The Communicational Conception of Human Interaction

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Communication is a process for exploring and negotiating difference. Meaning

is produced through interaction. This is a productive technology.

Monologism takes communication to be the action of a person as a selfsufficient

whole, whilst dialogism takes communication to be a “between”

process (Sampson, 1993). The communicative interaction is the unit of

analysis, not individuals, intentions, or abstract language systems. Social

approaches to communication are in opposition to a psychological approach,

and characterised as “organic” rather than “mechanistic,” concerned with

“ritual” rather than “transmission,” and fundamentally “interpretive” rather than

“scientific” [Leeds-Hurwitz (1995) provides a comprehensive collection of

essays around this “new paradigm”].

Social approaches to communication describe events occurring between

people in the process of interacting. This is in contrast to the reporting of how

events are perceived through a single individual’s understanding. Thus, communication

is thought of as inherently collaborative and cooperative visible

behaviour, rather than as merely personal cognition. An utterance, often

referred to as “a communication” in common parlance, is not in itself a

communicative act. The instigator needs the other to “complete it.” Communicative

actions are collaborative accomplishments. Communication is the project

of reconciling self with other, to make friendly after estrangement or to adjust

into accordance (Peters, 1999). The notion that communication is interaction

reduces problems of relationship to problems of contact at “touch points”

 (common jargonese in Customer Relationship Management circles). The

concept of “communication” allows for contact without presence. Communication

is then the disembodiment of interaction — contact without touch

(Peters, 1999). ICT-based technologies mediate — there is interaction without

personal/physical contact.

A particular definition of what constitutes communication is adopted. This

focuses on process as well as product or outcome. For example, Carey (1975,

p. 17) defines communication as “a symbolic process whereby reality is

produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.”

Social reality is not seen as a fact or set of facts existing prior to human activity

— it is created in human interaction [see Berger & Luckmann (1967) for the

classic exposition of this view, and Gergen (1985)]. Berger & Luckmann

analysed knowledge in society in the context of a theory of society as a

dialectical process between objective and subjective reality. They concluded

that people interact and produce meaningful behaviour patterns that construct

a shared reality. We create our social world through our words and other

symbols and through our behaviours. Such an approach requires that we

question the validity of traditional “scientific” experiments. The business of the

interpretivist is not to reveal the world to us but to create some part of the world

for us. “Inquiry is the professional practice of the social creation of reality”

(Anderson, 1990, p. 14). Interaction is forwarded as a creative social

accomplishment. Deetz feels very strongly that, “[I]f the study of human

communication is not ultimately the study of how we make the world in which

we have our human existence, then it is as trivial as our dominant ‘model’ of it

would seem to say it is” (1995, p. 130). Further, “[c]ommunication, then, is the

process in which we create and maintain the ‘objective’ world, and, in doing

so, create and maintain the only human existences we can have” (Deetz, 1995

p. 203).

The central problem attended to is how social meanings are created. The focus

is on people not as passive rule followers operating within pre-existing

regulations, but as active agents — rule-makers within social contexts. Identity

is seen as a social construction, and study of social role and cultural identity lead

to study of power and what happens when particular identities are chosen or

ascribed by others. The concept of culture is central and is defined as the

knowledge that people must learn to become appropriate members of a given

society. Cultural contexts include the community in which particular communicative

behaviours arise. Social approaches are mostly holistic — the study of

interaction requires the whole picture to understand how the multiple components

are related.

Reddy (1993) observed that our major metaphor for communication takes

ideas as objects that can be put into words, language as their container, thought

as the manipulation of these objects, and memory as storage. Thus, in this view

we send ideas in words through a conduit — a channel of communication —

to someone else who then extracts the ideas from the words. A consequence

of this metaphor is that we believe that ideas can be extracted and can exist

independently of people. We also expect that when communication occurs

someone extracts the same idea from the language that was put in by someone

else. Meaning is taken to be a thing. But the conduit metaphor hides all of the

effort that is involved in communication, and many people take it as a definition

of communication.

Mantovani (1996) heralds the obsolescence of the old model of communication

as the transportation of information from one person to another. No longer

should we be satisfied with an outmoded model, which conceives of communication

as “the transportation of an inert material — the information that actors

exchange with each other — from one point to another along a ‘pipeline.’”

There is no account of the cooperation, which stimulates reciprocal responsibility

for interaction and the series of subtle adaptations which occur among

“interlocutors.” Nor does the old model consider that communication is

possible only to the extent that participants have some common ground for

shared beliefs, they recognise reciprocal expectations, and accept rules for

interaction, which anchor the developing conversation. The old theory of

communication treats knowledge as an object (i.e., as a body of information as

independent facts to be processed) existing independently of the participants

that can be carried through channels and possessed by a receiver when

communication is successful. The dissemination of information is non-interaction

or suspended interaction.

The alternative conception of communication is of a common construction

of meanings. Information is not moved from one place to another — it is always

a means to an end, produced and used by social actors to attain their goals in

daily life.

In the informational conception of social interaction, “I already have my

required meaning for this (desired) situation, and I talk to you because I want

to change your choices of possible actions — I seek to persuade.” In the

communicational conception of social interaction, “Meaning is always incomplete

and partial, and the reason that I talk with you is to better understand what

you and I mean, in the hope that we can find more satisfying ways of acting

together — I seek to create and learn.”

Non-interaction is entirely monological. Others are treated as absent and

distant. Informational interaction is a hybrid form that is dialogical in intent, but

monological in execution. The other is treated as distantly present. Communicative

interaction is dialogical. The other is treated as present. Social systems

come about only though communication. One cannot not communicate in an

interaction system — one must withdraw to avoid communicating. Society is

an autopoietic system consisting only of communication. Societal communication,

on the other hand, is largely, but not exclusively, conducted as interaction.