inside communication research paradigm shift

Editors note

Here we are in the communications age. But what does it mean to study human communication scientifically? Let me give you an insider’s view.

At the Institute, we have been part of what is known in the science trade as a paradigm shift—a radical and often painfully controversial change in the way we think about our subject, our past findings, our present methods, and our future direction.

If you think that science is concerned with success in discovery, objectivity, and truth, you might be surprised to learn that the new science of communication, emerging from the wreckage of the old, is concerned with failure, subjectivity, and lying.

Let me begin by telling you about failure, because through the discovery of failure, you will see some of the historical reasons for the paradigm shift. Communication is a word popularly associated with success. For example, many people today in science communication think that if those concerned with science can be good communicators, then this will result in more students, better funding, and public support.

This assumption about the presumed power of communication to bring about positive change is not new. Our culture has ancient and deep beliefs in the symbolic powers of communication. We see all around us attempts to exercise that presumed power through propaganda, political campaigns and advertising. And we sense the presumption of power in the wealth and influence which attends the ownership of the mass media of print, film, radio and television. All these features of our past and present suggest that communication is very powerful in affecting what we do and think.

This belief in the power of communication prompted the early development of scientific research in communication in the 1940’s and is, not surprisingly, the bedrock of the old paradigm.

The researchers were interested in discovering how the power of communication was exercised. There were two strands to this research: an American social science based empirical study of communication effects; and a European linguistic study of how all kinds of messages, from advertising to serious literature, influenced people by the meanings the messages created. This second strand which influenced literary and film criticism became known as structuralism, because of its emphasis on the structure of messages.

These two approaches—the empiricist and structuralist—are often represented as antithetical in elementary textbooks. But actually, they both stem from the same common belief in the power and effect of communication. The empiricists tried to discover the type of effects communication had on behaviour; the structuralists assumed the behavioural effects and sought to uncover how messages created meanings which led to these behaviours.

The approaches did differ ideologically. The empiricists tried to discover how to shape messages that would create particular effects for business through advertising, or for the state through propaganda. Needless to say, their research was well funded. By contrast, the structuralists were interested in a critique of business and government power. They wanted to expose the mechanisms by which power was exercised. Not surprisingly, they were never as well funded.

But funded or not, both enterprises failed. Despite decades of research into the empirical effects of communication little headway was made in finding major links between communication and behaviour. This failure often surprises people, so deeply embedded in popular thinking is the idea that communication is powerful and successful. However, by 1960, in a major review of the research into mass media effects, Joseph Klapper showed that the search for major and predictable effects due to the mass media had failed (Klapper, 1960).

Unpredictable mass communication

Although research into effects continued long after this finding, Klapper’s major conclusion, that effects, if there were any, were small and unpredictable, continued. Whether the research was on media agenda setting (Blood, 1989), public information campaigns (McGuire, 1986), or advertising (Schudson, 1984), the results were remarkably similar in their overall pattern. Sometimes effects were observed but they were usually small and never predictable. There were occasional spectacular large apparent effects, like the panic that reportedly ran across the east coast of the USA when listeners to Orson Wells’ dramatisation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds mistook the documentary realism of the drama for actual news. But these were extremely rare and unpredictable: the stuff ad men dream of but seldom, if ever, make happen for their clients.

Even a widely read and respected stalwart of the traditional paradigm, Denis McQuail, commented in the late 80s

The entire study of mass communication is based on the premise that there are effects from the media, yet it seems to be the issue on which there is least certainty and least agreement. (McQuail, 1987 p 251)

But back in the 70s, those of us researchers interested in a wider range of communication processes beyond the mass media began to notice a similar pattern in other areas: research into interpersonal communication (Penman, 1980), and visual communication (Sless, 1981), all showed similar disappointing results. At the very least, the evidence was suggesting that the belief that communication had powerful effects was wrong. But there was worse to come.

Individual communication

When we looked more closely at individual communication episodes we found that they resulted, more often than not, in misunderstanding. For example, graphic designs (Sless, 1979), legal documents, even in Plain English, (Penman, 1990), forms and questionnaires (Sless, 1990), and courtroom proceedings (Penman, 1987)—all are more likely to result in misunderstanding than success.

If you ring people up just after the evening news finishes on TV and ask them what the news items were about, most people either cannot tell you, and if they can, their interpretation is likely to be wrong (Edgar, 1980). Most complex forms and questionnaires are completed incorrectly (Fisher & Sless, 1990). Courtroom proceedings do not allow witnesses to convey information or evidence that matters to them (Penman, 1991).

The search for alternatives

By the late 70s some of us were actively looking for alternative ways of investigating and understanding this mercurial phenomenon of communication.

Structuralism, which by then had become something of an intellectual fashion among critics, seemed at first glance to offer something new. However for a variety of reasons, it too failed. Empirically it failed because people’s actual interpretation of messages were more complex and varied, more subject to misunderstanding than the structural analysis provided by researchers (Morley, 1980).

But the greatest failure of structuralism was philosophical. It presupposed that there was some way of separating a message from its reading: as if a message had a structure observable to science, independent of its use (Sless, 1976). Physicists are familiar with experiments at the quantum level in which the experimenter becomes a participant, not a neutral observer. Scientists studying communication have a similar problem. But for us the problem is more pervasive because we have no way at all of studying messages objectively. We are by our very nature participants in our communication universe. Reading a message is an active and supremely subjective process. How we read a message depends on our methods of understanding. And, in the case of researchers, with years of training in specialised reading techniques, our reading of messages is likely to be unusual, and certainly different from the majority of people, who receive no such training. There is no way of observing messages objectively.

And here was the nub of the problem for communication researchers, and why subjectivity has become so important to us. What goes on between people and messages cannot be known from observation of the message. The search for the way messages affect people, or how they affect people, turned out to be a failure like the search for the philosopher’s stone. Transmuting base metals into gold failed, not because the wrong chemicals were mixed, but because the wrong ideas, based on wrong assumptions, were mixed. Similarly, making communication work does not depend on mixing the right message to get the right effect, but on thinking about the problem in a totally different way. Ideas of cause and effect, so much part of traditional science, are not very productive in the study of communication. The elusive phenomena of communication needed an altogether different approach.

Truth or lies?

We realised that, if our research was about the reading of messages, then the distinction between objective and subjective becomes meaningless. There are, in a sense, only different qualities of subjectivity: different styles of reading, different positions from which readings can take place (Sless, 1987).

Just in case this seems like a recipe for solipsism—the belief that everything is in the mind—it is not. We are only peripherally interested in the mind. We are interested in what goes on between people and messages. It is what people do with messages—how people act—that interests us, not what goes on in their head when they read.

This has led to a radical change in the research methods we use and the type of data we regard as acceptable.

Our emphasis on what people do has caused us to look at communication as a kind of action. And it is through studying this action that we come to our fascinating preoccupation with lying. Lying is the repressed taboo of our intellectual life, just as sex is sometimes the repressed taboo of social life. But it turns out that fundamental to any communicative action is a kind of lying.

Do you remember the old philosophical paradox about lying Cretans? It goes like this: all Cretans are liars, I am a Cretan, therefore I am lying. Am I a Cretan? Before you get tied up in logical knots trying to solve this paradoxical statement, let me give you a much more interesting idea to play with. All Cretans, like the rest of us, can lie: we can make things seem other than they are; we can tell stories; we can invent new ways of understanding; we can lie. It is the process of deception, making one thing stand for another, creating metaphors, or inventing axioms that makes communication possible. The study of signs and symbols, as Umberto Eco observes

…is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. (Eco, 1976).

The fact that we can lie is another way of saying that we can play the game by the rules, we can cheat, or we can invent new rules. We owe this insight into the nature of communication—as a kind of game with rules—to the enigmatic philosopher Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein, 1953). This insight explains why the old paradigm, based on the ideas of cause and effect, did not work. People are not affected by messages, that is altogether the wrong way to describe what happens. People read messages using the range of rules they have available to them and which seem appropriate at the time. So when we study communication, we are studying rules made by people.

This means that our research has moved out of the realm of the predictable. Indeed we are not even in the unpredictable world of chaos theory. We are, it seems, in the realm of the non-predictable, an altogether much more interesting place.

Rules used, rules abused, and rules invented

Consider the mathematical rules which are used to study the origins of the universe. When Stephen Hawking, at the end of A Brief History of Time, (Hawking, 1988) disparages Wittgenstein for reducing the scope of philosophy to the analysis of language, he missed the point of the radical change which Wittgenstein’s insights precipitated. Wittgenstein includes in language all our means of communication, including the mathematical symbols used by theoretical physicists to try and understand the universe. Language is not just a tool but a fundamental part of our cultural fabric of understanding.

In our research, we try to understand the rules which people use, subvert, or invent in different types of conversations—for example, in marriages, in courtrooms, between marketers and consumers, between bureaucracies and citizens, between television and the viewer, between computers and users.

These rules can be powerful. For example, the Macintosh computer has become widely regarded as a powerful tool and an aid to productivity. Why? Not superior hardware. It is because the Macintosh user interface—the signs and symbols of icons, windows and menus—present the user with a consistent set of rules for doing things. The power of the system lies in its consistent and well thought out rules.

Rules can sometimes be subverted. For example, when in the 1960s psychologists discovered that Americans believe people are more honest if they look you straight in the eye, every con-man in the country started practicing eye contact in the mirror.

Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is the research to create new types of rules, sometimes ahead of any clear purposes. New programming languages, new mathematical systems, new artistic styles. Think of the possibilities of expression that new languages open up. When Descartes invented coordinate geometry, he opened up all the possibilities of scientific communication that depend on graphs.

Understanding, refining and creating new methods of understanding

In case this seems a theoretical and abstract type of work, divorced from practical matters, consider the high costs to government and industry of lack of understanding. The cost of not understanding information such as legal agreements, legislation, standard letters, software, forms, and manifestos is very high. If people don’t understand you and you cannot understand them, it costs you money, lost opportunities, and, in the political arena, lost votes.

Communication research is about rules used, rules abused, and rules invented. The benefits of applied communication research using the new paradigm are considerable. Failure teaches us to have modest expectations—minimising misunderstanding becomes a more practical and efficient strategy than maximising agreement. Subjectivity, by sensitizing us to context, focuses our efforts on who is reading the messages and their position. Lying alerts us to the fact that communication is a constructive inventive process based on the use and misuse of identifiable rules—people create meanings consistent with their needs and expectations, not necessarily anyone else‘s.

But this research reaches beyond the purely practical. We are also concerned about the way in which the rules we create and refine, liberate, oppress and control. Because in the age of communications, no less than in any other age, our greatest freedoms are our freedoms of expression and our capacity to develop new productive ways of understanding.


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Public agendas and media agendas: Some news that may matter,
Media Information Australia 52, pp 7—15.

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Edgar, P. (1980)
The forgetable news: two studies on the recall of TV NEWS,
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A Brief History of Time

London: Bantam.

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The Effects of Mass Communication
Glenco, Illinois: The Free Press.

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The myth of massive media impact: savagings and slavagings
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Orlando: Academic Press pp 173-257.

McQuail, D. (1987)
Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction (Second Edition).
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The ‘Nationwide’ Audience,
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Penman, R. (1980)
Communication Processes and Relationships,
London: Academic Press

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CRIA Occasional Paper 14,
Communication Research Institute of Australia.

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Advertising: the Uneasy Persuasion,
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Sless, D. (1979) Image design and modification: an experimental project in transforming,
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Sless D. (1981)
Learning and Visual Communication,
London: Croom Helm. Reissued here

Sless, D. ( 1987)
A Matter of Position,
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Wittgenstein, L. (1953)
Philosophical Investigations,
Translated by E. Anscombe.
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