In Theory

Bateson, G. (1996). Communication. In H. B. Mokros (Ed.), Interaction and identity: Information and Behavior (Vol. 5, pp. 45–70). New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication theory, 9(2), 119–161.

Deetz, S. A. (1994). Future of the discipline: The challenges, the research, and the social contribution. In S. A. Deetz (Ed.), Communications yearbook 17. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

I began my reading this week with Craig (1999), which may have been a mistake in terms of absorbing concepts. Craig believes that communication theory can and should become a unified field of study through the use of a “constitutive metamodel,” and that the existing multidisciplinary traditions can be seen within this frame as seven different “vocabularies” (pp. 120–121). He argues that a dialogical/dialectical model, in which the various traditions are aware of how they complement each other and how they disagree, can unite the various disciplines contained within the field. I had trouble coming to a working definition of “constitutive” (in the context of communication) as I read, but because of the seven approaches to theory that Craig outlines, I came to think of “constitutive” as meaning “comprised by” in that the seven traditions make up communications theory as Craig sees it. I’m fairly sure now that this isn’t how Craig intended “constitutive” to be read, but I do think it’s still a fair way to look at his essay.

Deetz (1994) agrees with Craig that communication studies is in need of a clearer theoretical basis, and it is from Deetz that I take a definition of “constitutive” that makes me comfortable: “From a constitutive conception, all expression is derived from a more fundamental set of discursive practices in which the things that are to be expressed by messages are constitutively produced through messages” (p. 573). Deetz presents this constitutive communication view of the world as being in opposition to an information view, in which messages are transmitted whole rather than being constructed between participants in the communication. He calls this theoretical view of the world a discipline3, “a relatively organized way of attending to the world that explains how things came to be as they are” (p. 567). (He defines a discipline1 as an academic department and a discipline2 as a “field of study,” which is where he believes communication studies was when he wrote (p. 567)). Deetz advocates a pragmatic, political approach to communication studies, with active participation (a communication model) preferable to manufactured consent (transmission). Slightly off the main thesis of this paper, but also interesting to me as a media scholar, Deetz also contends that “Objectivity was oversold for the sake of prestige for clusters of elite researchers, journalists, teachers, and owners of knowledge” (p. 587).

Bateson (1996) appears to be the discussion of theory that accompanies a multidisciplinary study called The natural history of an interview. This, I discovered through research, was an unpublished 1971 book, and the context helps explain the content of the essay—and my discovery of context fits in well, actually, with Bateson’s discussion of context as informing a method of inquiry (pp. 55–56): I was able to look at Bateson’s article from a higher level of Gestalt. Predating both of the above theorists, Bateson relies on the theories of communication that most directly impinge on the study at hand. He comments on Freudian ideas of the unconscious and the Gestalt idea of punctuated experience. The discussion that he subheads “Interaction” reads strikingly like a version of Deetz’s (1994) constitutive theory of communication. He also compares orders of communication to orders of learning, and points out something that seems to be a constant issue for communication studies: “that we deal with entities whose behavior is by no means describable in terms of linear equations and monotone logic” (p. 67).

Somewhere in the middle of the Deetz (1994) article, I became annoyed with the entire premise for what he—and also Craig (1999)—were attempting. I like both of their overarching, unifying communication theories, but I feel like the motives for creating them in the first place are reactionary. As Deetz writes, communication departments earn little respect on campuses, and communication textbooks are not good (p. 565). But a large part of me feels like these theorists are theorizing merely because they want to justify the fact that the various disciplines of communication have found themselves lumped together for the reasons outlined by Delia (1987) and Peters (1999) in last week’s readings. Craig (1999) calls this state of things at its best “productive fragmentation” (p. 122). And I like his unifying theory better since it retains many of the various disciplinary approaches as separate but communicating entities within the new discipline. Still though, I feel as if other disciplines had the theories before they had the academic departments, and I wonder if that makes those the stronger disciplines, at least theoretically. Or maybe, as Deetz writes (echoing, it would seem, a common assertion), communication studies is still in its adolescence. I’m still unsettled about the usefulness of these unifying theories.

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