Communication Theory Lecture 1 – Theory and Metatheory Griffin

Communication Theory
Lecture 1 – Theory and Metatheory
Griffin, Chapters 1 and 2
What is Theory? (Chapter 1)
There is an assumption that theory is irrelevant or simply an armchair activity of intellectuals
who have no real connection to the “real” world. THIS IS NOT THE CASE!
One of the goals of this class is to demonstrate just how grounded and relevant to everyday
experience theory can be.
Theory is something we do; an active process of trying to figure out how the world functions;
good theory should be grounded in real-world pragmatism.
Definition of Theory (according to Burgoon) – “a set of systematic, informed hunches about the
way things work”
Set of hunches: means we’re not sure we have the answer; speculation and conjecture are a part
of every theory
Informed hunches: educated guesses
Hunches that are systematic: theory is a system of concepts, which are related to one another
Visual Metaphors for Theory
Theories as Net (Karl Popper): “theories are nets cast to catch what we call ‘the world’… We
endeavor to make the mesh finer and finer.”
Q: What is the implication of making the mesh finer and finer?
A: The finer the mesh the more distinct aspects of human communication are captured
Q: What is wrong with the quest for finer-meshed nets?
A: impossible to catch all that humans think, say, or do in one communication theory
Theories as Lenses: the lens imagery highlights the idea that theories shape our perceptions by
focusing our attention on some features while ignoring others or pushing others into the
Q: What is a potential problem with this metaphor?
A: What one sees through the lens may be so dependent on the theoretical stance of the viewer
that any attempt to discern what’s real or true is abandoned ---- a problem of subjectivity.
Theories as Maps: maps of the way communication works; theory guides us through unfamiliar
Discussion Questions
Q: What other metaphors can you think of to explain what theory is and does?
Q: How might theory help you in your communication endeavors?
Metatheoretical Perspectives (Chapter 2)
Definition of Metatheory - theory about theory; approaches to theory
Three approaches to theory - objective, interpretive, and critical
Griffin lumps the interpretive and critical perspectives together, however we will discuss them
Each of the three approaches to theory assumes different things regarding the nature of being
(ontology), the way we arrive at knowledge (epistemology), the role of values in scholarship
(axiology), the purpose of theory, and methods of research.
Metatheoretical Considerations - ontology, epistemology, and axiology
Ontology: the nature of being (e.g. human behavior); questions of ontology address the nature of
the phenomena that we address
Epistemology: how we know what we know; questions of epistemology are concerned with the
creation and growth of knowledge
Axiology: the study of values; questions of axiology are concerned with the relationship between
values and theory
Objective Approach to Theory - assumes that truth is singular and is accessible through
unbiased sensory observation (what you see is what you get); objective theorists are committed
to finding cause-and-effect relationships that explain and predict.
Scientists are objective theorists
Assumptions of an Objective Approach:
Ontology: believe in an objective, observable reality (realist position);
phenomena exist independent of our perceptions and theories about them; hold
that human behavior occurs due to forces outside the individuals awareness;
behavior is a response a stimulus
Epistemology: “seeing is what you get”; objective theorists see a timeless reality
“out there” that can be observed in a bias-free way; search for knowledge centers
on finding causal explanations for regularities observed in the social world; causal
relationships can best be found if there is a complete separation between the
investigator and the subject
Axiology: objective theorists place a high value on objectivity that’s not biased
by ideological commitments; thus, a scholar’s values should be separated from
Purpose of Theory: to explain or regularities observed in the social world
Research Methods: typically quantitative; data recorded in numerical form; focus
on quantitative methods derives from objectivists emphasis on empiricism and
e.g.) surveys, experiments, statistical analysis
Q: What might a communication theory from the objective tradition aim to answer?
Interpretive Approach to Theory - scholarship concerned with how we construct meaningful
worlds through interaction; interpretive scholars are interested in what it is like to be another
person, in a specific time and place; assumes few panhuman similarities
Ethnographers are interpretive scholars; they aim to understand a particular culture in a specific
time; there are no generalizeable findings that spans all cultures
Other types of interpretive scholarship includes rhetorical analysis and hermeneutics, which has
to do with the interpretation of texts and systems of meaning
Assumptions of an Interpretive Approach:
Ontology: interpretive scholars hold that the nature of being/communication
behavior comes down to free will; we make our own realities; choice comes down
to conscious intent
“Social realities exist in the form of multiple mental constructions,
socially and experientially based, local and specific, dependent for their
form and content on the persons who hold them” (Guba, 1990)
Epistemology: interpretive scholars contend that truth is socially constructed
communication; knowledge must always be viewed from a particular standpoint;
truth is subjective – objectivity is a myth
Axiology: interpretive scholars value scholarship that expands the range of free
choice and enhances understanding; they hold that values cannot be separated
from scholarship
Purpose of Theory: theory is an interpretive guide to help make sense of unique
communication events; interpretive scholars are not looking to prove theory but
rather to develop theory through careful observation and interaction
Method: primarily qualitative
e.g.) textual analysis, ethnography, in depth interviews, participant
Critical Approach to Theory – critical theorists feel a responsibility not to simply represent the
social world (as many interpretive scholars do) but to work as active agents of reform and radical
Most critical scholars take a more humanist, interpretive approach to their scholarship, however
not all interpretivists are critical scholars (i.e., anthropologists)
The Frankfurt School: (the roots of the critical approach)
Scholars that came out of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany
(Max Horkheimer, Theordor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Erich
All were committed to the critical analysis of society’s current state as well as to
develop normative alternatives which might enable people to transcend their
unhappy situations through critical thought and action
To achieve this they embarked on a journey of revolutionary praxis
(emancipatory applied theory), which involves:
Critical self-consciousness of historical subjects in a struggle (process of
becoming aware of the sources of domination that influence our thinking)
Liberation through discourse (providing a space free and protected from
the contamination of commercial culture and power)
Thus, they sought to make theory itself a moral force working toward
human emancipation.
Assumptions of the Critical Approach:
Ontology: critical scholars make a distinction between society and nature
whereby society is understood to be socially constructed while nature is not (this
is called the double hermeneutic)
Ontological position best represented by Anthony Giddens’s Structuration
Social like must be considered in terms of both structure and
agency. Structures are the rules, norms, and beliefs that
characterize the social world. Agency is the behavior and
interaction of humans.
The relationship between structure and agency is called the duality
of structure
Structures are produced by human agents but these
structures are at the same time the medium in which agency
Structures guide our interaction and are often reproduced
by that interaction but through our agency we can also
produce new structures that will have varying levels of
influence on subsequent interaction
Dialectical relationship between structure and agency
Example: classroom dynamics
Epistemology: critical scholars view knowledge as a process of self-reflection
through which historical constraints and exigencies can be revealed; knowledge
serves the interests of change and emancipation (likewise knowledge can also be
used as a source of power and domination)
Axiology: critical scholars believe that values should not be separated from
scholarship; the theorist has a responsibility to transform and emancipate
Purpose of Theory: theory is as an emancipatory tool; should be applied to realworld problems having to do with ideological power and oppression (this is called
Q: How is the critical approach differ from and similar to both the objective and
interpretive traditions?