Communication Philosophical Assumptions (Week 2)

The three types of philosophical assumptions behind communication are epistemological, ontological and axiological. In my words, epistemology is the study of proving how people know what they say they know. The key word here is how. The first thing I thought of when I read about epistemology was the idiom “put your money where your mouth is.”

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This saying asks people to prove what they know, although epistemological varies a bit from this saying, as it’s more about how people go about learning rather than proving what they know. A study published in Journal of Mass Media Ethics examines new media and the ethics of epistemology. This case study examines a reporter’s ethical responsibility in asking themselves “how do I know what I know?” This study found that a reporter’s use of new media, in this case Twitter, reduces their ethical epistemology in asking themselves about how they know what they know. This study states “new media require that we value the best virtues of old media practices, beginning with the epistemic question: “How do I know what I know?” We must verify.” (Kenney 2012)[1] It’s extremely important that even as we have new technology, that we continue to adhere to verifying information and understanding the source for our communications.

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I think the quote by J.B. Priestly “The more elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate,”[2] articulates this phenomenon perfectly. Even though we have new technology and more elaborate ways of communicating, we are actually receiving less quality information, thereby lessening our ability to engage in effective communications. Even though we have new technologies, it’s more important than ever to consider the source of information and constantly evaluate our epistemology. I like the metaphor that Littlejohn (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011)[3] uses with the umpire. I immediately thought of the difference between how my husband and I ascertain knowledge. My husband is a rationalist. As Littlejohn explains in his umpire metaphor, “I calls them as they is.” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, 22) To my husband, everything is black and white; there are no shades of gray.

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My style is definitely more along the lines of “empiricism”. My reality can be shaped depending on the situation and my perception. I’m almost on the opposite end of the spectrum than my husband, as I often believe that everything is gray and subject to change. Nothing is absolute. My husband and I had a discussion recently that revealed our different communication philosophies. We were discussing the recent news story that employees of fast food chains want to begin getting paid $15 an hour. He felt adamant that those employees should absolutely not get paid $15 an hour. He was solid in his stance and he provided knowledge to back up his claim, stating three points backed up his position. First, he felt that those employees knew how much the job paid when they began working there. Second, he felt that if those employees weren’t happy, they should get a job somewhere else or go back to school to learn a trade. Third, he felt that paying fast food employees more money would drive up the costs for consumers.

My stance clearly portrayed my empiricism style. I could see all sides. I agreed with all of his points, but my viewpoint was swayed by my perceptions of the situation. I understand that an employee can go back to school, but what if that employee is a single mom? How can she balance going back to school with working and raising a family? It’s not as simple and clear-cut as he makes it sound. How can an employee just change their job if they are unhappy? The job market isn’t what it was prior to the Great Recession and there is still a high rate of unemployment. An employee may be stuck in that job. The executives of fast food chains make a significant amount of money, but I don’t believe they work any harder than an employee serving customers. But, I also agree with his points that the increased wages will result in higher costs of food for consumers, which will have a negative impact on society. The way I process this knowledge changes based on my perceptions and what I see around me, which is empiricism.

Littlejohn (Littlejohn & Foss 2011) defines ontology as “the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of being.” My definition is a bit simpler, as I believe that ontology is all about choices. I was fascinated when I read Littlejohn’s question, “to what extent do humans make real choices?” This goes exactly to the point that I told my husband in our discussion around the fast food workers. My husband is a pragmatist. He believes that people plan their behavior to meet future goals. He feels that a fast food worker made a poor choice in choosing fast food as their career choice and that their low wages is a result of that poor decision. He feels that they had complete control over their destiny and they chose poorly. I hold a middle position, as I’m not a determinist or a pragmatist. A determinist believes that people are reactive and passive. I think that being reactive and passive is a formula for unhappiness and those who are unhappy in their situation hold this point of view. However, I don’t think that everyone has complete control over the decisions they make. I think that people make choices based on the menu that is in front of them. Not everyone has the same menu. For example, if someone grows up in poverty and doesn’t have access to the best schools or resources, I don’t think going to college at Harvard is on their menu. However, they are also not destined to remain in poverty or their current situation. They can take control of their destiny and pull themselves out of the situation they are in, but they have a limited range of choices available. Over time, as they make a series of good choices, their menu expands. The proverb that I believe personifies this theory is:

“Whether you think you can or, you think you can’t–you’re right.” –Henry Ford[4]

I use this theory in my life often. Even though we have choices in life, you must believe in yourself. You have choices available to you, but if you don’t believe in yourself or if you think you are a passive recipient in your destiny, it will hold true. This is particularly relevant to the determinist theory. If one is passive and reactive in their destiny and believes that they have no control over the path in their life, then it will hold true. They will remain static and won’t achieve success because they don’t believe in themselves.

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Axiology is defined as “the branch of philosophy concerned with the study of values” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, 23). The way that Littlejohn uses the word “values” in this context is confusing to me. When I read through the context and apply it to my knowledge base, it appears to me that axiology is really about bias. Axiology is concerned with the bias of a researcher/scholar on the theory and research. I strongly believe that it’s not possible for theory to be “value” or “bias” free. Remember, I have an empiricism style, meaning that I believe everything is relative. This goes hand-in-hand with the axiology philosophy which looks at bias. Since I believe that everything is relative, I think that a researcher’s mode of study, subject, evaluation of results and method are all relative to his/her bias. As long as humans are involved, it’s impossible not to impart bias on a situation. I gave a lot of thought to the third branch of axiology, which looks at the purpose for scholarship. The question is whether scholarship should be used to achieve change or generate knowledge. After contemplating this issue, I determined that I fall into the “traditional scientist” role because I don’t believe that a scientist should be held accountable for the ways scientific knowledge is used. Scholarship should be used to inform and impart knowledge. How that knowledge is used is not the responsibility of the scientist.

A saying that requires a change in philosophical assumptions is:

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw[5]

This saying requires a change in philosophical assumption because it’s saying that our real problem isn’t how we obtain knowledge (epistemology) or the value that the knowledge provides (axiology) or even the choices we make (ontology), but our real problem is that we often think we’ve engaged in meaningful communication when we haven’t. I find this to be extremely relevant in my workplace. The illusion that communication has taken place is our number one challenge. We create newsletters, write articles, develop intranet sites, send talking points, email blasts and conduct webinars for employees to inform them of key information they need to know. We check the box that a communication was delivered and received and then we move on. However, we later discover that the intended audience is not aware that any communication took place. They either didn’t receive the message or they received it and it wasn’t clear or they weren’t informed as to how the communication applied to them. For whatever the reason, the communication didn’t resonate with the intended audience. So the message deliverer believes effective communication took place, while the end-user doesn’t even think communication was delivered. It’s the illusion that it took place and that it was effective that is causing the challenge. If we know that we have a gap in our communication channels or messaging, we can address it. However, our biggest challenge is that we are under the impression that successful, effectiveness communication has taken place. This is a gap that needs to be addressed, but it can be challenging to identify. With the other communication philosophical assumptions, they allow for variance, but they all assume that communication has taken place to some degree. By having a gap in believing a communication has occurred, a larger philosophical communication issue is at hand.

What do you think? Do you agree that believing communication has taken place is our biggest challenge as communicator’s? Do you agree with my belief that bias is inevitable in communication and science? How do you feel about bridging the gap among communication styles? I’d love to hear from you.

Part 2: Skype Interview

I’ve never used Skype before, so I was looking forward to my first Skype session with Kim Amaya. We met on Tuesday evening while my daughter was at cheerleading practice. I was pleased with how simple it was to use. We had one glitch however, as she could see me as I was talking, but I wasn’t able to see her. The screen showed that the video was loading, but it never loaded. We still had an excellent discussion and it was great to connect with a classmate. I discovered that Kim has children close in age to mine, as she has a 14-year-old son and a 4 year-old daughter and I have an 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter.

Skype is similar to Facetime, which I’ve used before to communicate with my family while I’m traveling .When I was in Dallas, Texas for work in March, I was able to Facetime with my kids every night. I was wonderful being able to see them and chat with them. The Facetime technology is so easy to use that my seven-year-old daughter was even able to use it to call me when she missed me. Now that I’ve used Skype for class, I see many uses for this tool in communications. I plan to show my family how to use Skype so we can use this technology to communicate. This would also be useful at work, as non-verbal cues are instrumental in communications. At Bank of America we use Cisco Telepresence for meetings in which individuals are spread out geographically. This technology allows us to see each other and have more collaborative meetings while saving money on travel. Skype could also be used to connect with co-workers spread out geographically. However, personally I’m glad that we don’t use Skype in my workplace, as I work from home and there are times when I’m not dressed professionally. I support the use of virtual communication tools. I think it’s the next generation of communication in the workplace, as not only are companies spread geographically, but many employee’s now work remotely. The use of tools, such as Skype, enable us to conduct work anywhere.


[1] Kenney, Rick & Akita, Kimiko (2012). The Epistemology of Retweeting and The Ethics of Trust. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Volume 27 (Issue 1) p68-70. DOI: 10.1080/08900523.2012.644154

[2] Talk: Joseph Preistly Retrieved September 7, 2013 from Wikipedia: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Joseph_Priestley

[3] Littlejohn, Stephen W. & Floss, Karen A. (2011). Theories of Human Communication. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

[4] Brainy Quote. Retreived on September 7, 2013 from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_communication3.html

[5] George Bernard Shaw (n.d.). Retrieved September 7, 2013 from Wikipedia: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Bernard_Shaw

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