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:
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
By mid-century, communication was a topic of
interest in many academic disciplines.
―Communication research‖ was an interdisciplinary field of
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:
1. The constitutive metamodel: Theories of
communication constitute ―communication‖ as an
object of study.
2. Theory as metadiscursive practice: Theories of
communication are ways of communicating
about communication for practical purposes.
Principle #1: The
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.
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
A theory is ―relevant‖ to practice if:
1. Plausible: conforms to common beliefs about communication
2. Interesting: challenges common beliefs about communication
For example, the theory of rhetoric is:
1. Plausible because it conforms to common beliefs like
―communication is an art that can be learned,‖ and
2. 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.
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)
1. Rhetorical: Communication is the practical art of
2. Semiotic: Communication is mediation by signs.
3. Phenomenological: Communication is the
experience of dialogue with others.
4. Cybernetic: Communication is the flow of
5. Socio-psychological: Communication is the
interaction of individuals.
6. Socio-cultural: Communication is the production
and re-production of the social order.
7. Critical: Communication is a process in which all
assumptions can be challenged.
Myers (2001) argued that this concept of theory is
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
I replied that I largely agree! (Craig 2006)
My current work investigates:
The interaction of theoretical and practical
metadiscourse, for example in public arguments
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
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.