Definition through Comparison

Witch in Holy Grail

Remember the story Dr. Halavais shared with us about his graduate school classmates moving physical objects (which represented communication theorists) around a room to plot the relationship between one theorist’s ideas to another? Each day as they understood a theory better, they would individually shift the pieces closer or further from each other to illustrate the field of communication theory.

Well, Robert Craig (1999) wrote an article entitled “Communication Theory as a Field” which strikes me as a rational piece to read before or after graduate students attempts to plow through the entire dense series of communication-related theories. COM515 Communication Theory is the third communication theory class I’ve ever taken as a graduate student here at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), and to me the formation of these theories in social science has always been very dispersed. Indeed, if communication theory were to be a field, it would seem that it is a huge field made up of leftover theories which never found a proper place in the other disciplines. As Anderson (1996) recorded, out of the seven communication theory textbooks, only three had 18 similar theories presented, out of the 249 theories. That’s only 7% of essential theories that these textbooks agree on!

Still, the field of communication theory has to remain arguably alive. Although it is not something we can or should classify under one unified theory, it would be fruitful to understand how one theory relates to another. This is what Craig does through his dialogical-dialectical coherence approach, which is the common awareness of certain complementarities and tensions among different types of communication theory, so it is commonly understood that these different types of theory cannot legitimately develop in total isolation from each other but must engage each other in argument. By sketching the field into the seven traditions in communication theory, and relating them to one another by comparison, we have a matrix which gives us a good idea of the what’s where in communication theory. These seven traditions are pitted against one another: Rhetorical, Semiotic, Phenomenological, Cybernetic, Sociopsychological, Sociocultural, and Critical.

In studying for the final oral exam, it would be worthwhile reviewing the theories we have covered based on this system Craig developed. He gives us one way to make sense of (or define) the communication theory world we live in. Indeed, everything is intertextual and so we have always been comparing things in order to define them. Just look at how Bedevere helped the villagers argue whether they should burn a “supposed witch” based on a comparison between witches and ducks (See Scene 5 of Monty Python & the Holy Grail). What am I saying by illustrating this?

This scene from the Monty Python film describes, in a general way, some of the confusions and irrationalities which can arise when scientific logic interacts with the law. The faultiness of the logic employed is obvious, but the scientifically educated judge/lawyer sways the crowd with a logical theory. Just as Robert Craig puts it, all use of signs is rhetorical! Thus, even Craig’s argumentative approach will be flawed. Ah, the inescapablility of it all.

Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory, 9, 119-161.

2 thoughts on “Definition through Comparison

  1. I have to say, I don’t quite follow the metaphor. Are you suggesting that just because certain elements of communication theory *seem* like they share characteristics with, say, critical/cultural approaches, they are somehow different? I know the scene (“I am not a witch, they put this on me!” was a frequently uttered phrase when I was growing up) , but I haven’t followed how it applies here.

    I guess the central claim has to do with the idea that if these are incommensurable research perspectives, shouldn’t communication people be particularly well-suited at making them less so?

  2. The field of communication is interesting yet open-ended at the same time because of ambiguity in trying to define it. What Craig suggested on creating a matrix comparing the different communication theories run into the problem of using rhetoric arguments as a means of making sense. Yet, it is rhetoric that is one of the earliest forms of communication theorizing that is something that is always debatable. Thus my sentiment towards the field of communication as being an inescapable flux of arguments and counter-arguments. I believe part of the beauty of the communication field is dealing with the neverending chaos and being always forced to look at the big picture of things.

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