental view, enabling practical communication planning,
principals of observation and cognition (as selec- and semiotic (circular) models of communication
tion, perspective and construction) and also to com- from the analytical point of view, can be deleted by
pare the mediated reconstruction of reality with so- focusing on cognitive and cultural schemes. By pro-
cial reality itself. Conclusively, the analyst can posing a holistic approach, constructivists aim not
evaluate how (exact) the mediated re-construction only at the immediate context of communication but
of reality matches, represents or distorts social real- also at its larger social context, where the traditional
ity – which to Bentele still appears to be one of the principles of proportionality, transitivity and causal-
main tasks for media and communication studies ity are replaced by the principles of selection, re-
(ibid.: 171). flexivity and emergens.
In this sense Bentele offers a Solomon-like With reference to the analysis of media dis-
“both. . . and”-answer to the introductory question courses the constructivist approach offers an attrac-
asked from the constructivist perspective, namely: tive alternative to traditional theoretical perspec-
“Do the media represent reality or do they construct tives on communication. The interpretation of me-
reality?” (Merten, Schmidt & Weischenberg, 1994: dia discourses is no longer based on a comparison
Introduction). Whereas Bentele points at the analy- between the analysts own (allegedly and ostensibly
sis of the concrete setting and context of a commu- more true) constructions of reality and the construc-
nicative event to find an answer to this question, the tions of reality in the media, resulting in a critique
constructivist scholar Schmidt rejects this Solo- of the media for distorting reality. The media have
mon-like attitude. According to him, Benteles ap- no longer the task to represent reality at all – basi-
proach still requires an authority able to decide cally because they would never be able to do so.
whether the media representations of social reality Thus the analysis of constructions of reality in the
are adequate or distorted (Schmidt, 1993:116). Ben- media appears rather to be an analysis of those cog-
tele responds here that he is not referring to a hypo- nitive schemes that reproduce cultural images and
thetical reality which is independent from the ana- thus also reproduce a plurality of constructions of
lyst or observer. To him, reality is a rather pragmatic reality. At the same time Radical Constructivists de-
than a ontological term. The discussion stops at this fend themselves against the reproach of arbitrari-
stage and appears, as far as I can see, to be in a tem- ness, especially with regard to the ability of indi-
porary backwater. vidual agents to decide freely, how media discourses
can be interpreted:
Final Comments Observations will still – first of all in
functional differentiated societies - depend on
The presentation of some of the major thoughts
discourses, i.e. connections of knowledge and
framing a constructivist approach to communication
themes and their specific genres, patterns of
have hopefully already indicated, how its theoretical
presentations and argumentation... The
assumptions are able to respond to the general prob-
individual agent is so to speak a meeting place
lems and areas of concern in current communication
for all limitations and not an autonomous or
studies, mentioned in the beginning of the article.
even arbitrary producer of meaning and sense
The system theoretical departure point offers qua
the concept of differentiation a perspective enabling
to scope and observe, to describe and to analyse cur- On the other hand, constructivist communication
rent changes in mediascape (e.g. the debate about theory has to clarify its position towards the ethical
public service-tv) scientifically. consequences of such a theoretical stand. If the con-
The self-limitations of reception studies are tent of media texts is reality on its own terms and
lifted away by focusing on cognitive schemes and based on its own systemic rules and mechanisms,
and if media no longer can be blamed for not repre- lytical tools e.g. models and methods for empirical
senting social reality, new questions concerning the studies is still rather insufficient. This is especially
political consequences for the role of the media in surprising due to the fact that constructivism can be
democracy and public space arise. Furthermore, the seen as a perspective on social reality that under-
traditional ground for an evaluation of media offers lines the linguistic and discursive nature of social,
(e.g. news) disappears. political and cultural phenomena.
In particular I would argue that the current frame Further work on these aspects will in my opinion
for a constructivist communication theory is short of develop the constructivist perspective to a competi-
a conceptualisation of the role of the text, its form tive approach to traditional linear or circular model-
and content, in the communication process. There ling of communication by offering a convincing
are no models explaining how to analyse text and frame to grasp current tendencies and areas of con-
discourse from a constructivist perspective. In this cern in media and communication studies. In this
sense the often criticised lack of empirical founda- sense, a constructivist communication theory should
tion of systemic and constructivist theories seems not be considered as an entirely new paradigm, but
quite justified12 . I recognised this weakness myself, should rather be seen as a widening frame for the
when I tried to apply the constructivist perspective analysis of communication, implementing earlier
in the analysis of my own data and experienced that perspectives (e.g. the hermeneutical perspective)
the viability of the theory in terms of concrete ana- into a complex and holistic approach.
Notes 2. An action orientated, interpretative social
constructivism, which links the basic idea of a
1. I would like to thank Professor Siegfried J. Schmidt symbolic construction of reality to collective
for his kind professional advice and help during this meaning potentials in schemes of social action.
research visit. The dissertation mentioned is inten- In other words: While reality is constituted by inde-
ded to be finished at the end of 1998. pendent and self-referential systems according to
2. As a result of the general education reforms in the system orientated constructivists, social construc-
70s communication research in Germany diffe- tivists argue the social agents constitute reality by
rentiated into several research disciplines (journa- their actions which are based on a plurality and
lism, media economy, media pedagogy, film- and diversity of cognitive and cultural schemes.
tv-research, communication politics, public rela- 5. Cf. Thyssen (1991) for a further discussion of the
tions, intercultural communication etc.) – mostly Habermas-Luhmann relationship (and their respec-
with their respective courses of study. Whereas there tive references to Talcott Parsons).
have been 10 professorships in communication in all 6. Luhmann uses “media” in a different and more ge-
during the 70s, there are about 100 chairs in neral sense, referring to any device to communicate
Germany today. and distinguishing between language as the basic
3. Beside general introductions and discussions in so- medium for understanding, distributing media (e.g.
cial philosophy (e.g. Thyssen 1991, 1994; Jacobsen print, tv, radio) and other symbolic media, e.g.
1992), in Denmark in particular theology (e.g. power as a political medium or money as an eco-
Götke, 1997), organisational studies (e.g. Dahler- nomic medium (cf. Thyssen, 1991). When speaking
Larsen, 1998) and pedagogic (e.g. Cederstrøm. about the media in this article, I refer to “the media”
Qvortrup ~ Rasmussen, 1993) have put their atten- as a term in communication studies to denote
tion on (Luhmanns) systemic thinking. In Norway, distributing media.
different aspects of the approach have been 7. By claiming so, Luhmann turns his back on his for-
discussed among sociologists in the journal “Socio- mer teacher Talcott Parsons, who believes that social
logi” (e.g. Rasmussen, 1996; Jonhill, 1993) on, and systems are rooted in stable value patterns. The
in Sweden Sverre Moe (1995) has introduced break with Parsons happened when Luhmann turned
Luhmanns theories. his interest towards theories of complexity and the
4. Reckwitz ~ Sievert (1997:5f.) distinguish between concept of autopoeisis (Qvortrup, 1993:29). Theo-
two basic groups of approaches: retical inspiration about selfreferential and auto-
1. A system orientated constructivism which links poeitic systems he aquired from the Chilean
the basic idea of a symbolic construction of real- neuro-biologists Humberto R. Maturana and Fran-
ity with different versions of autopoeitic and cesco J. Varela. Their theory applied to a socio-
self-referential system theory. logical perspective leads to the notion of the
impossibility of communication between human från 13. Nordiska Konferensen för Massekommu-
beings, because their brains or conscious minds are nikationsforskning, pp. 11-16.
unable to communicate. Thoughts and opinions can- Fornäs, Johan (1997) Digitala gränseland. Identitet og
not be transmitted in the same way as e.g. letters or a interaktivitet i kultur, medier och kommunikation.
tv-show and only communication can communicate. Nordicom Information 20(1998)3. Rapport från 13.
8. All quotations from non-Englisch sources are Nordiska Konferensen för Massekommunika-
translated by the author of this article. tionsforskning, pp. 25-28.
9. Proportionality is here defined as the equal transmis- Gripsrud, Jostein (1997) Ti år i bransjen. Fortid, samtid,
sion of information quantities. Research on the fremtid. Nordicom Information 20(1998)3. Rapport
effects of communication is trying to measure those från 13. Nordiska Konferensen för Massekommuni-
quantities. kationsforskning, pp.17-23.
10. Causality refers to the earlier mentioned principle in Gøtke, Povl (1997) Niklas Luhmann. Frederiksberg, Anis.
Aristotelian rhetoric which presupposes that each Habermas, Jürgen (1981) Theorie des kommunikativen
action has concrete causal effects. Stimulus-res- Handelns. (2 Bd.) Frankfurt a.M. Suhrkamp.
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mechanical slip trying to explain reality directly and keit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bür-
linear by causes and effects (representational gerlichen Gesellschaft. Neuwied, Hermann Luchter-
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11. Transivity refers to the transfer of information via a Holzer, Horst (1994) Medienkommunikation. Eine Ein-
medium. führung. Opladen, Westdeutscher Verlag.
12. Qvortrup (1993:43-44) defends the lack of empirical Høyer, Svennik (1991) According to Media Research –
depth in system theory with the argument that Does Mass Communication Work? In: Rønning,
empirical phenomena are taken even more serious in Helge & Lundby, Knut (eds) Media and Commun-
system theory than in any other theory, because they ication. Readings in Methodology, History and
are not just taken for granted. Thus system theory Culture. Oslo, Norwegian University Press.
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