A model is a simplified description in graphic form of some aspect of reality. A model of communication seeks to show the main elements of any structure or process of human social action and the relations between these elements, plus any flow or exchange that takes place. The main benefits are to organize disparate elements and observations and to give a simplified picture of the underlying dynamics. The purpose of such models is thus primarily heuristic – an aid to the description and explanation of communication. To a lesser extent, they can help in predicting the outcomes of certain communication processes and situations by drawing attention to factors to take into account and forces at work. In this way, they are useful as a source of hypotheses, a guide to research, and a format for ordering the results of research.
To exemplify, the concentration of research effort in the early decades on the unintended effects of mass media violence and aggression led to a model (Comstock et al. 1978) that organizes the result of many findings. The form of the model is that of a typical sequence, beginning with “exposure” to some mass media representation of violence, with varying degrees of arousal and a probability of imitation of the violence depicted depending on the degree of perceived realism, the perception of consequences of imitation, and the opportunity to carry out imitation.
The term “model” can be used in other senses. For instance, statistical models are developed from empirical research to provide a precise account of the strength and direction of co-variance or causality. A model can also be developed as an ideal type to represent a certain concept, accentuating key or typical features. Similarly, it can help in creating typologies of sub-concepts, derived from certain fundamental dimensions. Models do seem to play a more central part in communication than in other social sciences as well as humanities. In humanistic traditions, the influence of Roman Jakobson’s (1960) model, deriving from linguistics and poetics, and re-emphasizing the role of a symbolic code over and above the channel or contact, is comparable to that of Shannon and Weaver (1949) in social-scientific traditions. One possible explanation is that time, space (distance), and direction are key variables in many communication processes, and all three lend themselves to graphic representation especially in combination.
Early Models of Communication
The beginnings of communication as a separate branch of study or discipline date from the early 1950s, mainly in the United States or under its influence. This phase was marked by a search for a unifying concept of communication. Although no agreed definition could be found, it resulted in the formulation of a simple graphic representation of communication as a process linking a sender and a receiver by a channel carrying messages from one to the other. Shannon and Weaver (1949) are usually credited with this invention, inspired by and intended for wireless or telephone transmission, but providing an embryonic model that could be applied to a wide range of situations, ranging from interpersonal conversation to mass communication on a national and even international scale. Their “mathematical” model was meant for calculating capacity and efficiency of communication.
In this version, communication is represented as a linear, one-way process, concentrating on what is physically observable or measurable. In fact, this bias suited practitioners of mass communication research at the time, since they focused primarily on the effects (intended or not) of messages from the mass media, which were typically considered as strong, direct, and one-directional.
The initial tendency of communication researchers was to elaborate this basic model to make it more appropriate to a fuller notion of human communication, especially by way of the mass media as characterized by center–periphery transmission, multiple channels, standardized content, and very large audiences. Wilbur Schramm (1954) drew on the work of Charles Osgood to redraw a basic model of communication as a circular process of exchange of messages, requiring a process of interpretation (encoding and decoding) at each stage, with a potential interchangeability of sender and receiver roles.
Probably the first elaborated “general” model of communication was that proposed by George Gerbner (1956). This included a number of new elements, especially the process of perception of some event that precedes the formulation of a message, and also a recognition of the fact that messages are formulated in varied forms and by varied symbolic means (linguistic, aural, visual, etc.). The process of reception was represented in the model as a repetition of the initial act of perception (the message being now the “event” perceived). This model was intended to apply not only to human but also to “machine” communication.
In the early phases of developing a viable model of communication, there were a number of innovatory ideas that have had a later application. For instance, F. E. X. Dance (1967) argued for a helical model to reflect the fact that communication is an essentially dynamic and exponential process that changes participants, as well as contexts and the future probabilities of communication, as a result of its own operation.
Another fundamental principle that has entered into later theory is that of balance, based on the observation that communicative exchanges are governed by the relationships of like or dislike between participants and by the attitudes of like and dislike toward objects of communication. Newcomb (1953) was the first to formulate these ideas into a simple model, known as the ABX model, with A and B being two persons and X an object of attention. According to this theory, flows of information (amount and content) will be governed by a “strain to symmetry” with reference to X. Discrepancies or differences will stimulate communication in order to reduce mental discomfort, a notion related to Festinger’s (1957) theory of cognitive dissonance. In relation to mass communication, the main adaptation of the idea of balance can be found in Westley and MacLean’s (1957) “conceptual model for communication research.” This displays the mass media as playing a mediating role between potential communicators and potential receivers, their activity being governed by the need to balance the motives and interests of senders with those of receivers. In this model (Fig. 1), we observe important feedback loops from audiences to original sources as well as to the mass media. For their part, the mass media have to orient themselves to sources, the audience, as well as to the environment in which they operate and the objects of media attention in that environment. Like some early models, this represents the mass media as essentially neutral and without purpose of their own.
Specialized Models of Communication
As the field of communication diversified, there was a move away from general models and toward models applicable in particular sub-fields of research or theory. An early example was the modeling of influence in persuasive campaign situations, as in elections or advertising. The idea advanced by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955), on the basis of research into voting and consumer behavior, that influence does not typically flow directly by way of the mass media but indirectly by way of personal contacts, was very readily captured by a two-step flow model of communication, in which the intermediaries were identified as opinion leaders or gatekeepers.
More elaborate models were developed to deal with the larger issue of the relations between types of society and types of media system. An early example is the dependency model proposed originally by Ball-Rokeach and DeFleur (1976), positing a relation between the degree of stability of a social system, the capacity and type of its information system (especially mass media), and the degree of dependence of the mass audience on the information system.
The concept of diffusion – the spreading of knowledge, awareness, or behavior within a population – is another key aspect of communication processes that has lent itself to modeling. Research and theory led to a model for diffusion of innovations in developing countries that took account of a number of variables beyond those of sender, message, and recipient. Rogers and Shoemaker (1973) sketched a basic general model of four stages of successful diffusion (from knowledge to persuasion to decision to confirmation), influenced at various stages by a set of key variables, including characteristics of the target group, characteristics of the (local) social system (including the location of opinion leaders), and perceived characteristics of the innovation in question. The model, however, was still one of linear or even top-down influence. Subsequently, Rogers abandoned this approach in favor of a “convergence” model in which successful communication would have to involve a mutual co-orientation and mutual understanding (Rogers 1976).
Also, the spreading of news from media to people and from person to person has been fruitfully modeled. Large differences in rates of diffusion of knowledge have been found according to differences between people, countries, and categories of events. A key point of variation is the relative extent to which news is diffused by word of mouth rather than only by mass media. The J-curve of diffusion expresses a finding arrived at by Greenberg (1964) regarding the 1963 Kennedy assassination and later exemplified in the diffusion of news of the 9/11 attacks in the US: the higher the proportion aware of an event, the higher the proportion who learned it from a non-media source.
Diffusion aside, both news production and reception have been modeled. Regarding production, the scheme of Ericson et al. (1987) displayed a complex sequence of activities, beginning with ideas for stories and input from sources and ending with a news page or news bulletin. Most models adopt a “transmission” approach, similar in kind to Comstock’s model of media effects, seeking to account for the potential success or failure of news learning as if the news were purposeful instruction. The alternative of looking at news through the eyes of the audience member requires a different kind of model. Graber’s (1984) model, based on constructivist “schema theory” (Fig. 2), suggests that news learning proceeds by way of frames of interpretation in people’s heads.
Latterly, research has paid more attention to the receiver than to the sender in assessing or planning for “successful” communication. A popular model, proposed by Petty and Cacioppo (1986), envisages the processing of information by two broadly different “routes,” one a “central” route that pays attention to the logic of argument and facts as presented, another a “peripheral” route, in which there is no close attention and outcomes are determined more by associations, images, and incidental learning. The choice of routes is made by the receiver, although the would-be communicator may usefully choose which to expect and exploit.
The topic of audience selection and attention has also lent itself to models that either express propositions of explanatory theory or help to make sense of audience research data. The theory of audience uses and gratifications rests primarily on the view that audience choice of media content is active, purposeful, and subjectively rational, and that media use is structured according to various perceived needs and gratifications sought, deriving from the social background of the individual, modified according to a number of individual differences. Media use is only one of the means available for achieving the goals sought. A general model of media use along these lines (Rosengren 1974) is given in Figure 3.
Potentials and Problems of Models of Communication
It is clear from the examples that models have various purposes, and can suit alternative theoretical perspectives. Even so, they seem most suited to representing planned communication efforts, where there is some underlying logic and sequence, with discernible criteria of success or failure. This implies the transmission view of communication (Carey 1975), much criticized for its narrowness and simplicity, which is not remedied by inserting some feedback loop. Carey’s ritual view of communication offered an alternative in which the core meaning of communication is not purposeful action, but sharing, celebrating, and maintaining identities, beliefs, and relations through many forms of cultural expression. By its very essence, this open-ended, constructivist, and interpretive approach defies the efforts of the model-builder – it also reminds the field of the boundaries to the sensible deployment of its dominant models, including the tendency toward linear, causal, and mechanistic conceptions of communication.
There are few areas of communication research that have not produced at least one theory or concept that can be described in terms of a model (McQuail & Windahl 1993), including some of the most current approaches, such as gatekeeping, agenda setting, and news “framing”, as well as entire areas such as international communication. It is likely that fundamental changes in public and private communication stemming from technological convergence and the rise of the Internet will stimulate yet more models. Already Bordewijk and Van Kaam’s (1986) model of information traffic has led to an important typology of modes of communication. This differentiates four communicative relations: allocution (mass communication), consultation (of a database), conversation (exchange), and registration (at a central node). The increasing importance attached to the idea of a network society is favorable to the use of models of communication.
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