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Evolution of Communication

message aristotelian source messages

The way in which communication has been viewed has changed considerably since it first became a subject of study. The first scholars to study and write about communication lived in Ancient Greece. The culture of the times placed heavy emphasis on public speaking, so it is not surprising that the first theories of communication—then called "rhetoric"—focused on speech. Aristotle, probably the most influential person of the day to study communication, characterized communication in terms of an orator (i.e., a speaker) who constructed an argument to be presented in a speech to hearers (i.e., an audience). The goal or effect of communication, as Aristotle viewed it, was to persuade. He described the process as follows:

[Communication] exists to affect the giving of decisions.… [The] orator must not only try to make the argument of his speech demonstrative and worthy of belief, he must also make his own character look right and put his hearers, who are to decide, in the right frame of mind [Roberts, 1924, p. 1377b].

Beginning with the formal study of communication by Aristotle and his contemporaries, communication came to be viewed as a process through which a speaker conveys messages to influence or persuade one or more receivers. In this paradigm, or perspective, emphasis is placed on the role of a source and on his or her intended message. Receivers are typically viewed as relatively passive recipients of messages, and thus as the endpoint in a straightforward and predictable cause-and-effect process. This foundational view of communication can be summarized by the statement that the source or sender (S) provides a message (M) to a receiver® and produces an effect (E). In this Aristotelian view, the resulting effect equals persuasion.

This Aristotelian view of communication was helpful in many ways. It highlighted the key components in the communication process. It also emphasized that messages are important in terms of human behavior and also that the source of a particular message can be important in determining outcomes of the communication process. The model had other implications as well. This way of thinking about communication suggests that senders can generally expect receivers to be easily persuaded to understand the messages as the senders understand them—that the message received (MR) should simply equal the message sent (MS). Consider an utterance such as “I told her many times, but she just doesn’t seem to get it!” To the extent that communication outcomes are primarily influenced by the sender and his or her message, as the Aristotelian view suggests, then indeed it is puzzling if others do not seem to “get it.” This aspect of the framework, particularly, came to be questioned in modern studies.

The Aristotelian view of communication was pervasive and influential from the time of Aristotle through the middle of the twentieth century. During the intervening years, the perspective was extended beyond speech and public speaking. It was applied to thinking about how mass media and mass communication work, as well as to the study and understanding of communication in face-to-face, group, organizational, health, and intercultural situations. Toward the end of the 1940s, however, the appropriateness of the Aristotelian perspective began to be called into question. In their published works, scholars such as Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (1949), Wilbur Schramm (1954), Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld (1955), Bruce Westley and Malcolm MacLean Jr. (1957), and Lee Thayer (1968) began to identify limitations of the model.

Stated simply, these and other scholars noted that often messages that are sent by a source are not received and/or acted on by the receivers in the manner that the sender or message advocates. For example, a physician may say to a patient, “It ’s important that you exercise,” and in many circumstances, the message does seem to “get through” as the Aristotelian model seems to suggest it should. In many situations, the “breakdown” (in this example, the person failing to exercise) does not occur because of anything the source did or because of any inadequacies in the message. Gradually, such observations led to an erosion of the dominance of the Aristotelian paradigm.

With the Aristotelian paradigm, it made sense to think that smoking could be greatly reduced or eliminated by printing health warnings on cigarette packages. Research and observation, however, have indicated that the intended message in this situation was often ignored or distorted by the receivers—and certainly not reacted to as advocated by the source or message. Increasingly, it has become apparent that the “effects” of communication are not predictable based on just a knowledge of who the source is and what the message is. Prediction must include a knowledge of the receiver and his or her needs, family, prior experience, peers, culture, goals, values, and conscious choices. These are extremely important factors that can influence whether and how messages are received, interpreted, and acted on.

The evolution has been toward theories of communication that emphasize the active and powerful influence of receivers as well as senders, meanings as well as messages, and interpretations as well as intentions. The sender and message are among these factors, as are others, such as the channel, situation, relationship between sender and receiver, and culture. Many scholars have also come to hold a longer-term perspective on the communication process. Rather than looking at a single sender-message-receiver-effect event, scholars are now looking at how personal identities and collective cultures are constructed through long-term communication processes that operate in relationships, groups, organizations, and society.

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