Fiske's Introduction to Communication Studies

Paper 4, by Zach Tomaszewski

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

John Fiske was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, though I believe he has recently moved or retired since he is not listed as faculty there. His interest seem to be primarily culture and its effect on meaning. In Introduction to Communication Studies, Fiske reviews some of the major theories of communication, rather than expounding his own. He divides communication into two main schools: transmission/process verses meaning/semiotics.

Fiske states up front his assumptions about the field of communication. Because it is a multidisciplinary field, there are no all-encompassing theories. Rather, different disciplines have focused on different aspects of communication. Fiske assumes that communication can be studied; that it involves signs, which signify more than themselves and can be organized into codes; that these signs are transmitted to others as the "practice of social relationships"; that communication is central to culture.

The first school Fiske identifies concerns itself primarily with the transmission of messages. For followers of this school, communication is an act or process through which one person affects the thoughts or behavior of another. The sender's intention to communicate, whether conscious or unconscious, is important. This can be called the process school.

The second school is involved primarily with the notion of meaning, particularly of texts. Instead of focusing on the sender and receiver, they focus on the signs or message passed between them and the meaning the signs signify based on the culture of the sender and receiver. This can be called the semiotics school.

Fiske explores the process school first, starting with Shannon and Weaver's 1949 model. This model arose from the study of how to send the maximum amount of information through a channel. There is a linear progression from the source to the transmitter, which produces a signal (message) to be sent through a channel. There may be noise in the channel which can degrade the signal and thereby impede communication. At the other end of the channel, the signal is decoded by a receiver and the message reaches its destination. Meaning and culture is largely ignored in this model; it is assumed that the message contains its meaning. Effective communication is when the destination or listener responds as desired by as the source or sender. Shannon and Weaver identify three levels: technical (is the signal being adequately transmitted?), semantic (do the signals contain the proper meaning?), and effectiveness (does the meaning produce the desired response?). Though they claim the theory works at all levels, Shannon and Weaver do focus on the technical level.

Information is the level of predictability of a signal. If the signal is highly predictable (lost parts of the message can be inferred), it has high redundancy. If it is not predictable (communication fails if part of the message is lost or changed), it has high entropy. Some communication, such as phatic communication, are acts that are extremely redundant and convey no new information, but serve to keep channels open. An example is saying "Hey, how's it going?" as you pass someone in the street. Such phatic communication is usually important for maintaining social relationships.

Though Shannon and Weaver did not use it, other thinkers have added the concept of feedback to this model. Feedback is information from the listener to the sender that allows the sender to determine the effectiveness of his communicating and to adjust it if necessary. Feedback is important in the field of cybernetics.

There are other process models, which frequently build on Shannon and Weaver's basic model. George Gerbner adds the notions of access and availability to a medium of communication. Access is who has the power to use a certain communication medium. Availability is a decision usually made the sender and affects how and to whom the message is made available. He also believes it is a fallacy to think of a message outside of its encoding; there is no content without a form.

Newcomb focuses the effect of relationships on communication. He models communication as a triangle between the communicators A and B and the topic X. The triangle tends toward equilibrium. If A and B like each other but disagree about X, they will be motivated to communicate in an attempt to reach consensus about X. Westley and MacLean extend this model by adding C, which is a mediating entity, such as the mass media, between A and B.

Jackobson attempts to add the concept of meaning to Shannon and Weaver's model. He adds context, which is the thing a message refers to. He also identifies six functions of communication. Emotive communication aims to convey the feelings, emotion, or state of the addresser/sender. Conative communication focuses on the effect on the addressee/listener; propaganda and commands are mostly conative messages. The referential aspect is that part with refers to some "objective," "factual", or "true" reality. The phatic function serves to simply keep the lines of communication open. The metalingual function gives clues to how the message should be decoded. For example, putting something in a frame implies it should be read as art. The poetic function is the aesthetic quality of the message itself.

Fiske then looks at semiotics. Instead of looking at the whole process of communication, semiotics looks at the generation of meaning by the interplay of the sender and the message or the receiver and the message. Semiotics looks at the signs themselves, at the codes or systems in which the signs are organized, and the culture in which the codes exist.

C.S. Peirce states that meaning results from the interaction of a sign, which refers to an object, with an interperant or mental sign in the mind of the reader. The sign, object, and user are all vital parts of meaning.

Ogden and Richards have a similar model. For them, a symbol (sign) stands for a referent (object) which is conceptualized in the reader in the form of a reference (interperant). But for Ogden and Richards, the connection between the symbol and object it stands for is only indirect; it is possible only because of the mental reference in the reader.

Ferdinand de Saussure, a linguist, focuses more on the sign itself. He sees the sign as composed of the signifier (the physical manifestation of the sign, such as vocal sounds or letters on a page) and the signified (the mental concept to which is refers). A sign is connected to an external reality or object through the signification of the signified/mental concept. Signification is determined more by the system of signifieds--boundaries and relationships between them--than by the nature of reality or experience. Signifieds (mental representations) are as much as a product of culture as the signifiers (symbols); signifieds are not universal.

Roland Barthes expands the concept to signification to two orders or levels. The first order is largely what Saussure talked about--the connection with a sign and its referent. Barthes calls this denotation. On the second order, there is connotation. Connotation involves the feelings, emotions, or values of the reader, rather than simply the meaning. Myth is the culture's standard way of conceptualizing or thinking about a meaning. Symbolic signification is when a symbol stands for something else through convention, such as in the case of metaphor or metonymy. According to Raymond Williams, signification is achieved largely through the reader's culture's ideology, though the reader may apply the ideology differently at different times.

Pierce categorizes signs into three types. An icon is a sign that bears a resemblance to its referential object, such as a map or a photograph. An index is a sign with a direct experiential connection with its object, such as smoke is an index for fire. A symbol's connection with its object is one of convention, such as word or symbols standing for objects. Saussure had a similar spectrum of iconic to arbitrary based on how much a sign was motivated or constrained by reality and how much is was only a matter of social convention.

Fiske then looks at different codes--collections of signs. Signifying codes--those made of signs rather than behaviors--have a number of characteristics. They involve a number of units (signs), they convey meaning, they depend upon agreement between their users, they perform a social or communicative function, and they are transmittable. Digital codes are those with clearly separate units, whereas analog codes involve a spectrum or continuous scale. Representational codes are used to produce independently existing texts; presentational codes, such as body language, rely on the communicator and his current context. Elaborate codes are those that are more complex, more frequently symbolic or written, more entropic, express individual intent, neglect simultaneous non-verbal communication, expresses abstractions, and usually requires training. Restricted codes are simpler, more frequently oral, more redundant, geared towards social relations, rely on non-verbal codes, concentrate on specifics, and are learned through social experience. Broadcast codes are shared by members of a mass audience; narrowcast codes require a certain education or intellectual experience.

Codes rely on agreement among their users. This can be achieved through convention--the unstated expectations of cultural members. An example is acceptable clothing in an office workplace. Agreement can be achieved through explicit definition; once the code is learned, meaning is obvious. Examples are mathematics or street signs. Aesthetic codes are frequently dynamic and give clues to their decoding through the text itself.

Fiske examines semiotic methods, such as looking at norms--the statistically average behavior or practice in a culture. Determining norms can be done empirically through content analysis, which samples a significant number of a certain type of message in order to determine trends. An example is the frequency of seeing men on TV verses women, or in which roles. This method aims primarily at the denotative aspects of a message. To study connotative aspects, or effects on a reader, one can use the method of semantic differential. This basically involves giving two or more similar groups of subjects the same message with a slightly different aspect and asking them to rate the experience on a number of subjective scales. For instance, the same actor can be shown from two different camera angles and viewers rate him in terms of perceived reliability, expertise, sincerity, etc.

Fiske concludes by again iterating the difference between processes and semiotic school. Process schools believe in breakdowns in communication and focus on the effects of communication acts. Semiotics do not believe that communication can "breakdown." Instead, the speaker and the listener may come from different cultures and so are deriving different meanings from the same signs. The cure to this misunderstanding is not the increase in communication efficiency, but finding a common ground of meaning.

Fiske, John. Introduction to Communication Studies. London: Methuen, 1982.