Author Topic: Models of the Communication Process  (Read 2028 times)

Offline Md. Mehedi Hasan Shoyeb

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Models of the Communication Process
« on: May 08, 2011, 11:34:38 AM »

We discus the same models of communication today that we taught forty years ago. This can and should be regarded as a mark of the enduring value of these models in highlighting key elements of that process for students who are taking the process apart for the first time. It remains, however, that the field of communication has evolved considerably since the 1960's, and it may be appropriate to update our models to account for that evolution. This paper presents the classic communication models that are taught in introducing students to interpersonal communication and mass communication, including Shannon's information theory model (the active model), a cybernetic model that includes feedback (the interactive model, an intermediary model (sometimes referred to as a gatekeeper model of the two-step flow), and the trans-active model. It then introduces a new ecological model of communication that, it is hoped, more closely maps to the the range of materials we teach and research in the field of communication today. This model attempts to capture the fundamental interaction of language, medium, and message that enables communication, the socially constructed aspects of each element, and the relationship of creators and consumers of messages both to these elements and each other.

While the field of communication has changed considerably over the last thirty years, the models used in the introductory chapters of communication textbooks (see Adler, 1991; Adler, Rosenfeld, and Towne, 1996; Barker and Barker, 1993; Becker and Roberts, 1992; Bittner, 1996; Burgoon, Hunsaker, and Dawson, 1994; DeFleur, Kearney, and Plax, 1993; DeVito, 1994; Gibson and Hanna, 1992; Wood, 2002) are the same models that were used forty years ago. This is, in some sense, a testament to their enduring value. Shannon's (1948) model of the communication process (Figure 1) provides, in its breakdown of the flow of a message from source to destination, an excellent breakdown of the elements of the communication process that can be very helpful to students who are thinking about how they communicate with others. It remains, however, that these texts generally treat these models as little more than a baseline. They rapidly segue into other subjects that seem more directly relevant to our everyday experience of communication. In interpersonal communication texts these subjects typically include the social construction of the self, perception of self and other, language, nonverbal communication, listening, conflict management, intercultural communication, relational communication, and various communication contexts, including work and family. In mass communication texts these subjects typically include media literacy, media and culture, new media, media industries, media audiences, advertising, public relations, media effects, regulation, and media ethics.

There was a time when our communication models provided a useful graphical outline of a semesters material. This is no longer the case. This paper presents the classic models that we use in teaching communication, including Shannon's information theory model (the active model), a cybernetic model that includes feedback (the interactive model, an intermediary model (sometimes referred to as a gatekeeper model of the two-step flow), and the transactive model. Few textbooks cover all of these models together. Mass Communication texts typically segue from Shannon's model to a two-step flow or gatekeeper model. Interpersonal texts typically present Shannon's model as the "active" model of the communication process and then elaborate it with interactive (cybernetic) and transactive models. Here we will argue the value of update these models to better account for the way we teach these diverse subject matters, and present a unifying model of the communication process that will be described as an ecological model of the communication process. This model seeks to better represent the structure and key constituents of the communication process as we discus it today.

Shannon's Model of the Communication Process

Shannon's (1948) model of the communication process is, in important ways, the beginning of the modern field. It provided, for the first time, a general model of the communication process that could be treated as the common ground of such diverse disciplines as journalism, rhetoric, linguistics, and speech and hearing sciences. Part of its success is due to its structuralist reduction of communication to a set of basic constituents that not only explain how communication happens, but why communication sometimes fails. Good timing played a role as well. The world was barely thirty years into the age of mass radio, had arguably fought a world war in its wake, and an even more powerful, television, was about to assert itself. It was time to create the field of communication as a unified discipline, and Shannon's model was as good an excuse as any. The model's enduring value is readily evident in introductory textbooks. It remains one of the first things most students learn about communication when they take an introductory communication class. Indeed, it is one of only a handful of theoretical statements about the communication process that can be found in introductory textbooks in both mass communication and interpersonal communication.

Shannon's model breaks the process of communication down into eight discrete components:

1. An information source. Presumably a person who creates a message.

2. The message, which is both sent by the information source and received by the destination.

3. A transmitter. For Shannon's immediate purpose a telephone instrument that captures an audio signal, converts it into an electronic signal, and amplifies it for transmission through the telephone network. Transmission is readily generalized within Shannon's information theory to encompass a wide range of transmitters. The simplest transmission system, that associated with face-to-face communication, has at least two layers of transmission. The first, the mouth (sound) and body (gesture), create and modulate a signal. The second layer, which might also be described as a channel, is built of the air (sound) and light (gesture) that enable the transmission of those signals from one person to another. A television broadcast would obviously include many more layers, with the addition of cameras and microphones, editing and filtering systems, a national signal distribution network (often satellite), and a local radio wave broadcast antenna.
4. The signal, which flows through a channel. There may be multiple parallel signals, as is the case in face-to-face interaction where sound and gesture involve different signal systems that depend on different channels and modes of transmission. There may be multiple serial signals, with sound and/or gesture turned into electronic signals, radio waves, or words and pictures in a book.
5. A carrier or channel, which is represented by the small unlabeled box in the middle of the model. The most commonly used channels include air, light, electricity, radio waves, paper, and postal systems. Note that there may be multiple channels associated with the multiple layers of transmission, as described above.
6. Noise, in the form of secondary signals that obscure or confuse the signal carried. Given Shannon's focus on telephone transmission, carriers, and reception, it should not be surprising that noise is restricted to noise that obscures or obliterates some portion of the signal within the channel. This is a fairly restrictive notion of noise, by current standards, and a somewhat misleading one. Today we have at least some media which are so noise free that compressed signals are constructed with an absolutely minimal amount information and little likelihood of signal loss. In the process, Shannon's solution to noise, redundancy, has been largely replaced by a minimally redundant solution: error detection and correction. Today we use noise more as a metaphor for problems associated with effective listening.
7. A receiver. In Shannon's conception, the receiving telephone instrument. In face to face communication a set of ears (sound) and eyes (gesture). In television, several layers of receiver, including an antenna and a television set.
8. A destination. Presumably a person who consumes and processes the message.

Like all models, this is a minimalist abstraction of the reality it attempts to reproduce. The reality of most communication systems is more complex. Most information sources (and destinations) act as both sources and destinations. Transmitters, receivers, channels, signals, and even messages are often layered both serially and in parallel such that there are multiple signals transmitted and received, even when they are converged into a common signal stream and a common channel. Many other elaborations can be readily described.. It remains, however, that Shannon's model is a useful abstraction that identifies the most important components of communication and their general relationship to one another. That value is evident in its similarity to real world pictures of the designs of new communication systems, including Bell's original sketches of the telephone.

Bell's sketch visibly contains an information source and destination, transmitters and receivers, a channel, a signal, and an implied message (the information source is talking). What is new, in Shannon's model (aside from the concept of noise, which is only partially reproduced by Bell's batteries), is a formal vocabulary that is now generally used in describing such designs, a vocabulary that sets up both Shannon's mathematical theory of information and a large amount of subsequent communication theory. This correspondence between Bell's sketch and Shannon's model is rarely remarked (see Hopper, 1992 for one instance).

Shannon's model isn't really a model of communication, however. It is, instead, a model of the flow of information through a medium, and an incomplete and biased model that is far more applicable to the system it maps, a telephone or telegraph, than it is to most other media. It suggests, for instance, a "push" model in which sources of information can inflict it on destinations. In the real world of media, destinations are more typically self-selecting "consumers" of information who have the ability to select the messages they are most interested in, turn off messages that don't interest them, focus on one message in preference to other in message rich environments, and can choose to simply not pay attention. Shannon's model depicts transmission from a transmitter to a receiver as the primary activity of a medium. In the real world of media, messages are frequently stored for elongated periods of time and/or modified in some way before they are accessed by the "destination". The model suggests that communication within a medium is frequently direct and unidirectional, but in the real world of media, communication is almost never unidirectional and is often indirect.

Derivative Models of the Communication Process

One of these shortcomings is addressed intermediary model of communication (sometimes referred to as the gatekeeper model or two-step flow (Katz, 1957)). This model, which is frequently depicted in introductory texts in mass communication, focuses on the important role that intermediaries often play in the communication process. Mass communication texts frequently specifically associate editors, who decide what stories will fit in a newspaper or news broadcast, with this intermediary or gatekeeper role. There are, however, many intermediary roles (Foulger, 2002a) associated with communication. Many of these intermediaries have the ability to decide what messages others see, the context in which they are seen, and when they see them. They often have the ability, moreover, to change messages or to prevent them from reaching an audience (destination). In extreme variations we refer to such gatekeepers as censors. Under the more normal conditions of mass media, in which publications choose some content in preference to other potential content based on an editorial policy, we refer to them as editors (most mass media), moderators (Internet discussion groups), reviewers (peer-reviewed publications), or aggregators (clipping services), among other titles . Delivery workers (a postal delivery worker, for instance) also act as intermediaries, and have the ability to act as gatekeepers, but are generally restricted from doing so as a matter of ethics and/or law.

gatekeeper model are also used in teaching organizational communication, where gatekeepers, in the form of bridges and liaisons, have some ability to shape the organization through their selective sharing of information. These variations are generally more complex in depiction and often take the form of social network diagrams that depict the interaction relationships of dozens of people. They network diagrams often presume, or at least allow, bi-directional arrows such that they are more consistent with the notion that communication is most often bidirectional.

The bidirectionality of communication is commonly addressed in interpersonal communication text with two elaborations of Shannon's model (which is often labeled as the action model of communication): the interactive model and the transactive model. The interactive model, a variant of which is elaborates Shannon's model with the cybernetic concept of feedback (Weiner, 1948, 1986), often without changing any other element of Shannon's model. The key concept associated with this elaboration is that destinations provide feedback on the messages they receive such that the information sources can adapt their messages, in real time. This is an important elaboration, and as generally depicted, a radically oversimplified one. Feedback is a message (or a set of messages). The source of feedback is an information source. The consumer of feedback is a destination. Feedback is transmitted, received, and potentially disruptable via noise sources. None of this is visible in the typical depiction of the interactive model. This doesn't diminish the importance of feedback or the usefulness of elaborating Shannon's model to include it. People really do adapt their messages based on the feedback they receive. It is useful, however, to notice that the interactive model depicts feedback at a much higher level of abstraction than it does messages.