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

Paper 5, by Zach Tomaszewski

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

In his final section, Littlejohn examines contextual theories of communication--those that cover interpersonal, organizational, group, and mass communications. He admits that the borders between these contexts are fuzzy. Interpersonal communication can be mediated, as in a phone conversation, while mass communication can occur by word of mouth. In this reading, I have focused only on the chapters covering interpersonal and mass communication.

Dean Barnlund offers the following criteria as a definition for interpersonal, or face-to-face, communication: two or more people in physical proximity, communicating interdependently (that is, each relies on clues from the other), exchanging messages encoded in both verbal and nonverbal ways, in a relatively unstructured manner.

Dance and Larson looked at the function played by interpersonal communication in a person's life. These functions include: linking (connecting to the environment and others and so forming a self-concept), mentation (exercising higher levels of thought), and regulation (altering and being altered by others' behavior). This theory focuses more on the affects of communication than the process of it.

Relational theory, started by Bateson, focuses on the interplay between communication and relationships. This view has been particularly supported by psychiatrists, especially related to the role of mixed messages in the development of schizophrenia. Bateson led the Palo Alto group of researchers, who claimed that:

Theories of self-presentation assume that people engage in both trying to understand others and to present themselves to others. Schultz's fundamental interpersonal relations orientation (FIRO) theory holds that everyone has a need for inclusion, control, and affection, though the level of that need may vary. Also, people display relational continuity, playing the same roles over and over. They seek groups of other people with similar, compatible needs.

Goffman uses a theater metaphor. People try to make sense of their world through the use of experiential frames. When engaging others in communication, we often do so to present dramas to an audience, rather than to simply exchange information. To accomplish this end, we present different characters or versions of ourselves.

Attribution theory, in its various forms of Heider and Kelley, involves inferring another person's internal experiences and motivations based on their external behavior. The theory assumes that people are interested in determining the motivations of others, that they assign causes in a systematic way, and that their own feelings and behaviors will be affected by the determination. This determination is achieved through a "naive psychology" in which the observer judges the variance of different variables in the other person and in the situation.

In theories of disclosure and understanding, it is held that people seek congruence between their images of themselves and their environments. When interacting with others, we provide them with positive and negative evaluations of themselves. When in an open and supportive relationship, we are more likely to act congruently and reveal more about ourselves.

Theories of attraction and relational maintenance concern themselves with why people form, maintain, or dissolve relationships with others. Newcomb holds that we are attracted to both people and objects, and that we consistently balance our desires for each. For example, if a man likes a woman who likes to read, changes in the value he places on reading or changes in the value he places on the woman will change the reciprocal relationship. Byrne holds that attraction is simply learned behavior--we receive more rewards from being around the people we like. Thibaul and Kelley believe people evaluate their relationships in term of the value of their costs and consequences.

Social conflict theories investigate how we handle and resolve conflict in social settings. Game theory, started by von Neumann and Morgenstern, serves as a basis of research into how people make choices in order to gain desired outcomes. Such studies have shown that greater communication between the involved parties leads to a greater level of cooperation and conflict resolution. Simons holds that communication during conflict is primarily done to influence the other party. Such influences include inducements, coercions, and persuasion; the first two motivate behavior through reward or punishment, but the last relies on logical argument and free choice. However, in practice, the three are used simultaneously.

Mass communication is characterized by large audiences, public messages, rapid and one-way communication, originating from large organizations. Important concerns for studies of mass media are the nature of the audience, the distribution of information, and the effect of media.

Marshall McLuhan, a popular figure in the media, put forth many probes. While perhaps not quite a cohesive theory, he did seem to make a number of assumptions. His mentor was Harold Innis. Both saw the primary medium of communication as shaping society. McLuhan held that the dominant medium changes which sense we primarily rely on, with a resulting change in our cognition. For example, tribal culture is primarily audial with a focus on group maintenance. Modern culture, with a focus on visual stimuli and literacy, means a linear, sequential thought pattern. With the advent of television and radio, McLulan forecasted a return to a "global village" and the loss of logical, sequential thought. For McLuhan, the medium of the message and how it affects us is, in this way, far more important than the actual content. He also classified media as either hot or cold. Media are hot if they provide a complete, redundant stimuli that requires little participation or involvement; cool media require more perceptual processing on behalf of the recipient. In his later years, McLuhan felt that media didn't so much directly cause these changes in thought modes, but rather just brought them to the forefront.

Jacques Ellul claims that technology has produced today's mass society. The undifferentiated mass is composed of individuals in isolation, prevented by the system from making critical decisions based on personal values. The propaganda distributed by the mass media is treasured by the masses for the security it provides, and it moderates public opinion, thereby allowing the system to continue. Propaganda can be political--originating from the top of the social power hierarchy--or sociological--originating from within society. There is also a difference between agitating propaganda, which stirs up action, and integrating propaganda, which encourages uniformity and stability.

Previous mass media theories see the population as an undifferentiated mass and assume mass media has a direct affect on the attitudes and behaviors of the public. Diffusion theories, on the other hand, note that the media does not work entirely in this fashion. Instead, mass media messages are first filtered through opinion leaders and other people important to the viewer. It seems that only if these opinion leaders concur with the message does it get absorbed by the greater population.

Rogers' theory of diffusion of innovation is closely related to this and aims to discover what factors affect the adoption of new ideas. Decisions to adopt an innovation may be optional (as an individual), collective (as a group), or authority (enforced from above). Adopters may also adapt a new idea to fit their particular situation.

Even if mass media does not directly inject new ideas into the public, it can exert some control over how much coverage is given to which issues. This is known as agenda setting. Though agenda setting can be through direct censorship, frequently it is simply market forces at work. Media tend to reinforce, rather than change, prevailing opinions.

More recently, theories have developed that place the power over the mass media in the hands of the audience. Blumler and Katz are two such gratification and use theorists. Instead of being passive receptors of message, audiences are supposed to actively seek mass media to meet their personal needs. What is more is that they can fulfill those needs through other means if they cannot be met by the available mass media. Such needs include surveillance (a survey of the environment in general), curiosity (seeking formation about a particular event), diversion, and personal identity.

This concludes my review of Littlejohn's Theories of Human Communication. Though it has be dense going at times, it was a very informative and well-structured book.

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