Playing Favorites with Communication Theories (Week 7)

stuart miles on freedigitalphotos.net

stuart miles on freedigitalphotos.net

The seven traditions of communications theory all have varying levels of “truth” and applicability. I can see how each of the seven communication theories can apply to various situations that I’ve encountered. As Littlejohn and Foss (2011)[1] explain, not all of the communication theories will have the same level of importance or meaning to each of us. The seven communication traditions come from Robert Craig’s metamodel (2011, 44)[2]. I will list the communication traditions in order of my preference and applicability to work I’ve conducted.

  1.  Semiotic
Stuart Miles with freedigitalphotos.net

Stuart Miles with freedigitalphotos.net

My favorite communication tradition is semiotic. Semiotics is the study of signs. Littlejohn and Foss define the semiotic tradition as “how signs come to represent objects, ideas, states, situations, feelings, and conditions outside of themselves” (2011, 45)[3]. When I read about the semiotic tradition my first thought was, “this is it!” I applied the semiotic tradition when evaluating how the movie Forrest Gump provided “equipment for living” to those who want to pursue their destiny.

The semiotic tradition also ties right into an area that I’ve been interested in, which is food manufacturer’s use of purposeful deceitful packaging to portray a junk food as a healthy option.

A study conducted by Jonathon Schuldt (2013)[4], assistant professor communication and director of Cornell’s Social Cognition and Communication Lab, found that consumers often mistakenly believe a product is healthy if it has a green wrapper.

I conducted my PowerPoint presentation during our digital assignment on this article and was able to apply the semiotic tradition to explore how food manufacturer’s use packaging and labels to purposefully mislead consumers in thinking their products are healthy.

Food manufacturers are well aware that they are using semiotic tradition in their communication and marketing strategies with consumers. They use symbols with key words, icons and labeling to purposefully mislead consumers. They are aware of consumer’s perceptions and inference they will use when selecting their products. Consumers can protect themselves by becoming aware of their perceptions and ensuring they base their food purchasing on facts rather than inference on the packaging of a product.

My favorite example of this exists with a popular brand of granola bars. The Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars seem like a healthier option than a candy bar, but with 190 calories and 12 grams of sugars, don’t let the green box or “100% Natural” label fool you: this is no health food. You’d be better off with an entire package of Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate Squares for only 130 calories and 10 grams of sugar (CalorieCount)[5].

In this case food manufacturers use semiotic tradition, or a sign, to communicate misleading information. Food manufactures know that consumers associate a green food label with health food. Therefore they rebrand packaging on foods to purposefully mislead consumers. A study found that 50 percent of consumers use food labeling to help them make purchasing decisions (Gorman 1991)[6].

This is just one of the many examples of how companies use semiotics to communicate with consumers.

2.    Critical

Image courtesy of stockphoto on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockphoto on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My second favorite communication tradition is the critical tradition because of the applicability to understand gender communication. Littlejohn and Foss (2011) explain that the critical tradition explores how power, special abilities, influence and privileges influence communication in society. Language is an important component of the critical tradition, as the dominant language is often used to further oppress marginalized groups. Feminist studies use critical communications tradition to explore how females and other marginalized groups are kept from participating in the general public arena.

I’m particularly interested in the communication between men and women in the workplace. In Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, she explores gender in the workplace. She discusses how women often are expected to speak and communicate like a man in order to be successful in the workplace. (Sandberg, 2013). Sandberg mentions that women must develop a thick skin and not act emotional in the workplace. The preferred communication styles in the workplace often emulate the male style, which is direct. This critical communication theory would say that this is because the dominant language of men is being used to continue to oppress women.

Researchers at the University of Victoria found that these gender differences in communication perpetuate themselves in electronic and verbal communication. Females use the words “could” and “would” more often while males were more direct and assertive (Luong, et. al. 2007)[7]. This demonstrates that there is a difference in style between communication among men and women, but my question is, why is the female style viewed as inferior? This is because it has become ingrained, subconsciously, that the male style of communication is superior.

3.    Phenomenological

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Littlejohn and Foss (2011, 47)[8] define phenomenology as “the way in which human beings come to understand the world through direct experience – the perception of a phenomenon, whether an object, event or condition.” This communication tradition explores how individuals actively interpret their world and make sense of their experience. We come to know our world through how we engage with it, not just through reading about it. This theory basically says that we must experience something to truly understand it.

An example that comes to mind with phenomenological tradition is going through adolescence. I try to protect my children by telling them about my lessons learned throughout my adolescence and I advise them of situations to avoid and what not to do, but honestly, they are going to have to experience life themselves before they are truly able to apply these lessons. No matter how much I tell them that friendships are fleeting, but family is forever, this won’t prevent them from being devastated the first time they are betrayed by a friend. No matter how much I tell them that the hurt from their first break-up won’t last forever, they won’t believe me until they go through it themselves. Feeling love, loss and betrayal aren’t things you can experience by hearing about it from someone else or reading about it. You must experience it for yourself.

This is my third favorite tradition because I like how one can apply this theory to world experience. As much as I like to research and read about situations, the older I get, the more I realize that no matter how much research, reading and exploration of a topic you conduct, you truly don’t understand something until you’ve experienced it firsthand.

4.    Cybernetic

Stacy Cacciatore

The cybernetic tradition explores how communication is understood by how elements influence each other. Littlejohn and Foss state that systems make up cybernetic tradition and  “systems are sets of interacting components that together form something more than the sum of parts” (2011, 50)[9].

An example of applying cybernetic theory is in family dynamics. Families are made up of many individuals, each with their own personalities, issues and characteristics. Each family member isn’t acting solo, but they influence each other. These interactions create patterns of behavior and a unique family dynamic. Just this weekend I took a road trip with my mother and two children to visit my sister and nephews in Brevard, North Carolina.

We have a interlocking web of relationships, as our family unit is not only defined by Mother-Daughters, but we each have our own family unit, with spouse and children. We have in-laws, nieces, nephews, sisters, grandparents and step-parents all working together to create the overall family dynamic. To understand the relationship of our family, you can evaluate how each of us influence one another and create a pattern of relationship.

An article by Frederick Steier explored cybernetic communication and stated that an important component is how the family members define the family system based on the history of their interactions with each other (1989)[10].Relationships and family history can have deep rooted meanings in family systems.

I find the study of family dynamics fascinating. This is particularly interesting as I come off of a weekend with family and the meshing of several family dynamics and efforts to understand each other.

5.    Sociopsychological

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono on FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The sociopsychological tradition explores the individual as a social being that is part of a community. Littlejohn and Foss state that this theory is “most often associated with ‘the science of communication’ (2011, 53)[11]. This theory focuses on message processing. The researchers also find that most of this processing is done without the individual’s awareness.

This applies a great deal to the communication strategies I develop in my workplace. We must take into account how an individual will process the information based on their role in the organization. Even though we are all part of one organization, the employee’s job function plays an important role in the way they will interpret the information. I created a communication matrix that lists the various roles in the organization in which we communicate, along with the communication channels. We use this matrix to evaluate the message and ensure it is relvant and applicable to the audience. For example, when communicating information about a technical issue, we can assume that our technology managers will understand certain terminology. However, if we write a general aarticle about the same technology we must vary the language and information to ensure it’s understood by the broader audience.

6.    Sociocultural

Stuart Miles with freedigitalphotos.net

Stuart Miles with freedigitalphotos.net

Researchers in this tradition explore how people interact together to create the reality of their organization, culture and group.

Something that comes to mind when exploring the sociopsychological tradition is how social networking sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest create alter-egos and personalities in which we interact with each other. I wrote about the social networking phenomenon in last week’s discussion post on virtual watercooler.

I found that the use of a hashtag inherently creates a sense of community as people feel a part of a group or community by curating their content with a shared experience. An article by Lauren Smith and Richard Smith (2012)[12] found that the use of hashtags, particularly in sports, supports the social-identity theory that helps others understand their place in the world. They found that people use Twitter to share information and the use of this social media channel fulfills emotional needs. The use of the hashtag makes people feel a part of something larger than themselves and connected to a larger community.

7. Rhetorical

Ambro on freedigitalphotos.net

Ambro on freedigitalphotos.net

The rhetorical tradition explores the art of using symbols to construct the world around us. Littlejohn and Foss (2011) state that there are five areas of rhetoric:

  • Invention
  • Arrangement
  • Style
  • Delivery
  • Memory

These areas interact together to form the overall rhetorical tradition. The rhetorical tradition can look overall at how race, gender, class and sexuality. There is overlap of rhetorical traditions with many other communication traditions. I think that the rhetorical tradition can be used most broadly, as it applies to such a broad range of situations.

In conclusion, I think that all of the communication traditions are applicable in a wide variety of circumstances. It is important to have a knowledge of all of them, so one can make relevant correlations in a variety of circumstances. Not only can different communication theories be applied to a variety of circumstances, but one situation can also have applicability to a variety of communication theories


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

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

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

[4] Schuldt, Jonathon P. (February, 27 2013). Does Green Mean Healthy? Nutrition Label Color Affects Perceptions of Healthfulness. Health Communication. DOI:10.1080/10410236.2012.725270

[5] Nature Valley. “Calories in Crunchy Granola Bars” Retrieved on September 13, 2013 from http://caloriecount.about.com/calories-nature-valley-crunchy-granola-bars-i57486

[6] Gorman, Christine (1991), “The Fight over Food Labels,” Time Magazine, p52-56.

[7] Luong, Alexandra, Durgunoglu, Aydin, Hennek, Jennifer and Mai, Thao (December 2007). Perception of Leader Effectiveness as a Function of Gendered Language in Electronic Mail. Communication Journal of New Zealand. 8(2) 19-30.

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

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

[10] Steier, F. (1989). Toward a Radical and Ecological Constructivist Approach to Family Communication, Journal of Applied Communication Research, 17(1/2). 1-26.

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

[12] Smith, L. and Smith, R.  (2012) Identity in Twitter’s Hashtag Culture: A Sport-Media Consumption Case Study. International Journal of Sport Communication, 5(4) 539-557.

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