Three dimensions of a complex phenomenon
The ‘informationalist’ conception of communication
The socio-cultural conception of communication
1. Three dimensions of a complex phenomenon
It is possible to weave, from the perspective of complexity, a continuity line among the three epistemological dimensions of communication: organizational dimension, interactional dimension and meaning dimension.
a. The organizational dimension
Communication and information enter the heart of contemporary epistemology together with Shannon and Weaver’s Mathematical Theory of Communication, von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory and Wiener’s Cybernetics. The organizational and adaptive dimension of the concept of communication is posed by Norbert Wiener as follows:
“Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of receiving and of using information is the process of our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment. To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man's inner life, even as they belong to his life in society” (Wiener, Cybernetics and Society, 1954:18)
Information is that way linked to the idea of order (in the sense of organizational regularities) as well as conceived as a product of that very organizational order. If information is the matter of complex organizational logics, communication is then the process par excellence of that same organizational dynamics. That very concept of information, as well as the organizational relevance of communication processes, supports the foundations of the interactional dimension of information and communication, which in turn makes possible their role in the meaning sphere.
b. The interactional dimension
To exist, for a living being, is to be related to somebody. No living organism can develop efficiently far from ‘the others’, to such an extent, that the net of relations between an organism and its environment, between an organism and other organisms, becomes a prerequisite for life. That relational condition is shared by every living thing, not only by human beings. On the basis of its organizational condition, and as far as any living organization is a refined example of a complex organization, communication comes to be the interactional logics among living beings.
It is necessary, however, to distinguish between the conception of communication as interactional logics among living beings (behavioural coordination) and that of communication as a meaning practice. While certain consensus around ‘behavioural ecology’ can be observed in the first conception, there is no clear consensus in the latter. Thus, for instance, Pradier (1985) and Mac Roberts (1980) emphasize the need of intentionality as requirement for referring to communication in a natural sense. To some extent, these and other authors presume self-consciousness as a communicational prerequisite which, in the end, restricts communication to the human domain. They obviate, in that perspective, those contributions from ethology (Lorenz, 1972; Tinbergen, 1979; y von Frisch, 1957) and zoo-semiotics (Sebeok, 1972), which point, in one way or another, to an evolutionary line between communication in the biological sense and communication in those meaning oriented interactions that characterize humans.
From a different point of view, and keeping a convenient distance from Neo-Darwinian socio-biological assumptions, the Chilean biologists Maturana and Varela (1996) depart from the biological basis of the social phenomenon to depict communication as a kind of recursive behaviour: communication is a behaviour specialised in behavioural coordination. Precisely due to that condition of being a behaviour that coordinates behaviours, the above mentioned authors state that any social form (human or not) is based on communicative behaviour, since behavioural coordination comes to be the phenomenic expression and the prerequisite of society.
c. The meaning dimension
The conceptual frame of Symbolic Interactionism constitutes the point of departure for the evolutionary change of constructivism: from epistemological and psychological constructivism to social constructivism. That process is marked by the contributions of Palo Alto Group (Watzlawick et alt., 1981), Goffman’s interactional micro-sociology (Goffman, 1970) and Garfinkel’s Ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967). That constructivist current of sociological thought progressively moves its focus from cognitive processes to the symbolic processes, and lies at the base of those communication studies posing an alternative to the ‘black box’ paradigms (which obviate the observation of mind-behaviour and society-action correlations).
Especially, George Herbert Mead posed the interactional perspective as a critical answer to behaviourism and its stimulus-response model, putting the stress in the relevance of individual’s internal experience and in the symbolic nature of inter-individual interactions. The influence of Mead’s view can be even tracked in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action (1987) and in Berger and Luckmann’s phenomenological-constructivist thesis on the social construction of reality (1979).
In his well known Mind, Self and Society (1970), Mead posed a theory for the social constitution of the self as a sphere where the individual develops self-consciousness on the basis of his or her capacity to adopt the other’s point of view. That kind of externalized reflexivity would be the process through which the socially conscious self emerges.
Since communication constitutes the sphere where interactions –which constructivism deals with at the epistemological level- take place, Meads’ idea takes communication as the prerequisite for human being both in its individual and social dimension. In addition, by conceiving those internal processes (obviated by behaviourism under the black box paradigm) as intrinsically social, Mead’s theory becomes the driving force for all those perspectives focusing attention on subjects and processes, in opposition to those views which -like functionalism- emphasize structures and normative regularities.
Assuming Mead’s proposal on communication as the core principle for both societal and individual constitution, Habermas (1987:134) develops his foundation of sociological thought in the terms of a theory of communication. From Mead on (together with the contributions of the Linguistic Turn in philosophy), thinking the human subject becomes thinking inter-subjective communication. The process of objectivizing the self that symbolic interactionism elucidates comes to be in this sense a socio-linguistic version of the epistemological reflection on the nature of the observer.
Together with the interactional conception, how the bond between the individual and the social system is conceived also changes. None of them can be thought of as external to each other, since it is language, cognitive patterns, rules and values of community the point of reference for the subject to give sense to any action. In its turn, social action has a sense which is simultaneously ‘subjective’ (the attributed sense) and ‘objective’, reified, externalized in the expressions, patterns and norms of relations. Thus, to understand how a subject builds an image of the self involves (in the perspective of social relations but also in the perspective of language use) his or her interactions with others, as well as the meaning and value systems and the rules that organize behaviours and relations.
2. The ‘informationalist’ conception of communication
On the basis of the symbolic conception of communication and under the powerful influence of Shannon and Weaver’s model, the process of human communication is generally defined as a kind of symbolic action in which an emitter (or sender) intentionally decides to start the process of sending a message to a receiver through a channel in order to express a given meaning. The emitter codifies the meaning via symbols, signs or concrete representations, which may be verbal or non verbal, and are attached to common interpretations the receptor also knows (code). The receiver receives and identifies the signals, and using his or her knowledge of attributed conventional meanings, the receiver changes his or her attitudinal behaviour.
In that process both emitter and receiver constantly and simultaneously exchange their roles, using a wide variety of variables from the context that make possible an appropriate interpretation of the message. Communicative processes are, in this view, essentially transactional, simultaneous and interactive. Both the emitter and the receiver are involved in a process of mutual cooperation in the construction of the message.
In any case, cognitive, psychological, social or cultural interferences can often affect the correct interpretation of the message by the recipient. Nevertheless, the absolute coincidence is usually not a requirement to produce communication. Generally, we manage to exchange information although the level of accuracy in the interpretation is not complete.
In case of interpersonal communication, the problem of semantic perception is usually counterbalanced by means of receiver's ability to answer (s. feedback), and emitter’s ability to put him/herself in the place of the recep (role-taking function). Both functions help to avoid -as far as possible- the semantic gap between emitter and receiver. The receiver can show the emitter, through verbal and non verbal signals, how he or she interprets the message. And the emitter can adjust his or her message taking the place of the receiver, thus facilitating that receiver's interpretation adapts to the preferred original meaning. In the role taking function, the emitter imagines the message from the receiver’s viewpoint, considering if the receiver will be able to understand it as it will be intendedly formulated, or if some modification is instead required.
3. The socio-cultural conception of communication
Up to now we have characterized communication as a kind of information transmission. That idea of communication as information transmission has been the dominant model for theoretical considerations on the communicative actions. However, communication is related also to other functions. Some authors (Carey, 1989; Van Zoonen, 1994; Radford 2005) underline that the term communication (Lat. Communicatio) is related to communion, having in common, sharing, and participating. From this viewpoint, communication shows a clear socializing function, since it contributes to building and developing community through shared rituals, narratives, beliefs and values.
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Lydia Sánchez & Aguado, J.M. (nov/2009)
[The article on the left column has been edited using the contributions of these authors in Spanish, translated by J.M. Aguado]