A communication rule is a description of a communicative regularity relevant to social interaction. The communicative regularities contained within rules are normative, in the sense that they are what is expected to occur by participants in social engagements and their absence usually results in social disapproval or sanction on the part of those participants toward a transgressor.
The Nature Of Communication Rules
The most prevalent use of the concept within the communication discipline stems from its centrality within the natural language philosophical tradition begun by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) in Philosophical investigations. Within this tradition, all culturally defined social situations are governed by a set of rules consisting of two types: those that define the situation (constitutive rules) and those that instruct participants about what actions are permissible and impermissible (regulative rules). Regulative rules take the standard form “When in Situation X, Action Y is required/recommended/recommended against/forbidden” (e.g., in the context of basketball, “When a team has possession of the ball, an attempt at shooting the ball through the other team’s basket is permissible”), whereas constitutive rules take the standard form “When in Situation X, Action Y counts as/means Z” (e.g., in the same context, “A ball legally shot through the other team’s basket counts as, depending on its length, either two or three points”).
These rules are arbitrary in the sense that their content is only determined through agreement, whether explicit or tacit, on the part of participants. As a consequence, they can be said to have no truth value in an objective sense, although they are used as standards for judging the correctness of participants’ actions. Language is viewed within this context as rule-governed action, with the actual meaning of terms dependent on their standard usages within culturally defined social situations. We understand the meaning of an expression when we are aware of the relevant regulative and constitutive rules regarding its proper usage within a cultural/linguistic group. John Searle (1969) in Speech acts clarified this approach in a structure for delineating the constitutive rules defining speech acts, or actions that can be taken through the use of language (e.g., promising, thanking, apologizing).
A rules-based theoretical approach to interpersonal interaction was attractive to those communication scholars who accepted another Wittgensteinian (1953) idea, a distinction between action and motion. In short, action is behavior that is intentionally performed by a person, while motion is behavior that a person performs unintentionally. One can choose to raise one’s arm, or one can have one’s arm lifted by an outside agent. One possible inference following from this distinction is that existing social scientific theory guided by a search for context-free, law-like generalizations is only relevant for nonvolitional behavior and is irrelevant for behavior resulting from choice. Although some communication scholars have taken this inference as evidence that all inquiry into human communicative behavior must eschew all of the standard trappings of scientific theory, others have proposed the possibility that theories based on rules can function in the context of action analogously to the way theories based on “laws” are intended; capable of describing, explaining, and predicting human behavior.
Among those accepting this latter position, two specific approaches to communication rules warrant detailed attention. In a series of co-authored essays (e.g., Cushman & Whiting 1972; Cushman & Craig 1976), Donald Cushman laid out a possible metatheoretical framework for rules-based theories of communication. Although accepting the validity of constitutive rules, Cushman concentrated on regulative rules and their classification. Communication rules can be categorized according to their range (breadth of contexts within which they are relevant), specificity (number of different actions permitted in a given circumstance), and homogeneity (equivalence of understanding of the rule among participants in a given interaction). Communication rules also differ according to their relevance to either culture-wide, organization-specific, or interpersonalrelationship-specific interaction. More macro-levels generally result in less homogeneous rules; marital partners tend toward a shared understanding of the rules of their relationship, whereas there is marked disagreement within, say, western cultures concerning the behavioral rules insuring treasured ideals such as “freedom” and “justice.”
In contrast with Cushman’s meta-theoretical efforts and emphasis on rule sharing, W. Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronen’s coordinated management of meaning (1980) deserves the title “theory” and stresses the idiosyncrasy among people’s understanding of rules and the misinterpretations of one another’s actions that can result. Each participant in an interpersonal interaction has certain understandings of the relevant regulative and constitutive rules, and if there is a significant mismatch among these understandings, then confusion and anger are a possible result. I might believe that within the context of our relationship “hey stupid” counts as a friendly greeting (constitutive rule) and that when I see you on the street a friendly greeting is desirable (regulative rule), but if you believe that “hey stupid” instead counts as a nasty insult (constitutive rule) and that nasty insults from friends deserve a cold shoulder in response (regulative rules), then you may be angry at the insult and I confused by the cold shoulder.
Pearce and Cronen extended the concept of constitutive rules beyond its Wittgensteinian sense by proposing a series of “levels of meaning” for interpretation beyond the speech act: contracts (the rights and responsibilities we see inherent in given established relationships), episodes (routines seen as distinct wholes), life scripts (the repertoire of episodes we expect to participate in, the theory’s version of the self-concept), and archetypes (experiences shared by all people). Thus, your anger about my utterance “hey stupid” reveals that you have interpreted it on the speech act level as an insult and that insults are forbidden in the contract associated with our friendship. Pearce and Cronen also described three levels of communicative competence in the ability to coordinate meanings: minimal (knowledge of regulative rules sufficient for day-to-day interactions, but without understanding of what actions “mean”), satisfactory (knowledge of regulative and constitutive rules sufficient for day-to-day interactions, providing understanding of what actions “mean”), and optimal (ability to step outside rules and envision alternatives, allowing for social creativity).
Cushman and Pearce (1977) worked together in adopting the practical syllogism in a first attempt to describe how rules-based communication theories might be structured. This adoption makes sense in the context of the desire to develop rules theory in a structure parallel to that of the physical sciences. Philosophers had proposed practical syllogistic forms such as the following:
Person P intends to bring about goal G;
person P believes that performing action A will lead to goal G;
therefore, person P performs action A
as an explanatory form for intentional behavior. Given the assertion that rule-governed behavior is intentional, Cushman and Pearce proposed the following version:
Person P intends to bring about goal G;
person P believes that engaging in episode E will lead to goal G;
therefore, person P engages in episode E.
Note that there is no statement of a rule in this version; presumably we are to accept the notion that P’s engagement in E will feature intentional rule-governed action.
The absence of such a statement was central to Susan Shimanoff ’s (1980) critique of the Cushman/Pearce model. In addition, Shimanoff noted that people often follow rules unintentionally and intentionally act in violation of rules. Shimanoff preferred an explanatory and predictive framework based on Toulmin’s model for argumentation. In the explanatory version of the model, the claim to be defended is that person P performed action A because of a given rule, the data used in the defense is the fact that person P performed action A, and the warrant linking the data and claim is the existence of a relevant rule qualified by person P’s knowledge of it. In the predictive version of the model, the claim is that person P will perform action A, the data is that a given context that makes a given rule relevant exists, and the warrant and qualifier are again the existence of the rule and person P’s knowledge of it. Shimanoff also wished to limit the range of the concept of rule to action, such that interpretive processes do not fall within its purview. If accepted, this limitation would invalidate the standard use of constitutive rules as interpretations, placing the Pearce/Cronen model in particular jeopardy.
Applications Of The Concept
At the time of publication of Shimanoff ’s book, Cushman’s conception had been extended to persuasion and to both macroand micro-approaches to mass communication, and Pearce/Cronen’s to organizational communication; both were soon applied to intercultural interaction. However, these efforts were limited to theoretical statements, very few relevant research studies appeared, and interest in rule-based approaches to communication abated soon after. One likely reason for its demise is the failure to conceive of topics for research other than lists of rules applicable to different circumstances.
A second use of the concept, referred to in this case as relationship rules, is in the system-theoretic tradition stemming from the Palo Alto Mental Research Institute (Watzlawick et al. 1967). In this perspective, any message directed toward another person implies a possible definition for the relationship, and any response to that message implies an acceptance, rejection, or modification of that definition. Although relevant to other aspects of relationships, this school of thought has concentrated on relative relational power; in this context, any message is an attempt to either dominate or submit to the other, and any response is either an acceptance or rejection of that attempt. As relationships develop, interactional sequences of attempts and responses come to stabilize, such that particular patterns come to dominate. As a result, long-term relationships include regularities in the extent to which each person tends to dominate or submit in specific circumstances. These regularities are relationship rules. The Palo Alto group believed that dysfunctional families feature particularly inflexible relationship rules of which they are unaware, and that making their members cognizant of these rules and their pathological implications was a significant step in therapy.
Kurt Weick (1979) applied the concept of rule to organizational behavior in a manner similar to the Palo Alto group. Weick (1979, 89) conceived of organizing as a process in which, during the process of accomplishing some task, “an action by actor A evokes a given response in actor B which is then responded to by actor A.” Over time, these interlocking behavioral patterns stabilize, such that they tend to be adopted whenever the need to accomplish the given task reappears. A rule is a description of the behavioral patterns that are expected to occur in given task situations. Weick’s conception differs from that of the Palo Alto school in that organizational members are likely to have some awareness of the rules governing their coordinated activity.
- Cushman, D. P., & Craig, R. T. (1976). Communication systems: Interpersonal implications. In G. R. Miller (ed.), Explorations in interpersonal communication. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, pp. 37–58.
- Cushman, D. P., & Pearce, W. B. (1977). Generality and necessity in three types of theory about human communication, with special attention to rules theory. Human Communication Research, 3, 344 –353.
- Cushman, D. P., & Whiting, G. C. (1972). An approach to communication theory: Toward consensus on rules. Journal of Communication, 22, 217–238.
- Pearce, W. B., & Cronen, V. E. (1980). Communication, action, and meaning. New York: Praeger.
- Searle, J. (1969). Speech acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Shimanoff, S. B. (1980). Communication rules: Theory and research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Pragmatics of human communication. New York: W. W. Norton.
- Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing, 2nd edn. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
- Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations (eds. G. H. von Wright, R. Rhees, & G. E. M. Anscombe; trans. G. E. M. Anscombe). Oxford: Blackwell.