The term “knowledge interests” (Erkenntnisinteresse) was coined by German philosopher and social theorist Jürgen Habermas in his work Knowledge and Human Interests (Habermas 1968/1987). Habermas distinguished three kinds of knowledge interests constitutive for particular object domains and their scientific investigation. According to him, the interest of control through prediction is constitutive of the natural sciences, while the interest of hermeneutical understanding characterizes the humanities. The social sciences, in turn, follow the knowledge interest of emancipation in that they create awareness of the contingency and changeability of the social world and thus of societal alternatives (Jensen 1995, 93–95).
In his later writings, Habermas has replaced this threefold typology of knowledge interests with a theory of communication that distinguishes four different types of action and corresponding “relations to the world” (Habermas 1981/1984, 75 –101; 2001, 15). Teleological (goal-directed) action presupposes an objective world (as the totality of all entities about which true statements are possible); normatively regulated action presupposes the objective world as well as a social world (as the totality of all legitimately regulated interpersonal relations); and dramaturgical action presupposes the objective world (including social facts) as well as a subjective world (as the totality of the experiences of the speaker, to which he or she has privileged access). Communicative action, finally, comprises all three types of relations to the world in a reflexive manner, i.e., acknowledging the possibility that truth claims concerning objective reality, claims of moral rightness concerning the social world, and claims to sincerity and truthfulness in relation to the subjective world can be contested by other speakers and must be rationally justified.
The earlier typology of knowledge interests constitutive of particular object domains has thus been transformed into a typology of actions with particular validity claims and pragmatic relations to the world, which, according to Habermas, implicitly lie at the heart of every act of communication. From this later perspective, the specificity of social– scientific inquiry can be seen in the fact that it makes truth claims as well as claims to moral rightness concerning social relations, or, in other words, that it is empirical– analytical and (at least implicitly) normative at the same time. The normative content of social–scientific knowledge does not derive from a more or less arbitrary political stance of individuals or groups of researchers, but must be rationally justifiable in the light of opposing claims to rightness in the scientific community.
In (mass) communication research, traces of such normative content can be found even in the most basic concepts of the field, namely the models of communication that (mass) communication researchers employ (McQuail 2000, 52–58). The dominant model of communication is the transmission model, according to which meaning is transmitted from a sender through a channel to one or many receivers. It follows the perspective of the sender and his or her intentions, and sees communication as goal-directed action aiming at some effect on the side of the receiver (e.g., issue awareness, persuasion). In this sense the model aims at control through prediction of effects. The ritual model, by contrast, sees communication as the representation of shared beliefs (Carey 1989) and communicators as participants in a shared experience. This model involves dramaturgical as well as normatively regulated action. The publicity model aims at maximizing the attention in audiences by optimizing techniques of display. Like the transmission model, it is teleological and further corresponds to the logic of advertising and commercial media use research, where the contact with a medium or message constitutes the basic goal. Finally, the reception model of communication places particular emphasis on the preferences of audiences and the latitude they possess in interpreting media texts and developing their own readings. It involves all types of action and is in line with intentions found in cultural and media studies to value popular tastes and media perceptions, sometimes at the expense of a critical view on those tastes and perceptions. All of these basic models of communication are inevitably imbued with particular knowledge interests that are only rarely justified and discussed explicitly.
- Carey, J. (1989). Communication as culture. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.
- Habermas, J. (2001). Nach dreißig Jahren: Bemerkungen zu “Erkenntnis und Interesse.” In S. Müller-Doohm (ed.), Das Interesse der Vernunft. Rückblick auf das Werk von Jürgen Habermas seit “Erkenntnis und Interesse.” Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, pp. 12–20.
- Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action, vol. 1: Reason and the rationalization of society (trans. T. McCarthy). Boston, MA: Beacon Press. (Original work published 1981).
- Habermas, J. (1987). Knowledge and human interests (trans. J. J. Shapiro). Cambridge: Polity Press. (Original work published 1968).
- Jensen, K. B. (1995). The social semiotics of mass communication. London: Sage.
- McQuail, D. (2000). McQuail’s mass communication theory. London: Sage.
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