Communication Traditions and Theories


“What music do you like?”

To properly answer this question and start a conversation about communication, we need to have some knowledge of various types of music.

Music isn’t just one big gobbet of sound; it is richly organized and divided into genres and sub-genres.

We would be perplexed by music if we didn’t have a sense of distinction within it. The same is true in the world of communication…

Theories are abstractions, limited mental constructions that reduce experience to a set of categories, focusing attention on certain things — patterns, relationships, variables — while leaving other things out.

When we examine the world, we make choices about what to name the concepts we identify, how to categorize what we are observing, etc.

A theory offers a way to capture the truth of a phenomenon and essentially helps govern how we approach our worlds.

What makes a good theory?

As we encounter various theories, we will need a basis for judging and comparing one against another. So first, what makes a ‘good’ theory?

Dimensions of a theory

  • Philosophical Assumptions (considers epistemology, ontology and axiology)
  • Concepts (provides taxonomy and building blocks)
  • Explanations (dynamic connections are made by the theory)
  • Principles (offers guidelines that help interpret, judge and determine actions)

Things to consider when accessing a theory

  • Theoretical Scope (comprehensiveness)
  • Appropriateness (logical consistency between theory and assumptions)
  • Heuristic Value (tendency to generate new ideas that aid discovery)
  • Validity (correspondence, generalizability)
  • Parsimony (logical simplicity)
  • Openness (open to other possibilities)

boulder university scenic photo

The following is a list of criteria inspired by Robert T. Craig, a well-renowned communication theorist from the University of Colorado, Boulder. His meta-model of communication reflects on the communication field in a holistic way. In a world of exchanging information galore, Craig organizes communication theories into 7 traditions. Meaning, any theory about communication is to be considered from at least all of the following 7 traditional perspectives.

Semiotic Communication Tradition

Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols and signification (interpretation of said signs). The semiotic tradition is an important communication theory including a host of theories about how signs come to represent objects, ideas, states, situations, feelings and conditions outside of themselves.

The basic concept unifying this tradition is the sign, defined as “a stimulus designating or indicating some other condition,” as when smoke indicates the presence of fire.

A second basic concept is symbol, which usually designates a complex sign with many meanings, including highly personal ones. Most semiotic thinking involves a triad of meaning, which asserts that meaning arises from a relationship among 3 things — the object (reference), the person (interpreter) and the sign.

Semiotics are often divided into 3 areas of study — semantics, syntactics and pragmatics.

Semantics address how signs relate to their referents and answer the question, “what does a sign represent?

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Syntactics is the study of relationships among signs and consist of the rules by which people combine signs into complex systems of meaning. When we move a single word to a sentence, we are dealing with syntax or grammar, which deals with the relationships among words and linguistic structures. Syntactic rules enable humans to use an infinite combination of signs to express a wealth of meanings.

Pragmatics look at the utility of signs and how signs make a difference in people’s lives. This branch has a considerable impact in communication theory as many theorists are interested in how signs and sign systems are used as tools to accomplish things in the world.

semiotics infographic

Phenomenological Communication Tradition

Theories in the phenomenological tradition assume that people actively interpret what happens around them and come to understand the world by personal direct experience with it— the perception of a phenomenon, whether an object, event or condition. Knowledge is found directly in conscious experience — we come to know the world as we engage in it. The meaning of a thing consists of the potential of that thing in one’s life, so how you relate to an object determines its meaningfulness to you. Therefore, the process of interpretation is the active process of assigning meaning to an experience.

Edmund Husserl, founder of phenomenology

Edmund Husserl, founder of phenomenology

Classical phenomenology is primarily associated with Edmund Husserl, the founder of modern phenomenology. For Husserl, truth can only be ascertained through direct, objective experience, meaning in order to arrive at truth through conscious attention, we must suspend our categories of thinking and habits of seeing in order to experience the thing as it really is. In other words, the world can be experienced without the knower bringing his or her own categories to bear on the process.

Phenomenology of perception is a realm of phenomenology as introduced by Merleau-Ponty, as a subjective experience, meaning the human being is a unified mind-body who creates meaning in the world. This means that people give meaning to the things in the world and any phenomenological experience is necessarily a subjective one.

Hermeneutic phenomenology is another popular branch within phenomenology associated with Martin Heidegger, which asserts a philosophy dealing with the interpretation of being. For Heidegger, the reality of something is not known by careful analysis or reduction but by natural experience, which is created by the use of language in everyday life. Communication, in other words, is the vehicle by which meaning is assigned to experience. When you communicate, you work out new ways of seeing the world — your speech affects your thoughts and your thoughts, in turn create new meanings.

Cybernetic Communication Tradition

Cybernetics is the tradition of complex systems in which interacting elements influence one another. Theories in cybernetic tradition explain how physical, biological, social and behavioral processes work. Within cybernetics, communication is understood as a system of variables that influence one another, shape and control the character of the overall system, and, like any organism, achieve both balance and change.


The idea of a system forms the core of cybernetic thinking.

Systems are set of interacting components that together form something more than the sum of its parts. Systems theorists are not simply interested in the nature of the system and its functions but also in how it manages to sustain and control itself over time.

In complex systems, a series of feedback loops connect the parts, called networks. The key ideas of system theory are coherent, consistent and have a major impact in the field of communication.

Socio-Psychological Communication Tradition

The study of the individual as a social being is the force of the socio-psychological tradition. The theories of this tradition focus on individual social behavior, psychological variables, personality traits, perception and cognition.


Most socio-psychological theories of communication today are cognitive in orientation, providing insights into the ways human beings process information.

Questions of importance to this line of investigation are processed through mechanisms that serve attention, retention, interference, selection, motivation, planning and strategizing.

Much of the work in this tradition assumes that mechanisms of human information processing are beyond our awareness. As communicators, we may be made aware of specific aspects of the process such as attention and memory, and we may be very aware of certain outputs like plans and behaviors, but the internal processes themselves are behind the scenes. Communication scientists seek to discover and describe these systems.

The socio-psychological tradition can be divided into 3 large branches: behavioral, cognitive and biological.

Theories in the behavioral branch concentrate on how people actually behave in communication situations; cognitive theory centers on patterns of thought, concentrating on how individuals acquire, store and process information in a way that leads to behavioral outputs; and the biological branch refers to the study of communication from a biological standpoint, believing that many of our traits, ways of thinking and behaviors are wired in biologically and derive not from learning or situational factors, but from inborn neurochemistry and neurobiological influences.

The socio-psychological tradition encompasses a range of concerns about the development and expression of the communication process: Can we predict individual communication behavior? How is information assimilated, organized and used in forming message strategies and plans? How is information integrated to form beliefs and attitudes? How do people attribute the cause of behavior?

Sociocultural Communication Tradition

Sociocultural approaches to communication theory address the ways our understandings, meanings, norms, roles and rules are worked out interactively in communication.

This tradition focuses on patterns of interaction between people rather than on individual characteristics or mental models. Researchers in this tradition want to understand ways in which people collectively create the realities of their social groups, organizations and cultures.


Social structures and meanings are created and maintained in social interaction, thus symbolic interactionism has been highly influential in this tradition, which emphasizes the importance of participant observation in the study of communication as a way of exploring social relationships.

A second line of work in the sociocultural tradition is social construction, which investigates how human knowledge is constructed through social interaction. The nature of the world, then, is less important than the language used to name, discuss and orient to that world.

A third influence in the sociocultural tradition of communication is sociolinguistics, or the study of language and culture. Important in this tradition is that people use language differently in different social and cultural groups.

Lastly, another influential perspective within the sociocultural approach is ethnography, or the observation of how actual social groups come to build meaning through their linguistic and nonlinguistic behaviors.

Critical Communication Tradition

Although there are several varieties of critical theory, all share some essential features.

The critical tradition seeks to understand the taken-for-granted systems, power structures and beliefs that dominate society with a close eye on whose interests are served by those power structures. Questions such as, “who does and does not get to speak?”, “what does and does not get said?” and “who stands to benefit from a particular system?” are typical of those asked by critical theorists.

Critical theorists are particularly interested in uncovering oppressive social conditions and power arrangements in order to promote a more fulfilling society. Furthermore, critical scholarship makes a conscious attempt to fuse theory and action. Such theories act to accomplish change in conditions that affect society.


Although critical theory has come a long way since the works of Karl MarxMarxism is the originating brand of critical theory, which taught that the means of production in society determines the nature of society, so the economy is the basis of all social structure.

In capitalistic systems, profit drives production, a process that ends up oppressing the working class. Only when the working class rises up against dominant groups can the means of production be changed and the liberation of the worker achieved.

In Marxism, communication practices are seen as an outcome of the tension between individual creativity and the social constraints on that creativity. Liberation will occur only when individuals are truly free to express themselves with clarity and reason.

The Frankfurt School is another popular branch of critical theory, which refers to a group of German philosophers, sociologists and economists that saw capitalism as an evolutionary stage in the development of socialism first and then of communism. Unfortunately, the failure of working-class movements and the rise of Fascism led many members to abandon their faith in the working-class proletariat as the agent of revolutionary change.

At its core, critical theory falls within a modernist paradigm which can be subdivided into three more branches: postmodernism, poststructuralism and post-colonialism. What these modern philosophical traditions have in common is an insistence on the plurality of meaning, a distrust in science and reluctance to accept limiting beliefs for how society works that are agreed upon as the status quo.

Rhetorical Communication Tradition

Rhetoric is the art of constructing communication to form arguments and other persuasive speechmaking. It has evolved to include the process of adjusting ideas to people and people to ideas in all kinds. The focus of rhetoric encompasses all of the ways humans use symbols to affect those around them and to construct the worlds in which they live.


There are 5 principles of rhetoric — invention, arrangement, style, delivery and memory.

Invention refers to conceptualization — the process through which we assign meaning to symbols through interpretation.

Arrangement is the process of organizing symbols — arranging information in light of the relationships among the people, symbols and context involved.

Style concerns all of the considerations involved in the presentation of those symbols, from choice of symbol system to the meanings we give those symbols, as well as all symbolic behavior from the words and actions to objects and events.

Delivery has range of medium options including non-verbals, speech and written messages.

Finally, memory no longer refers to the simple memorization of speeches but to larger reservoirs of cultural memory as well as to process of perception that affect how we retain and process information.


Human communication is a by-product of human meta-representational capacities. Communication is first and foremost a matter of inference or reasoning that goes on consistently and unconsciously.We are never not communicating.

What is important about communication is that it combines art and science in such a way that help humans discover truth, or what really exists beyond our mental constructs.

These communication traditions help develop interpersonal, organizational and mass communication to manifest and shed light on how communication theories are developed, defended and extended at a philosophical, theoretical and practical level of inquiry from a plurality of research perspectives.

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