5 Theories & Models of Communication

A Amudavalli

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I. Learning Outcome


On completion of this module you should have a clear understanding of the major components in the information transfer process, the various theories and models of information transfer and their limitations


II. Structure of the Module


1. Communication

1.1 Concept of Communication

1.2 Components of Communication

1.3 Classification

1.4 Theories and Models

2.1. Communication Theories

2.2. Evolution

2.3. Theories

2.2.1. Rhetoric theory

2.2.2. Semiotic theory

2.2.3. Phenomenological theory

2.2.4. Cybernetic theory

2.2.5. Socio-cultural theory

2.2.6. Socio-psychological theory

2.2.7. Critical theory

2. Communication Models

3.1. Evolution

3.2. Types

3.2.1. Linear Model

3.2.2. Interactive Model

3.2.3. Transactional Model

3.3. Models

3.3.1. Harold Lasswell’s Model of Communication (1948)

3.3.2. Shannon and Weaver Model of Communication (1949)

3.3.3. Theodorem Newcomb’s Model of Communication (1953)

3.3.4. Wilbur Schramm & Osgood Model of Communication (1954)

3.3.5. George Gerbner’s Model of Communication (1956)

3.3.6. Westley and Maclean’s Model (1957)

3.3.7. David Berlo Model of Communication (1960)

3.3.8. Dance’s Helix Model (1967)

3.3.9. DeVito’s Interactive Model (2003)

3.3.10. Davis Foulger (2004)

4. Summary

5. Reference


1. Communication


The word communication has a rich history. Since the beginning of time, the need to communicate has been a part of man’s inherent being. The successful survival of mankind was due to their ability to communicate. Human race has communicated though different techniques and methods; the use of symbols, gestures, sounds, drawings and sign languages were some methods of communication used by the early man. Archaeological evidence shows that the early men were good artists and have been effectively communicating through the visual sense, the transmission, reception, or reproduction of sound and the study of body movements. Through the years communication has advanced with the development of technology. Hence it is clear that communication has assumed an immense importance in our time. (Littlejohn, 2002) 


Etymologically, the word ‘communicate’ is derived from the Latin verb – communicare, adjective – communis and old French adjective – comun. The key root is ‘mun’ (and not ‘uni’) stemming from the Latin word ‘munus’ meaning to share publicly/ impart/ make common. Communication is thus traced back to be derived from the old French term comunicacion and Latin word communicatio (n-). This clearly only means ‘to share’ and are ‘common’ to all. This word seems to have entered into English language in 14th and 15th centuries. The term originally meant sharing of tangible things; food, land, goods, and property. Today, it is often applied to knowledge and information processed by living things or computers. Communication connects people and places. Thus, it is clear to understand that communication allows people to exchange their thoughts and ideas through speech, signals, writing, or behaviour. Basically, communication is shared feelings/shared understanding. People have always communicated, but the process of communication became the subject of studies in the 20th century. The serious study of communication was triggered by the development of technologies.


1.1. Concept of Communication


Communication is a two-way process of reaching mutual understanding in which participants not only exchange ideas, feelings and information but also create and share meaning. It is the exchange of thoughts, messages, or the like, by speech, signals or writing. It is to express oneself in such a way that one is readily and clearly understood. It is a process of conveying information from the sender to the receiver with the use of the media in which the communicated information is understood.


Communication is the expression or exchange of information by speech, writing, gestures, conduct or electronic medium. It is a process of passing information, ideas, facts, or opinions from two or more parties. It is the process by which an idea is brought to another’s perception. The information that is so expressed or exchanged is also referred to as communication. It is a complex and dynamic process that allows organisms to exchange information by several methods.


To quote a few select definitions on communication:


US ARMY: “Communication is the exchange and flow of information and ideas from one person to another; it involves a sender transmitting an idea, information, or feeling to a receiver.”


William Rice-Johnson: “A communication takes place when one individual, a sender, displays, transmits or otherwise directs a set of symbols to another individual, a receiver, with the aim of changing something, either something the receiver is doing (or not doing) or changing his or her world view. This set of symbols is typically described as a message.”


Pranav Mistry: “Effective communication occurs only if the receiver understands the exact information or idea that the sender intended to transmit. Many of the problems that occur in an organization are the either the direct result of people failing to communicate and/or processes, which leads to confusion and can cause good plans to fail.” Peter Drucker: “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”


Conrad & Poole: “Communication is the process by which people interactively create, sustain and manage meaning”


1.2. Components of Communication


Communication comprises of eight major components, which make the object of study of the communication theory. They are so integral and interdependent that they are considered as basic elements of any communication process. They include:


Source is that which “produces a message or sequence of messages to be communicated to the receiving terminal.”


Sender refers to transmitter , which “operates on the message in some way to produce a signal suitable for transmission over the channel.’’.


Channel is “merely the medium used to transmit the signal from transmitter to receiver’’.


Receiver performs the inverse operation of that done by the transmitter, reconstructing the message from the signal.”


Destination is “the person (or thing) for whom the message is intended“.


Message is derived from Latin word mittere, meaning “to send”. It refers to a concept, information, communication or statement that is sent in a oral/ graphic/written/audio/visual/audio-visual form to the recipient.


Feedback is the loop of making a two-way communication process related to the response to the message. It is simply the reaction of the Destination back to the Source, direct and/or indirect.


Context is considered as a very significant component as it decides the given communication process and fixes all the above said seven components. It refers to the background and the environment – immediate and far. Space and time play a larger role of a given communication. A good communication means different things to different (or even same) people at different times.


The other three elements associated in the process of communication are: Entropy, Redundancy and Noise. Entropy is a measure of the amount of uncertainty associated in the message/content. Redundancy is either knowingly or unknowingly enters the communication process. If deliberate, it serves the purpose of reiterating the message and otherwise receptiveness is undesired element. Noise is actually anything irrelevant, unwarranted, undesired and hence, a disturbance/interference to the effective transmission process. Noise is anything that disrupts or interferes with the effective communication process. Noise can be physical or psychological or semantic, it can disturb the communication process at any point, and it can be associated with any elements in the system.

  • Physical noise or external noise which are environmental distractions such as poorly heated rooms, startling sounds, appearances of things, music playing somewhere else, and someone talking really loudly near you.
  • Physiological noise are biological influences that distract you from communicating competently such as sweaty palms, pounding heart, butterfly in the stomach, induced by speech anxiety, or feeling sick, exhausted at work, the ringing noise in your ear, being really hungry, and if you have a runny nose or a cough. Psychological noise are the preconception bias and assumptions such as thinking someone who speaks like a valley girl is dumb, or someone from a foreign country can’t speak English well so you speak loudly and slowly to them.
  • Semantic noise is word choices that are confusing and distracting such as using the word tri-syllabic instead of three syllables.


1.3. Classification


Human communication may be broadly classified as:


•        Intrapersonal

•        Interpersonal

•        Group Dynamics

•        Public/Mass

•        Organization

•        Cross cultural

  • Intrapersonal communication is a communicator’s internal use of language or thought. It can be useful to envision intrapersonal communication occurring in the mind of the individual in a model which contains a sender, receiver, and feedback loop.
  • Interpersonal communication is an exchange of information between two or more people. Interpersonal communication is the process by which people exchange information, feelings, and meaning through verbal and non-verbal messages
  • Group dynamics is a system of behaviours and psychological processes occurring within a social group (intra group dynamics), or between social groups (intergroup dynamics).
  • Mass communication is the process by which a person, group of people, or large organization creates a message and transmits it through some type of medium to a large, anonymous, heterogeneous audience. Public communication includes mass media, public relations and public speaking, but can include any form of sending a message to a large group of people.
  • Organizational communication is a subfield of the larger discipline of communication studies. Organizational communication, as a field, is the consideration, analysis, and criticism of the role of communication in organizational contexts.
  • Cross cultural communication – It is a field of study that looks at how people from differing cultural backgrounds communicate among themselves, and how they endeavor to communicate across cultures. Intercultural communication is a related field of study. Any of the above, depending on the choice of the medium, may be classified further as verbal, non-verbal/bodily and graphic communication.
  • Verbal communication: is the sharing of information between individuals using speech that employs a natural language like English and readily understood spoken words as well as ensuring enunciation, stress and tone with which the words are expressed appropriately and understood correctly.
  • Bodily communication: refers to various forms of non verbal communication, wherein a person may reveal clues as to some unspoken intention or feeling through their physical behavior. These behaviors include (but are not limited to) facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch, etc.
  • Graphic communication: uses graphic elements. These elements include symbols such as glyphs and icons, images such as drawings and photographs, and can include the passive contributions of substrate, colour and surroundings. It is the process of creating, producing, and distributing material incorporating words and images to convey data, concepts, and emotions.


Whatever may be the type, human communication focuses on discovering persons and is associated with subjectivity.


1.4. Theories and Models


A theory is intended to provide an abstract understanding of a process. It is simply a summary of a process. Hoover (1984) defines it as “a set of inter-related propositions that suggest why events occur in the manner that they do”. Foss, Foss and Griffin (1999) define theory as, “a way of framing an experience or event—an effort to understand and account for something and the way it functions in the world”. “Theories are not just things to be read and learned. They are constantly evolving works.” (Littlejohn, 2002, p. 25). Any thoughts or ideas about how things work in the world or one’s life are personal theories. Theories are essentially framework for how the world works, and therefore guide how to function in the world. The term communication theory may refer to a single theory or an entire set of theories related to communication.


The origin of the word ‘Model’ could be traced back to the French word modèle; Italian modello; and the Latin modus, meaning measure or standard. Model refers to a representation / replica of the original. A model is a schematic description of a system, theory, or phenomenon that accounts for its known or inferred properties and may be used for further study of its characteristics. Thus communication models seek to represent the structure and key constituents of the process of communication.


2. Communication Theories


In a field like Communication, theories are important to understand because they directly impact our daily lives. There are several functions in guiding our communication. The first function communication theories serve is that they help us understand our communication experiences. The second function is that they help us choose what communicative behaviours to study. The third function is that they help us broaden our understanding of human communication. The fourth function is that they help us predict and control our communication. The fifth function of theories is that they help us challenge current social and cultural realities and provide new ways of thinking and living. While theories serve many useful functions, these functions do not really matter if we do not have well-developed theories that provide a good representation of how our world works. A well-developed communication theory helps to better understand and explain the communicative behaviours of ourselves and others. Littlejohn considers a communication theory to be “any conceptual representation or explanation of the communication process”.


2.1. Evolution


Communication theory is the discipline that studies the principles of transmitting information and the methods by which it is delivered (as print or radio or television, etc.). A “communication theory” is an attempted explanation of how and why humans communicate meaningfully with each other. Such theories have originated from a variety of different fields, including Psychology, Biology, and Philosophy, though the actual study of the nature of communication is a field in itself. At its core, It is generally devoted to explaining how exactly an individual is able to communicate meaning to another and the degree to which the speaker and the listener understand each other. Other theories are more focused on the historical and ritual significance of communication as an essential element of culture. Such theories may focus on the broad cultural effects of communication instead of the specific process of transmitting meaning.


Interest in communication grew directly from the invention of telegraph and telephone. In 1844 the American inventor Samuel F.B. Morse built a telegraph line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland. Morse encountered many electrical problems when the signals were sent through buried transmission lines, but fewer problems when the lines were suspended on poles. This attracted the attention of physicists. In a similar manner, the invention of telephone in 1875 by Alexander Graham Bell attracted scientists, such as Henri Poincaré, Oliver Heaviside, and Michael Pupin, to the problems associated with transmitting signals over wires.


The origin of communication theory is linked to the development of information theory in the early 1920s. The formal study of information theory did not begin until 1924, when Harry Nyquist, a researcher at Bell Laboratories, published a paper entitled “Certain Factors Affecting Telegraph Speed.” Nyquist realized that communication channels had maximum data transmission rates, and he derived a formula for calculating these rates in infinite bandwidth noiseless channels. Another pioneer was Nyquist’s colleague R.V.L. Hartley, whose paper “Transmission of Information” (1928) established the first mathematical foundations for information theory. The real birth of modern theory of communication can be traced to the publication in 1948 of Claude Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. Shannon realized that, in order to have a theory, communication signals must be treated in isolation from the meaning of the messages they transmit. This is in sharp contrast with the common conception of information, in which meaning has an essential role. Shannon also realized that the amount of information conveyed by a signal is not directly related to the size of the message. Shannon focused on the problem of how best to encode the information that a sender wants to transmit. He used tools in probability theory and also developed information entropy as a measure for the uncertainty in a message. Shannon is also credited with the introduction of sampling theory, which was essential in enabling telecommunications to move from analog to digital transmission systems in the 1960s and later.


Shannon realized that a useful theory would first have to concentrate on the technical problems associated with sending and receiving messages as, if a message could not be transmitted correctly, then the semantic problem (meaning of the message) was not likely ever to be solved satisfactorily. The practical stimuli for his work were the problems faced in creating a reliable telephone system. A key question in the early days of telecommunication was ‘how to transmit the maximum number of telephone conversations over existing cables’. Shannon’s work defined communication channels and showed how to assign a capacity to them, not only in the theoretical sense but also in practical cases where real channels were subjected to real noise. Shannon’s formula showed how the bandwidth of a channel (that is, its theoretical signal capacity) and its signal-to -noise ratio (a measure of interference) affected its capacity to carry signals. In doing so he was able to suggest strategies for maximizing the capacity of a given channel and showed the limits of what was possible with a given technology. This was of great utility to engineers, who could focus thereafter on individual cases and understand the specific trade-offs involved.


Shannon also made the startling discovery that, even in the presence of noise, it is always possible to transmit signals arbitrarily close to the theoretical channel capacity. This inspired engineers to look for practical techniques to optimize performance in signal transmissions. Shannon’s work clearly distinguished between gains that could be realized by adopting a different encoding scheme from gains that could be realized only by altering the communication system itself. Though Shannon’s theory does not always make clear how to achieve specific results, people now know which questions are worth asking and can focus on areas that will yield the highest return.


Since the 1940s and ’50s the principles of classical information theory have been applied to many fields. Subsequent to Shannon’s Theory, several theories have evolved.


To quote from Robert T Craig’s landmark article, Communication Theory as a Field in 1999, although there exist many theories of communication there is no consensus on communication theory as a field”. Craig takes a step toward unifying this rather disparate field and addressing its complexities. Towards this end Craig focused on communication theory as a practical discipline and shows how “various traditions of communication theory can be engaged in dialogue on the practice of communication.” Craig identifies seven different traditions of Communication Theory and outlines how each one of them would engage the others in dialogue:


1.     Rhetorical

2.     Semiotic

3.     Phenomenological

4.     Cybernetic

5.     Socio-Psychological

6.     Socio-cultural

7.     Critical


2.2.1. Rhetorical Theory


Rhetorical theory is said to have begun on the Island of Sicily when a dictator was overthrown, leaving former and current landowners to argue in court over who rightfully owned the land—the original owners or those who had been given the land during the tyrant’s regime. Under the Greek legal system of the time, individuals had to present their own cases in court—they could not hire lawyers to speak for them—creating the need for individuals to become adept at the art of rhetoric. Corax can be credited with the first formal rhetorical theory; he wrote a treatise called ‘The Art of Rhetoric’ to assist those involved in the land disputes. In his treatise, he highlighted the importance of probability to rhetoric; a speaker should argue from general probabilities or create a probable connection or basis for belief when actual facts cannot be established.


Rhetorical theory is no longer confined to the public domains of classical Greece and addresses all contexts in which symbol use occurs. This means studying everything from intrapersonal to interpersonal to public discourse to social movements and mediated discourse including study of visual and nonverbal elements, such as the study of art and architecture, buildings and all design elements of cities, and dress and appearance, to sports, to name only a few. There is hardly anything that is part of the human experience that cannot be looked at from a rhetorical perspective. For some rhetorical theorists, all human symbol use is inherently persuasive — no matter what our intent, anything we say or write, whether intentional or not, affects those around us. Other rhetorical theorists continue to focus on delineating how persuasion works in the variety of new arenas for theorizing. Yet others question the persuasive act itself—is it appropriate to ask another to change?—and encourage research into other rhetorical modes, such as invitational rhetoric, that might be as or even more effective than persuasion. In general, then, the focus on persuasion and its possibilities has led to an ongoing interest among rhetorical theorists in rhetoric’s relationship to social change.


2.2.2. Semiotic Theory


Using the Greek letters σημιωτικὴ, the term ‘semiotics’ was introduced into the English language by John Locke (1690) as a synonym for “doctrine of signs” (Latin: doctrina signorum, the oldest name for the study of what is now called ‘semiosis’ or “the action of signs”). There already existed in Locke’s time the Greek term Σημειωτικὴ, “semeiotics”, to name that branch of medical science concerned with the study of symptoms of disease or σημεια—‘natural signs’ in today’s language.


Research into sign systems began with the ancient Greeks. In the modern world the major areas which have been the object of semiotic study are literature, social structures, visual arts, ritual, myth, pedagogy, and gesture. Consequently, semiotics is very much an interdisciplinary science as germane to Anthropology as it is to English, to Philosophy as it is to Art History, to sport as it is to media studies.


Semiotics is the science of communication and sign systems, in short, of the ways people understand phenomena and organize them mentally, and of the ways in which they devise means for transmitting that understanding and for sharing it with others. Although natural and artificial languages are central to semiotics, its field covers all non-verbal signalling and extends to domains whose communicative dimension is perceived only unconsciously or subliminally. Knowledge, meaning, intention and action are thus fundamental concepts in the semiotic investigation of phenomena.


2.2.3. Phenomenological Theory


Phenomenological theorists emphasize that each person actively constructs her or his own world. According to this, the specific ways each person perceives and interprets the world make up one’s personality and guide one’s own behaviour. People’s view of reality/perspective is important in guiding their behaviour and is shaped by learned expectations. These expectations form personal constructs which are generalized ways of anticipating the world. Carl Roger’s Self Theory emphasized self-actualization which he described as the innate tendency toward growth that motivates all human behaviour. Rogers distinguished between the actual self and the ideal self. Problems develop when the two self concepts do not match or when one’s expectations or ideals don’t match reality 


Abraham Maslow (Humanistic Psychologist) believed that self-actualization is not just a human capacity but a human need. Maslow argued that there was a hierarchy of needs that all humans have, and beginning at the bottom of the hierarchy, each need in the hierarchy must be satisfied before one can move to the next level in the hierarchy.


Phenomenological Theories are an optimistic approach that places faith in a person’s ability to fulfil her/his ultimate capacities. Critics view the Phenomenological approach as naive, romantic, and unrealistic. They are also critical of the lack of emphasis on the importance of inherited characteristics, biological processes, learning, situational influences, and unconscious motivation in shaping personality. Phenomenological theories do a better job of describing personality than explaining it and, like psychodynamic theories, many phenomenological concepts are too vague to be tested empirically.


2.2.4. Cybernetic theory


In 1948, Norbert Wiener coined the term “cybernetics” to elaborate on the existing theory of transmission of messages by incorporating his idea that people send messages within a system in an effort to control their surrounding environment (Wiener, 1954). The basic function of communication, according to Wiener, is to control the environment in which one lives. This idea suggests that the goal of human communication is to become familiar with a certain environment while simultaneously influencing aspects of it. With this, Wiener asserts that, “the purpose of Cybernetics is to develop a language and techniques that will enable us indeed to attack the problem of control and communication in general, but also to find the proper repertory of ideas and techniques to classify their particular manifestations under certain concepts” (Wiener, 1954, p.16). Wiener (1954/,p.20) introduces the ideas of entropy and feedback into his theory. A shortcoming of Wiener’s theory is the assumption that, since people are built like complex machines, they are capable of interpreting and processing feedback and making changes in order to fit in to an environment. Watzlawick et al. (1967) explain why relationships can be hard to change as they systematically resist change. This goes beyond Wiener’s theory of Cybernetics to explain why problems in human relationships are not easily influenced by feedback.


2.2.5. Socio-psychological theory


Social Psychology is a branch of Psychology that studies individuals in the social context offering insight into the individual and society. One of the major currents of theory in this area sprang from the work since 1894 by philosopher and sociologist George Herbert Mead at the University of Chicago. Mead’s colleague and disciple at Chicago, sociologist Herbert Blumer, coined the name of the framework in 1937.


Social exchange theory emphasizes that social action is the result of personal choices made to maximize benefits and minimize costs. A key component of this theory is the postulation of the “comparison level of alternatives”, which is the actor’s sense of the best possible alternative (i.e., the choice with the highest benefits relative to costs). However, social exchange theories differ from economic theories by making predictions about the relationships between persons, and not just the evaluation of goods


2.2.6. Socio-cultural theory


Socio-cultural theory looks at the important contributions that society makes to individual development. This theory stresses the interaction between developing people and the culture in which they live. Socio-cultural theory grew from the work of Lev Vygotsky who believed that parents, caregivers, peers and the culture at large were responsible for the development of higher order functions. According to Vygotsky, “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (inter-psychological) and then inside the child (intra-psychological). Vygotsky was a contemporary of thinkers such as Freud, Skinner, and Piaget, but his early death at age 38 and suppression of his work in Stalinist Russia left him in relative obscurity until fairly recently. As his work became more widely published, his ideas have grown increasingly influential in areas including child development, cognitive psychology and education. Socio-cultural theory focuses not only on how adults and peers influence individual learning, but also on how cultural beliefs and attitudes impact how instruction and learning take place. An important concept in socio-cultural theory is known as the zone of proximal development, “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” Essentially, it includes all of the knowledge and skills that a person cannot yet understand or perform on their own yet, but is capable of learning with guidance.


2.2.7. Critical theory


Critical theory was first defined by Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School of Sociology in his 1937 essay Traditional and Critical Theory. Critical theory is a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it. Horkheimer wanted to distinguish critical theory as a radical form of Marxian theory. The core concepts are that Critical social theory should:

  • Be directed at the totality of society in its historical specificity (i.e. how it came to be configured at a specific point in time); and
  • Improve understanding of society by integrating all the major Social Sciences, including Geography, Economics, Sociology, History, Political Science, Anthropology, and Psychology.


At the same time, “critical theory” also always involves questioning and challenging the passive acceptance that “the way things are” — or “the way things seem” — simply “is” the “natural” way. Critical theory is always particularly concerned with inquiring into the problems and limitations, the mistakes, the contradictions and incoherence, the injustices and inequities in how human beings operate within particular kinds of structures and hierarchies of relations with each other, facilitated and regulated by particular kinds of institutions.


More theories: In addition to the traditional theories outlined above, two other major theories include are General System Theory and Information Theory.


Ludwig von Bertalanffy put forth the General System Theory as a way to determine the underlying rules governing all systems. There are six main criticisms of General System Theory. First, it is too general to be usefully applied to the real world since nearly anything (or everything together) can be said to be a system. Second, it is so open as to allow contradictory findings in different fields; it is not unifying. Third, it is just a perspective, since it doesn’t adequately explain why systems do what they do. Fourth, it doesn’t suggest new research. Fifth, it’s not clear whether the theory models nature (in which case apparently dissimilar events are actually the same) or if it is only a conceptual model (in which case it is only a representation, and similarities do not actually exist in the world). Finally, some claim the world is not as complex as system theory purports it to be.


Inspired by developments in systems theory and cybernetics, Shannon and Weaver formulated a new communication model in 1949 that they called Information Theory. In information theory, information is viewed as a measure of the entropy or uncertainty in a system. In the information theory model of communication, a source produces a message to be transmitted via a channel to a receiver. Essentially, Shannon and Weaver’s information theory reflects a cybernetic view of communication that is entirely focussed on “nodes” (speakers and hearers), connected only to each other and not with their contexts. In the information theory model, meaning is in the message; this message transmits from point to point in a linear fashion, self-regulated via feedback loops between source and receiver. This concept of meaning was taken to an extreme level of analysis by Osgood, who developed a mathematical model for finding where meaning is located. Osgood created the concept of “semantic spaces”, which are effectively cognitive locations of meaning, and analysed the relationships between these spaces through a process of ‘factor analysis’ (Osgood, 1957). Information theory assumes that all communication travels from point to point, either from one source to one receiver or from many sources to many receivers. Extraneous information is considered to be noise, which the receiver must filter out in order to discern the meaning of the message.


It is interesting to note that there are a number of theories and perspectives characterising the field of communication studies. Theories are constantly evolving. It is important to recognize that no theoretical perspective is the right perspective, although most communication scholars do favour particular theoretical approaches over others, and conduct communication research from their preferred perspectives.


3. Communication Models


A communication model is chiefly a process in which information in the form of a package is channelled by the sender to the receiver through a medium. When the receiver gets the information he or she decodes the message and gives the sender a certain feedback. Models of communication refer to the conceptual model used to explain the human communication process.


3.1. Evolution


There are many models of communication developed by noted theorists of different disciplines: Aristotle, Lasswell, Shannon, Weaver, McLuhan, MacLean, Rileys, Westley, Gerbner, Rothstein, Schramn, Berlo, Osgood, Johnson, Cherry are the renowned ones. Some important and well-known contributions are explained below:Aristotle (300 B.C.) developed a communication model focused on public speaking than interpersonal communication. Today, the Aristotelian model of communication is still widely used and accepted. In this model of communication, the sender sends the message to the receivers in an attempt to influence them to respond accordingly. The message has to be very impressive and convincing. Therefore, the sender must know and understand the audience well. In this model, the sender is an active participant and the receiver is passive. This concept is used in public speaking, seminars, and lectures.


Aristotle Model of Communication is formed with three basic elements: (i) Speaker, (ii) Speech, (iii) Audience


Figure 1 Aristotle‘s Model of communication


Aristotle advises speakers to build speech for different audiences, different occasions and for different effects. Speaker plays an important role in public speaking. The speaker must prepare his speech and analyze audience needs before he enters the stage.


Harold Dwight Lasswell (1948), a political scientist and communication theorist, was a member of the Chicago school of sociology. In his work ‘The Structure and Function of Communication in Society‘ (1948) he defined the communication process as ‘Who (says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What Effect’. The model was known as Dance Model.


The studies on information theory in 1949 by Claude Shannon, Warren Weaver and others, prompted research on new models of communication from other scientific perspectives like Psychology and Sociology. Shannon and Weaver’s information theory has had a significant influence on the development of communication theories and models. Shannon’s model of communication process is, in important ways, the beginning of the modern field. It provided, for the first time, a general model of the communication process that could be treated as the common ground in such diverse disciplines as journalism, rhetoric, linguistics, and speech and hearing sciences.


The Newcomb’s model of communication was introduced by Theodore M Newcomb of the University of Michigan in 1953. The main purpose is to introduce the role of communication in a social relationship (society) and to maintain social equilibrium within the social system. He concentrates on the social purpose of communication, showing all communication as a means of sustaining relationships between people. Sometimes it’s called as an “ABX” model of communication.


Wilbur Lang Schramm (1954) called by communication theorist Everett Rogers as the founder of communication study, focused his studies on the experience of the sender and receiver (listener). He also indicated that communication is possible only upon a common language between sender and receiver and the impact that a message has on the target of the message.


In 1955, Elihu Katz and Peter Lazarsfeld’s model inserted ‘mass media’ into the scheme. In 1956, George Gerbner attempted general purpose of communication models. He stressed the dynamic nature of communication in his work and also the factors affecting the reliability of communication. Bruce Westley and Malcolm S MacLean’s signal processing model (feedback) proposed in 1957 attempted to introduce the complexity of the communicative interaction moving away from a simplistic pattern.


The 1950s was the period of ‘interdisciplinary’ exchanges. Information Theory, Artificial Intelligence and Cybernetics all surfaced in networked institutional settings in the 50s.


Another famous communication model is Berlo’s model put forth in 1960. In this model, he stresses on the relationship between the person sending the message and the receiver. David Kenneth Berlo expanded Shannon and Weaver’s linear model of communication and created the Sender/Source-Message-Channel-Receiver Model of communication (SMCR Model), where communication appears as a regulated process that allows the subject to negotiate with his living environment.


Other models, including a helical-spiral model developed by Frank Dance (1967), a circular model proposed by Lee Thayer (1968), and a “sawtooth” model advanced by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and DonJackson (1967), emphasized the dynamic and evolutionary nature of the communication process rather than the components or the directions of influence.


Dean C Barnlund (1970) proposed a transactional model of communication. The basic premise of the transactional model is that individuals are simultaneously engaging in the sending and receiving of messages. Communication is viewed as a conduit; a passage in which information travels from one individual to another and this information becomes separate from the communication itself.


The evolution of communication theories and models leap from 1970 to 2003. In 1980s and 1990s, there was an increasing interest in information as an economic good or commodity. At the turn of the 21st century, Davis Foulger introduced his Ecological Model of the Communication Process (EMPC, 2002 &  Restructured in 2004) and DeVito (2003) introduced his interactive/interpersonal model of communication.


The field of communication studies has changed considerably over the years with the impact of technology.


3.2. Types


In this section, three models of communication are described:


•      Linear model

•      Interactive model

•      Transactional model


3.2.1  Linear Model


Laswell’s (1948) model was based on five questions which collectively describe how communication works:Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) model includes noise or interference that distorts understanding between the speaker and the listener. Figure 2 shows a linear model of communication:



Figure 2 A Linear Model of Communication


Source: Wood, J. T. (2009). Communication in our lives (4th ed.). Belmont, CA:




It is a one way model and consists of the sender encoding a message and channelling it to the receiver in the presence of noise. The linear model assumes that there is a clear beginning and end to communication. It is a method in which there is no possible way for feedback (even nonverbally). Letters, text messages, and e- mail can be responded to. A lecture would not fit in this model because listeners can still give feedback nonverbally.


3.2.2       Interactive Model


The main flaw in the linear model is that it depicts communication as a one-way process where speakers only speak and never listen. It also implies that listeners listen and never speak or send messages.


Schramm (1955) and Wood (2009) came out with a more interactive model that saw the receiver or listener providing feedback to the sender or speaker. The speaker or sender of the message also listens to the feedback given by the receiver or listener. Both the speaker and the listener take turns to speak and listen to each other. Feedback is given either verbally or non-verbally, or in both ways. This model also indicates that the speaker and listener communicate better if they have common fields of experience, or fields which overlap (Figure 3):



Figure 3 An Interactive Model of Communication

Source: Wood, J. T. (2009). Communication in our lives (4th ed.). Belmont, CA:




This can be seen as two linear models stacked on top of each other. This model indicates that communication is not a one way but a two way process. There is feedback but it is not simultaneous. For example, Instant Messaging (IM). The sender sends an IM to the receiver, and then the original sender has to wait for the IM from the original receiver to react.


3.2.3  Transactional Model


The main drawback in the interactive model is that it does not indicate that communicators can both send and receive messages simultaneously. This model also fails to show that communication is a dynamic process which changes over time. The transactional model shows that the elements in communication are interdependent. Each person in the communication act is both a speaker and a listener, and can be simultaneously sending and receiving messages. There are three implications:

  • Transactional” means that communication is an ongoing and continuously changing process.
  • In any transactional process, each element exists in relation to all the other elements. There is this interdependence where there can be no source without a receiver and no message without a source.
  • Each person in the communication process reacts depending on factors such as their background, prior experiences, attitudes, cultural beliefs and self-esteem.


Figure 4 shows a transactional model of communication that takes into account “noise” or interference in communication as well as the time factor. The outer lines of the model indicate that communication happens within systems that both communicators share (e.g., a common campus, hometown, and culture) or personal systems (e.g., family, religion, friends, etc.). It also takes into account changes that happen in the communicators’ fields of personal and common experiences. The model also labels each communicator as both sender as well as receiver simultaneously.



Figure 4 Transactional Model of Communication

Source: Wood, J. T. (2009). Communication in our lives (4th ed.). Belmont, CA:




This model assumes that:


•      People are connected through communication; they are engaged in a transaction.

•      Each player is a sender-receiver, not merely a sender or a receiver.

•      Communication affects all players


The transactional model also contains ellipses that symbolize the communication environment.


3.3. Models


The ideas in Aristotle’s rhetoric model and Freud’s theory of psychology led way for the development of a host of models from Shanon & Weaver (1949) to DeVito’s model of communication (2013). Some of the well-known models that are frequently referred to are explained in the following sections.


3.3.1. Harold Lasswell’s Model of Communication (1948)


Harold Lasswell, an American political scientist and communication theorist, and author of Structure and Function of Communication in Society could be said to be the beginning of the theory of communication. He adopts Aristotle’s’ rhetoric in his model adding channel/medium; both view communication as an ‘object”. Lasswell observed messages in the mass media and Aristotle observed Orators. Lasswell wrote in 1948 that “a convenient way to describe an act of communication is to answer the following questions.” (Figure 5):


•      Who

•      Says What

•      In Which Channel

•      To Whom

•      With what effect?

Figure 5 Lasswell’s Model of Communication

According to Lasswell, there are three functions for communication:


1.     Surveillance of the environment

2.     Correlation of components of society

3.     Cultural transmission between generations


Lasswell’s 5 Ws model considers message flow in a multicultural society with multiple audiences. The flow of message is through various channels. Though this model is found to be easy and simple; it suits almost all types of communication; the major drawbacks are: Feedback and Noise are not mentioned.


3.3.2. Shannon and Weaver Model of Communication (1949)


The first major model for communication came in 1949 by Claude Elwood Shannon and Warren Weaver for Bell Laboratories. This laid the foundation for the different communication models, and has greatly helped and enhanced the communication process in various fields. Following is a simple illustration (Figure 6) of this model.



Figure 6 Shannon & Weaver’s Model of Communication The features of this model are:


•      A linear process.

•      A simple model (Technical)

•      Content/message is easy to identify but hard to solve ( Semantic)

•      Source is dominant factor/decision maker ( Impact/Effectiveness)

•      Noise, a disturbing factor ( Impact/Effectiveness)


Critics opine that Shannon’s model isn’t really a model of communication. It is, instead, a model of the flow of information through a medium, and an incomplete model that is far more applicable to the telephone or telegraph systems, than to other media. It suggests, for instance, a “push” model in which sources of information can inflict it on destinations. However, in the real world of media, destinations are self-selecting “consumers” of information with the ability to select / turn off messages based on their interest, focus on one message in preference to other in message rich environments. Shannon’s model depicts transmission from a transmitter to a receiver as the primary activity of a medium. In the real world of media, messages are frequently stored for elongated periods of time and/or modified in some way before they are accessed by the “destination”. The model suggests that communication within a medium is frequently direct and unidirectional, but in the real world of media, communication is almost never unidirectional and is often indirect.


3.3.3. Theodore M Newcomb’s Model of Communication (1953)


Theodore Newcomb of the University of Michigan published, in 1953, “ An Approach to the Study of Communicative Acts” which, later became known as Newcomb’s model. The model of communication adopts a different approach to the communication process. The main purpose of this theory is to introduce the role of communication in a social relationship (society) and to maintain social equilibrium within the social system. Message is not shown as a separate entity in his diagram, but is implied by use of directional arrows. He concentrates on the social purpose of communication, showing all communication as a means of sustaining relationships between people. Sometimes it’s called as an “ABX” model of communication, as it works in a triangular format or A-B-X system (Figure 7).

Figure 7 Newcomb’s Model


3.3.4. Wilbur Schramm & Osgood Model of Communication (1954)


In an effort to rectify the earlier linear models of communication, Wilbur Schramm and Charles Osgood developed a Circular Model to show how communication works between two or a few persons (1954). It can happen within oneself (Intra personal) or between two people (Inter personal); each person acts as both sender and receiver. Wilbur Schramm stated that the communications process does not start and end somewhere, but is endless. Therefore, the Circular model is devoted to two actors who reciprocate in identical functions throughout: encoding, decoding, and interpreting. Additionally the model offers some explanation of semantic noise and interpersonal communication and how these might affect the communication process. The model (Figure 8) presented by Osgood and Schramm shows not only the transmission and hearing of a message, but offers explanations on how it can be perceived and understood. The process of understanding what has been said can vary widely from person to person as there will always be a degree of semantic noise, such as cultural differences, background, socioeconomics, education and values.



Figure 8 Schramm’s Model of Communication


The merits of the model are that: it is dynamic, includes redundancy, the same person is both sender and receiver, feedback is an integral part of the process and so assumes communication to be circular in nature. The limitation is that it does not talk about semantic noise.


3.3.5. George Gerbner’s Model of Communication (1956)


George Gerbner, a Professor at the Annenberg School of Communications in the University of Pennsylvania, is a pioneer in the field of communication research. His works are descriptive and easy to understand. In 1956, Gerbner attempted the general purpose of communication models (Figure 9) stressing the dynamic nature of communication and also factors affecting reliability of communication.


(Note: This model can be best understood when read along with the diagram beginning at E – Event.)

Figure 9 Gerbner’s Model


(i)    Perceptual Dimension:‘E’ is an event in real life and the event content or message is perceived by ‘M’ (Man or a Machine). After perception by “M”, the message is known as “E1”. E1 is not the same as ‘E’. Because any man or machine cannot perceive the whole event and they perceive only part of the event (E1). This is known as “Perceptual Dimension”. The 3 factors involved between ‘E’ and ‘M’ are: Selection, Context, and Availability.


M (man or machine) cannot perceive the entire content of the event “E”. So M selects the interesting or needed content from the entire event after filtering out the others. How the message is perceived is based on ‘M’s attitude, mood, culture and personality. For example, how a journalist perceives the messages from an event and filters the unwanted or unrelated content from the event. This filtered content is not same as the actual event content because the journalist edits the content based on his attitude, mood and cultural background or press policies.


(ii)    Means and Controls dimension: E2 is the event content drawn by M and M becomes the source of a message about E to send it to someone else. M creates a statement or signals about the message and Gerbner termed its Form and content as “SE2” – S (Signal or Form) it takes and E2 (Man’s content). M has to use channels (or media) to send the message over which he has a greater or lesser degree of control. The question of ‘control’ relates to M’s degree of skill in using communication channels. If using a verbal channel, how good is he at using words? If using the Internet, how good is he at using new technology and words? This process can be extended to infinitum by adding on other receivers (M2, M3etc.) who have further perceptions (SE3, SE4 etc.) of the statements about perceived events.


For example, in case of news reporting, E can be any event that has happened and the reporter (M) selects a particular part of event (E1) that may provide his channel higher ratings or the news may boost the party his channel supports. This SE2 is sent through a medium to mass audience. Then different members of audience distribute the message (SE2) with their interpretation and the process continues.


3.3.6. Westley and Maclean’s Model (1957)


Westley and MacLean realized that communication begins only when a person receives a message from surroundings (Figure 10). .


Figure 10 Westley and MacLean’s Model


X1, X2, X3 … .. Xn are news items, articles or information; Feedback (f); Clients (A); Reader or Audience (B); and Gate Keeper (C). Feedback Loop between Reader (B) and Newspaper (C) – fBC; Feedback Loop between Newspaper(C ) and Client (A)- fCA; and Feedback loop between Reader (B) and Client (A)- fBA.


The merits of this model are:

  • It accounts for Feedback.
  • It accounts for different modes of communication, i.e., for both interpersonal communication and mass communication.
  • It is a predictive model of communication and very descriptive also.
  • It also accounts for non binary interactions; this means that it will remain good even for communications involving more than two sources.


The limitation is that it is two dimensional and cannot account for multi dimensions; this means that the model will not be applicable for typical communication events that involve broader context and wide range of communication messages


3.3.7. David Berlo Model of Communication (1960)


Another famous communication model is Berlo’s model. In this model, he stresses on the relationship between the person sending the message and the receiver. According to this model, for the message to be properly encoded and decoded, the communication skills of both the source and the receiver should be good. The communication will be at its best only if the two points are skilled.


Berlo’s (SMCR) Source, Message, Channel, Receiver model has four main components and each component has its own sub components describing the assisting factors for each. Following is the illustration of his model (Figure 11).


Figure 11 Berlo’s Model


Berlo’s model includes a number of factors under each of the elements:


a.     Source: The source is where the message originates.

  • Communication skills – It is the individual’s skill to communicate (ability to read, write, speak, listen etc…)
  • Attitudes – The attitude towards the audience, subject and towards oneself e.g. for the student the attitude is to learn more and for teachers to help / to teach.
  • Knowledge – The knowledge about the subject one is going to communicate e.g. whatever the teacher communicates in the class about the subject; having knowledge about what is being communicated.
  • Social system – The Social system includes the various aspects of society such as values, beliefs, culture, religion and general understanding of society. It is where the communication takes place.
  • Culture – Culture of a given society also comes under social system.
  • Encoder – The sender of the message (message originates) is referred as encoder, so the source is encoding the message here.


b.     Message – It refers to the subject matter under transfer.

  • Content – A message comprises of its content. Content is accompanied by some elements.
  • Elements – It includes various things like language, gestures, body language etc, so these are all the elements of the particular message.
  • Treatment – It refers to the packing of the message; the way in which the message is conveyed or the way in which the message is passed on or delivered.
  • Structure – The structure of the message; how it is arranged / sequenced.
  • Code– The code of the message means how it is sent and in what form; it could be e.g. language, body language, gestures, music and even culture; through which the communication takes place or being reached.


c. Channel: It refers to the five senses, which are as follows:


•    Hearing

•    Seeing

•    Touching

•    Smelling

•   Tasting


Despite not mentioning a medium we need to assume that as communication is taking place through any of the 5 senses or combinations.


d.     Receiver: The receiver needs to have all the things like the source. And he is referred to as a decoder, who receives the message and decodes it.


This model believes that for effective communication to take place the source and the receiver need to be in the same level, only if the source and receiver are on the same level communication will happen or take place properly. So source and receiver should be similar.


The major criticism of Berlo’s SMCR model of communication is:


•      Lacks feedback

•      No mention of barriers to communication like Noise

•      Complex model

•      Linear model

•      Needs people to be on same level for communication to occur but that may not be true in real life

•      Main drawback of the model is that the model omits the usage of sixth sense as a channel which is actually a gift to the human beings (thinking, understanding, analyzing etc).


3.3.8. Dance’s Helix Model (1967)


Another very important model of communication is the Helical Model of communication, proposed by Frank Dance in 1967 (Figure 12). Helix means an object with a three-dimensional shape like that of a smooth curve that goes upwards also comes downwards. It is a non-linear model of communication.

Figure 12 Helical Model of Communication


Frank Dance explains the communication process based on this Helix structure, the bottom or starting is very small; then it gradually moves upward in a back and forth circular motion forming bigger circles. The whole process takes some time. Like helix, the communication process starts very slowly and communicators share small portion of information only with a few. It gradually develops into next level; but this will take some time to reach and expand its boundaries to the next level. Frank Dance included the concept of time in his theory. This theory of communication was the subject of a number of experimental researches. Even though this model of communication clarifies everything there is the problem of over simplification.


3.3.9. DeVito’s Interactive Model (2003)


DeVito’s model is derived from the ‘information processing’ models of the 1960s and differs from the earlier rhetorical model by amplification, adding feedback, medium and noise.

Figure 13 DeVito’s Model


This representative model has eight components: Sender, Receiver, Message, Channel, Coder (Encoder and Decoder), Context, Feedback and Noise (Figure 13).


3.3.10. Davis Foulger (2004)


Foulger introduced his Ecological model in 2002 and restructured it in 2004. This is, in many ways, an elaboration of Lasswell’s classic outline of communication. The fundamental statements of relationship establish a series of general relationships between people, messages, language, media, and the communication they enable. The relationships are summarized, in somewhat greater detail than these propositions suggest in Figure 14. In this figure, communication between people (creators and consumers) is mediated by three constructs, with language used to build messages within media. The model graphically depicts all of the propositions described above. Specifically, it depicts people communicating (Definition of Communication) through the mediation (proposition 1) of messages (Proposition 4) that are created and consumed (proposition 3) using language within media (propositions 2, 5, and 4.1). Languages and media are depicted as being both learned (proposition 6) and created (proposition 7). Ten relationships are summarized in the figure. While several of these relationships are described above, several derivative relationships are yet to be described, and some of the above relationships need to be broken in greater detail. It asserts that communication occurs at the intersection of four fundamental constructs: communication between people (creators and consumers) is mediated by messages which are created using language within media; consumed from media and interpreted using language.

Figure 14 Davis Foulger’s Model


4. Summary


This module is in two parts. Part 1 traces the evolution of communication theories and outlines the major theories of communication. Part 2 proceeds to describe the different types of communication models and demonstrates the major models of communication. Models are a fundamental building block of theory. They are also a fundamental tool of instruction. Shannon’s information theory model, Weiner’s Cybernetic model, and Katz’ two step flow each allowed the decomposition of the process of communication into discrete structural elements. Each provides the basis for considerable bodies of communication theory and research. Each model also provides a powerful pedagogical tool for teaching students to understand that communication is a complex process in which many things can, and frequently do, go wrong.

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5. References

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