Communication Theory As a Field

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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
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:
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
 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
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.
    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
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.
       Further Thoughts
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
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.