Communication is inseparable from social and behavioral activities; as a consequence it has become an integral part of research and discussion in the social sciences. Mass media and rhetoric thus closely relate to political science, while semantics and rhetoric enrich the study of law. Perception, the tool used to make sense of messages, generates much discussion in psychology and psychiatry and both areas benefit from careful communication. As the psychotherapist Carl Rogers noted in On Becoming a Person (1961), "The whole task of psychotherapy is the task of dealing with a failure in communication" (p. 330). Sociology, in part the study of human interactions, benefits greatly from an understanding of communication’s roles in those interactions.
Sociology focuses on groups while psychology focuses mainly on the individual. However, they blend in social psychology, and probably the greatest social science focus on communication has been in social psychology. This blended discipline studies the psychological basis of people’s relationships with one another. Social psychologists posit that people have few if any solely individual attributes.
In the study of interaction patterns among people and methods of influencing people, much of the work done by these scholars naturally relates to communication. In seeking to determine these patterns, social psychologists follow the work of Erving Goffman as they speak of the self, a collection of attributes, social identity, self-concept, and appearance. Interpersonal communication is affected by where a person is in the social structure as well as by the influence of others.
Relative to communication, pioneering social psychologists like Robert Bales (1950) explored interactions in small groups, while Solomon Asch (1955) detailed the impact social factors have on perception. Michael Argyle looked at patterns of social relationships across social class, while more recently Deborah Tannen (1990) examined the social characteristics of gender and gender’s effects on interactions.
Social psychological research in communication owes a heavy debt to scholars like Paul Ekman, W. V. Friesen, and Raymond Birdwhistell who focused on the complex patterns nonverbal communication takes. Their research has also explored possible commonalities in meaning of nonverbal signals within and across cultures.
While people engage in communication almost unconsciously, it remains a complex subject which defies simple explanations and calls for continued research. Overall, the insights into human interaction developed following social psychology research have led to numerous practical applications, especially in the business world.
In its simplest form, the term communication refers to the process by which one person transmits information (new knowledge) to another person (or persons). A number of communication models exist, but common elements delineated by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver (1949) link them: a sender, a receiver, a channel, the message itself, and some effect or impact resulting from the message exchange (including feedback).
Feedback, a crucial part of the communication process, represents the response to a received message (not necessarily to the message intended to be sent, but to its interpretation). While an element in the overall process, feedback’s transmission duplicates the communication process it responds to, and thus involves sending and receiving, as well as media, and it can be impacted by communication barriers. Feedback, in turn, may lead to a response. Mechanistic approaches like the classic Shannon-Weaver model are appealing in their simplicity in explaining the communication process, but they do not reflect communication’s complexity, especially in terms of perception (which reflects the application of past events as well as the context in which the message is being received). Perception, in fact, accounts for much of the complexity of the communication process.
The sender (often) and the receiver always use perception to make sense of the message passing in the communication interchange. The perceiver processes the message’s signs, its tangible factors, to determine the meaning (intended or not intended). These signs include what is seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. The receiver then uses the mental filters of past experience to sort the signs and apply the meanings gained from similar past sensory experiences. Meaning derives from that past experience as one makes sense of the present through that experience.
The sender of a message may intend one meaning for what is sent, but the experiences the sender draws on in assigning that intended meaning may be only partly shared with the receiver. The meaning derived is thus imperfectly shared between the parties if at all. Few (if any) messages represent a pure transfer of identical meaning. While spoken communication is usually interpreted by the receiver almost immediately and often in a close spatial context (mass media and telephonic messages are obvious spatial exceptions), written communication is likely to be received and interpreted after some time lag and at a spatial distance. The context in which it is received will most likely have changed through time, and these changes may affect the perception of the message. Additionally, in any communication interchange, the very experience of receiving the message alters the receiver’s perception and will affect the next message that comes through. Perception is a dynamic, ongoing process, as communication theorist C. Glenn Pearce noted, and the sender and receiver’s own perceptual filters change constantly as a result of the interaction.
COMMUNICATION AND INTENT
Even when unintentional, communication can still occur. A hapless job interviewee might make a poor first impression with unpolished shoes, a weak handshake, or slouching posture (elements of nonverbal communication). The interviewee likely intends to signal competence, but the outcome differs from that intended. Of course, much communication is intentional. The more effective sender learns skills to help achieve the intended results, but perception is still a major factor. Yet, if what one applies to interpret a message varies widely from the sender’s intent, common meaning may not be achieved, especially in communication between cultures.
Communication barriers, elements external to the message, also complicate the process. Barriers can be as simple as physical noise or can derive from intrapersonal, interpersonal and even organizational sources. These barriers are inevitable and communicators (senders and receivers) need to work to overcome them (where possible) to enhance communication effectiveness. Steven Golen’s (1990) research into communication barriers has revealed their myriad sources and the challenges communicators face in overcoming them.
Some barriers are easier to overcome. Physical noise, for example, can be overcome by isolation or simple muting. However, the intrapersonal barrier of defensiveness is more challenging in calling for one’s self-awareness and empathy. An organizational barrier like the serial transmission effect (the tendency for messages to change in passing through an organization’s levels) calls for objective message management skills.
The goal of a message is to transmit information, knowledge the receiver does not already know. Shannon noted that the entropy rate, the amount of information the sender wishes to transmit, cannot exceed the channel capacity without creating uncorrectable transmission errors. Keeping the sender’s entropy rate below channel capacity greatly reduces errors and enhances information transfer and helps combat communication barriers. Redundancy is another useful element in communication.
Communication systems naturally utilize redundancy to help combat problems with communication barriers and perceptual differences. Redundancy, predictability built into the message to help insure comprehension, backs up the message. While redundancy can seem to be mechanical, senders use it naturally without even thinking. It derives largely from repetition, exemplification, orthography, grammar, syntax, and format. David Gibson and Barbara Mendleson (1984) explored the dynamics of redundancy and showed the linking of information and probability theories to semantics.
Messages sharing a common grammar, syntax, and orthography are likely to be more redundant and thus help ensure the receiver shares much of the sender’s intended meaning. When redundancy is minimal, additional communication barriers can arise. Redundancy can be overused, of course, particularly in terms of exemplification or repetition.
Another source of information in communication exchanges is nonverbal communication. Although less precise than formal language, it is a very significant source of information in most interpersonal exchanges and often contains more information than in the spoken element of the message. A message’s nonverbal elements include all the sources of information apart from the words themselves. Gestures, posture, tone, pitch, message duration, and intensity all add nuances to the message, and complexity. This latter is particularly the case in those cases where the nonverbals contradict the other signals. Social psychologists, notably Ekman and Friesen (1974), have closely studied nonverbal communication not just as a source of information in a message, but as a source of nonverbal leakage of deception as well.
The sender controls many nonverbal elements, of course, but other elements over which the sender has little or no control can be sources of meaning in communication. Thus one’s age, race, gender, height, hair color, and even physical attractiveness can represent encoded signals for the receiver to interpret. Here intent is lacking, but the nonverbal signals still play an important role.
Whatever the source of the signs giving messages meaning, communication is a relevant part of the social sciences. While communication seems deceptively simple at first glance, its underlying complexity richly repays careful study both in terms of more effectively preparing (and understanding messages) and in terms of understanding and improving the human interactions in which communication takes place.