Littlejohn's Theories of Human Communication (2/3)

Paper 3, by Zach Tomaszewski

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

Continuing a study of Littlejohn's Theories of Human Communication, we will now look at what Littlejohn calls thematic theories. These theories of language coding, meaning, information, and persuasion touch on themes present in most acts of communication.

Littlejohn first looks at theories of language and nonverbal coding. Theories of language--basically, linguistics--seeks to discover how language is structured, used, and acquired. Classical linguistics was largely structural. Phones (speech sounds) combine to form morphemes (the smallest meaningful linguistic units), which can be words themselves or else combined to form words. Words are then combined to form phrases, which in turn are combined to form sentences. Finite-grammar hypothesizes that speakers produce sentences from left to right, one word at a time. Few people currently hold this view. Phrase-structure grammar supposes that sentences can broken down into noun and verb phrases, and those phrases can be further disassembled. These classical views are descriptive, but they fail to explain how people actually produce or use language.

In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky put forth a generative grammar to describe how sentences are generated, rather than simply describe their completed forms. Generative grammar assumes there are a finite number of rules capable of producing the infinite number of possible sentences. A deep structure, which is never uttered but has a one-to-one correspondence with meaning, is transformed through certain rules to form a surface structure, which is uttered. There is a single correspondence between a deep structure and a surface structure, though more than one surface structure can have the same form achieved through different means.

Trace theory extends this standard theory by adding S-structures, which occur between deep and surface and contain a trace of their deep structure. They can affect how the surface structure is uttered. Also, in trace theory, all three levels of structure are used in the assignment of meaning.

In terms of acquisition, Chomsky considers language and cognition to be biological functions. He believed that a child is born with a basic universal language hardwiring, containing all the possible deep structures, transformation rules, and phonetic sequences. The child's environment then selects which of these is used in her particular language.

Critics point out that Chomsky glosses over semantics. Also, he focuses on language competence and doesn't approach everyday language performance. While other theories may still be inadequate to explain language acquisition, many people balk at the claim of an innate universal language, especially since this is so difficult to prove empirically.

Theories of nonverbal communication are extremely diverse, but the area remains vague because of an inability to agree whether or not communication must be intentional, whether its participants need to be aware of the process, whether shared meaning is required, or what constitutes a meaningful unit of communication. Littlejohn divides nonverbal communication theories into structural and functional.

Structural theories include kinesics, proxemics, and paralanguage. Ray Birdwhistell's kinesics involves the study of body language, especially classifying possible motions into a hierarchy of kines, kinemes, and kinemorphs. Edward Hall is the big name in proxemics, which is the study of the use of space in communication. Most research has been on the use of interpersonal space. Paralanguage is the use of vocal signs related to communication, such as tone of voice.

Functional nonverbal theories include the work of Ekman, Friesen, and Dittman. Ekman and Friesen have looked at the origin, coding and usage of kinesics. In terms of usage, a gesture or behavior can be communicative, interactive, and informational. Dittman has focused on how emotions are communicated. He believes we determine people's emotions compared to an intuitive knowledge of their baseline behavior.

Critics of nonverbal communication point out that the parallel between verbal and nonverbal language is probably not as strong as these theorists assume. Also, nonverbal theorists seem to assume that nonverbal communication is more important than verbal communication.

Littlejohn next turns to theories of meaning: representational, ordinary language philosophy, and experiential theories. Representational theories aim to explain how signs stand for things. Richards and Ogden propose a triangle of the three senses of meaning: the symbol, the referent or thing referred to, and the thought or reference invoked in the person. The important feature is that the symbol and referent are only linked through the mind of the person. Richards holds that when language concerns itself primarily with the reference, it is scientific; when it is used primarily used to convey feelings, it is emotive. The goal of common language is to elicit a similar mental response in another.

Suzanne Langer was also concerned with symbols. For her, a sign is a stimulus that indicates the presence of something else. A symbol is more complex in that it is "the vehicle for the conception of an object." Symbols are combined into propositions. Signification is the meaning of a sign, and involves both a connotation (direct relationship between a symbol and its object) and a denotation (the relationship through the person).

Charles Osgood attempts to give a behaviorist explanation of meaning. Thus for him, meaning corresponds to learning. An encoded stimuli leads to an association with a decoded response. This occurs on three levels: physical/sensory (at the level of neural reflexes), integrated/perceptual (at the level of a conditioned but unconscious response), and representational/meaningful (at the level of meaning). At the representational level, external stimuli produce internal responses, which in turn are the stimuli for external responses. Since these connections are unique for the person, Osgood considers them connotative. Connotative meanings exist in a universal semantic space, defined by the axes of evaluation (good or bad), activity, and potency.

The main criticism of representational theories is their simplicity. The focus on matching single words with objects. The universality of Osgood's universal semantic space is also questionable.

Ordinary language philosophy is a reaction to structurists and representationalists. Proponents concern themselves more with the act (performance) rather than the form (competence) of an utterance. Wittgenstein is the founder of this movement with his notion of rule-following language games. Austin expanded on his work, and Searle has developed the concept of the "speech act." Since the focus is on the act, meaning can be considered basically the same as the speaker's intention. Searle delineates four types of acts: utterance (the production of physical sounds), proposition (associates one object or referent with another), illocution (elicits a response--basically, understanding--in the listener), and perlocution (elicits a certain behavioral response in the listener).

Critics point out that ordinary language philosophy is too narrow in that it tries to determine the speaker's intention from the form of the utterance. The locution categories are vague and frequently overlap, marring their usefulness. And it has produced little further research.

Experiential theories hold that language and experience are inexorably linked, that they define each other. Ernst Cassierer points out that our language and symbols can shape how we perceive the world, yet in turn, those perceptions can shape our language. Symbols come in four forms: myth (which are highly personal and feeling-centered), art, science (abstract), and common language. Language itself develops through three stages: mimetic, during which it is tied to individual perceptions; analogic, where there are few 1-to-1 relationship between symbol and referent; and symbolic, which allows for abstraction and grammar. Abstraction is the basis for creativity and adaption.

Sapir and Whorf put forth the theory of linguistic relativity, which also says language and reality shape each other. Essentially, a culture's language and grammatical structure determines behavior and thinking in that culture.

While experiential theorists put forth a strong position concerning the nature of language, critics claim it does little to further our understanding of it.

Littlejohn next reviews theories of information and information processing. Shannon and Weaver put forth their theory of information 1949. They define information as a measure of uncertainty, or entropy, in a situation. Redundancy, the inverse of entropy, is a measure of predictability in a situation.

Information theory comes in three levels: technical, semantic, and effective. At the technical level, communication involves a source using a transmitter to encode a signal to send through a channel to receiver, which decodes the message for the destination. Along the way, the message or signal may be disturbed by noise in the channel. The greater the redundancy in the message, the less detrimental the effects of noise, yet the less information contained in the message. At the semantic level, a message reduces uncertainty in the situation. At the effectiveness level, communication can affect the system by changing its purposeful state. Messages at this level can inform, instruct, or motivate.

Information theory is of questionable applicability to human communication, however. Human communication is not easily measured statistically or mathematically. Nor does information theory take meaning or context into account.

Information processing theories deal with intrapersonal process of information, which, in general, deals with sensation, central processing, storage, and recall. Sensation is receiving signals from the environment. Central processing is perception, during which signals are assigned meaning. After this, they can be stored in memory and later recalled. Cognitive complexity theories attempt to understand how people integrate these signals into their cognitive system. Littlejohn cautions us to remember that these steps aren't as clearly distinct or machine-like as described.

Finally, Littlejohn explores theories of persuasion. He places them into four categories: traditional humanistic approaches, behavioral approaches motivated by the humanist traditions, persuasion as information processing, and persuasion as cognitive reorganization.

Aristotle, especially in Rhetoric, is the prime example of traditional humanistic approaches. For much of history, persuasion and speech rhetoric have been synonymous. Aristotle breaks rhetoric down into inartistic and artistic factors. Inartistic factors are those conditions that affect the message but are beyond the speaker's control. Artistic factors include ethos (the projection of personal characteristics as an ethical proof of an argument), pathos (using emotion or appealing to the sympathies of the audience), and logic (the most important for Aristotle). Logical proofs or appeals include examples, which demonstrate the validity of generalizations, and enthymemes, which are logical deductions in which the audience must fill in some unstated steps. Also, there are other factors such as style, delivery, and organization that can affect the speaker's persuasive effectiveness.

Critics, especially today, point out that Aristotle focuses only on unidirectional communication from source to receiver, with little attention to the effects of interaction in communication. Also, his described factors can be hard to identify and clearly separate in practice.

The behaviorist version of persuasion is demonstrated by the research of the Yale Communication and Attitude Change Program. The Yale program aimed to determine which communication variables affect attitude change. Specifically, they hoped to determine what makes some people easier to persuade than others. However, their research revealed that persuasion is a complex process with many situational variables; there doesn't seem a simple personality trait that determines persuadability. Janis and Hovland determined that people vary in their motivation, attention, comprehension, anticipation (which is like visualization of a described situation or outcome) and evaluation. These vary both between people and within the same person between situations. While this approach was very fruitful in generating research, critics point out that it is still an overly-linear view of persuasion.

Information processing theories of persuasion involve the study of how information affects attitude. An attitude is defined as a disposition to act positively or negatively towards the attitude's object, and it is composed of the accumulated information about its object. (Just how this information accumulates is still debated.) Factors of information that impact its ability to change the listener's attitude are valence (whether the information is judged good or bad based on how it matches existing attitudes and beliefs) and weight (perceived reliability of the information source). Valence affects whether the information has any affect on an attitude, and weight determines the degree of change. The major criticism is how this sort of thing can be objectively measured.

Sherif's social judgment theory posits that people make judgments--in both the physical and social realms--based on an anchor or reference point. Thus, when a person receives new information, there are latitudes of acceptance, rejection or noncommitment when they compare this information to the reference point of their current attitute. Ego-involvement--the importance of the issue to the listener--also affects the processing of new information. In persuasive communication, a person will assimilate or contrast an argument based on these variables. While simple and highly heuristic, this theory does assume that attitude change occurs primarily through previous conscious judgments.

Cognitive reorganization theories include Bandura's social learning theory. Like traditional behaviorist learning theory, social learning affects behavior through positive and negative reinforcement. However, social learning theory posits that people are capable of controlling many of their reinforcements. Reinforcements can be informational (giving new information about the situation or the rules by which it is governed) and motivational (affects the likelihood of future choices related to such situations). Reinforcements can come from direct experience, but they can also come from role playing (mental rehearsing) or modeling (witnessing or imitating the actions of others). While such learning is a force of change for attitudes and behaviors, this theory does not explain how things like verbal messages effect attitudes.

Theories of cognitive consistency assume that people need to be, or at least feel that they are, internally consistent in their beliefs. And example is Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory. He posits that dissonance is stressful for the experiencer, and that the person will be motivated to reduce the dissonance and avoid further increasing the dissonance. Dissonance is most likely to occur in experiences of decision making, forced compliance, initiation into a group, receiving social support, and putting forth effort to achieve a goal. Persuasion could be seen as affecting dissonance in others. Yet this theory explains only a narrow range of behaviors.

This concludes Littlejohn's section on thematic theories. I like how he gives the criticisms for each argument. I dislike the behaviorist approach to meaning, as per Osgood. The notion of meaning as an elicited response seems too narrow. I also question the way information processing theories treat the mind like a computer. While they may be correct, it seems the MIND IS A COMPUTER metaphor is becoming more common in our culture, and it is likely masking many other important aspects of mind. I also find it hard to believe that valence and weight are the only factors that determine attitude change, as in information processing theories.

This review of Littlejohn will be concluded in Paper 5.

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