Littlejohn's Theories of Human Communication (1/3)

Paper 1, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 701, Spring 2003, taught by Dr. Majid Tehranian

Stephen W. Littlejohn received his PhD from the University of Utah. He taught speech communication at California's Humboltd State University for 26 years. He currently consults through Domenici-Littlejohn, Inc. to resolve conflict and improve organizational and group communication. He is still teaching, though now at University of New Mexico.

At the beginning of his book, Littlejohn explains that the discipline of communication needs integration. Theories have been generated by a number of different disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and linguistics. These disciplines generally see communication as an aspect of their work, rather than a separate discipline in itself. He quotes Frank Dance's 15 components of communication, which includes such notions as process, transmission, relationship maintenance, symbol exchange, exertion of power, fostering understanding, reduction of uncertainty, commonality, memory replication, stimuli and response, and channel or means.

Littlejohn breaks down communication along three lines. First, there are general theories, which aim to catch the general nature or essence of communication. Secondly, there are thematic theories, which deal with certain pervasive themes present in most communication events. Finally, there are context theories, which deal with communication in a certain setting. In this paper, I will focus on general theories.

Before laying out the theories, however, Littlejohn pauses to look at the nature of inquiry and theory itself. He claims there are three modes of inquiry or scholarship: scientific, which is highly objective and is well-suited for the study of the natural world; humanistic, which aims to examine individual subjective response, creativity, and artistic endeavors; and social sciences, which are a bit of a mix in that they try to objectively study subjective responses.

For purposes of this book, Littlejohn considers a theory to be "any conceptual representation or explanation of the communication process" (p.12). He points out that theories are abstractions, which means they highlight or focus on some aspects while ignoring others. They are human constructions--ways of looking at facts--not discovered Truths. It is generally wiser to weigh theories based on their utility rather than their "truth."

A good theory serves 8 functions for Littlejohn: organizes the facts, focuses on the important facts and relationships, clarifies observations, gives clues on what things to observe to confirm the theory, predicts outcomes, generates new research, provides a framework for communication of observations, and is either normative or descriptive.

Littlejohn identifies three types of necessity: causal, wherein A happens and so B is always observed to subsequently happen; practical, where a person desires B and so does A in order to achieve it; and logical, where, if A is true, it logically follows that B is true.

He also reviews issues of epistemology (what can be known) and ontology (what is the nature of the world). He identifies two World Views. World View I corresponds with that of the classical natural scientists who objectively studies nature. World View II is that of a social scientist who holds that there may be a number of useful conceptualizations of reality, some more useful than others depending on the context. Other important concerns are whether human beings have free will to make choices, whether generalization and abstraction beyond specific contexts is at all useful, and whether humans interpret and process meaning or simply respond to stimuli. These issues generate a number of different perspectives that can affect construction or acceptance of a certain theory.

So, in a world of few objective absolutes, Littlejohn supplies a few criteria against which to judge communication theories. These include theoretical scope (are they general enough to apply to a number of different situations or events?), appropriateness (does the perspective allow for an adequate possible description of the domain?), heuristic value (do they allow for additional research?) validity (are they internally and externally consistent?), and parsimony (are they logically simple?).

Having forewarned us about the nature of social science theories, Littlejohn starts with general system theory. First of all, he defines a system as "a set of objects or entities that interrelate with one another to form a whole" (p.29). So the four aspects of a system are the component entities, the relationships between them, the attributes of the system, and the environment in which it is located. If it receives energy or input from its environment, it is an open system; otherwise it is closed, and tends towards entropy and decay. Systems are characterized by the wholeness of the entire system, generated by the interdependence of its parts. Its parts are often arranged in a hierarchy of subsystems. Systems are often goal-oriented, and control or regulate themselves to meet those goals. (It usually needs some sort of feedback to achieve this, which is the realm of cybernetics.) While the system must be able to adapt to a changing environment, it also attempts to maintain a homeostatic balance. Systems often exhibit equifinality, which means that they can reach their goals through a number of different paths.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy put forth the general system theory as a way to determine the underlying rules governing all systems, regardless of their particular instantiation. If their behavior are governed by the same principles, two systems are isomorphic.

There are a number of systems-related theories. Cybernetics--the study of feedback--developed by Norman Wiener, can be seen as a subset of system theory. (In general, when systems receive positive feedback, they increase or maintain their current processes. When they receive negative feedback, they decrease, cut back, or stop.) Shannon and Weaver's information theory could also be seen as a system theory. A specific application of system's theory to human communication is B. Aurbry Fisher's pragmatic systems approach. In this approach, individual behaviors are seen as forming sequential interaction patterns, which have both content and relationship dimensions, within a social system.

There are six main criticisms of system theory. First, it is too general to usefully applied to the real world since nearly anything (or everything together) can be said to be a system. Second, it is so open as to allow contradictory findings in different fields; it is not unifying. Third, it is just a perspective, since it doesn't adequately explain why systems do what they do. Fourth, it doesn't suggest new research. Fifth, it's not clear whether the theory models nature (in which case apparently dissimilar events are actually the same) or if it is only a conceptual model (in which case it is only a representation, and similarities do not actually exist in the world). Finally, some claim the world is not as complex as system theory purports it to be.

Littlejohn next turns to symbolic interactionism. Manford Kuhn identifies 2 eras within this movement. The first is dominated by George Herbert Mead. Following the publication of his book Mind, Self, and Society, the second era--the age of inquiry--began, with the humanistic Chicago school and Herber Blumert on one side and the objective Iowa school and Manford Kuhn on the other.

Mead's main premise is that people are actors, rather than reactors. There are three facets to Mead's ideas. First is society, which is cooperative symbol-sharing. People consciously interpret symbols and assign meaning to them, unlike animals, which unconsciously use signals that illicit a programmed response. A second facet is the self, which involves a creative, impulsive I and a socially acceptable me. Me includes a sense of "generalized other", which is the internalization of how we perceive others see us. The mind--the process of interacting with oneself--is the third facet. Essentially, humans are rational beings who can play roles, can imagine themselves as others see them, and can plan interactions before engaging in them.

Herbet Blumer expanded on Mead's work. He is the person who coined the term "symbolic interactionism." He believes that humans act on meaning, which is generated through social interaction. Again, meaning is consciously acquired, and individuals are proactive. Social interaction is the process of many individuals acting together. While social systems may have their own stable patterns, Blumer stresses that society is not a system in itself, but merely a collection of individual actions and interactions. Blumer also emphasizes the inadequacy of objectivism (though not empiricism) to study human meaning. Instead of tractional scientific methods, interactionalist researchers should use a flexible, empirical program of exploration (broad, flexible observation by any means) followed by inspection (intensive, focused examination).

Manford Kuhn also believes that meaning is socially derived and that people are active planners. He introduces the concept of "orientational other", which is another person who has played a profound role in shaping an individual's world view. His primary interest, however, is in the self and self-attitudes. He using a technique of eliciting 20 responses from an individual to the question "Who am I?" He assumes the order given correlates to importance (ordering variable). He also notes the extent the person identifies with consensual groupings rather than personal qualities (locus variable). However, this method has been criticized for failing to reveal the process of behavior, and the Iowa school has turned to other methods.

Kenneth Burke and the dramaturgical school see people as actors playing roles. People create symbols, instruments, and other tools, unlike lower animals. He differentiates action--purposeful, goal-directed human action--from other types of worldly motions. Actions can be examine in terms of the act itself, the scene, the agent, the agency (means), and the purpose. He also believes that the purging of guilt--which arise from morals, personal failings, and the social hierarchy--is the primary motivation behind communication.

Symbolic interactionalism has been criticized as non-empirical in that its features are not readily observable. As a consequence, it is not very heuristic. It also fails to account for a number of variables, such as personal emotions on one end and social organization (and its limitation on personal prerogative) on the other. Finally, it can be vague or inconsistent at times, especially when it comes to defining the terms I, me, mind, self, role, etc.

Littlejohn then turns to the rules approach. While symbolic interactionism stresses the importance of exchanging symbols, rules theory tries to flesh out the form of this interaction. It is a diverse field, but some of the common assumptions are that purposeful action is different from caused motion and that social behavior is structured depending on context. The area can be divided into three topics: linguistics and grammars, ordinary language philosophy, and cognitive development. There are also three conceptions of rules: that they are behavioral regularities (rule-following), that they are behavioral guides (rule-governing), and that they can be a set conflicting guides that must be chosen from (rule-using).

Susan Shirmanoff gives a general position on rules. She claims rules must be followable. That it, an individual can choose to follow the rule or not. They are prescriptive--stating what is preferred, required or prohibited--and failing to follow them can result in social criticism. Rules are contextual; some apply to more situations than others. Finally, rules specify behavior, not thought or emotion. When following a rule, people may do so or not unconsciously, consciously, or after conscious reflection of the rule. The primary value of Shirmanoff's view is a clear definition of what rules are.

W. Barnet Pearce and Vernon Cronen put forth the coordinated management of meaning. For them, communication relies on coordination; the rules of the exchange (apart from any shared meaning) must be negotiated. Meaning is contextual and level-dependent. Rules are constitutive (what a speech act should be interpreted as) and regulative (determining behavior). Communication competence is the ability to manage the coordination of rules; the coordination involves perceiving coherence in the actions of the other participant, control over the interaction, and valence or satisfaction in the outcome.

Critics of rules theory claim that the theory lacks conceptual coherence as to what a rule is. Indeed, Shirmanoff claims rules apply only to behavior while Pearce and Cronen claim there are interpretation rules. Also, some claim that rule theory is insufficiently explanatory across contexts.

In conclusion, I think Littlejohn has so far done a good job of laying out the communication field. Starting by describing the natural science verses social science world view is helpful, as well as what a social science theory should do. It is interesting to note that all of his requirements involve human needs, rather than any correspondence to reality.

The systems view reminds me of Pirsig's patterns of value, in which, in a way, all of reality is a system with 4 main subsystems. However, I find the teleology strange; that is, if communicators are part of a system, that this larger system pursues its own goals and practical necessities. This teleology is not necessarily incorrect (or invalid, if you prefer), but it is a radical break from traditional science where everything is material caused. Certainly, the criticisms Littlejohn reviews show how some people see flaws solely because of their ontological perspective.

As an aside, I dislike the comparisons of human to animal communication or cognition. To me, it seems to be a difference of degree rather than a difference of kind. It might be true that human have free will and manipulate symbols, but I don't think its necessary to demean animals to say so. Indeed, whenever someone seems to define the single feature that separates humans from animals, further research tends to show that animals are capable of the same process, just to a lesser degree. Just a personal pet peeve of mine.

I will continue the study of Littlejohn in Paper 3.

Littlejohn, Stephen W. Theories of Human Communication. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1983.