Saturday, March 26, 2005



The meaning of meaning

In everyday speech we bandy the term 'meaning' around quite happily without giving it a lot of thought:

'...if you see what I mean.'
'...if you take my meaning.'
'What's that supposed to mean?'
'I always say what I mean.'
'"Cochon" means "pig".'
'I didn't really mean it.'
'I meant to write.'
'A green light means "go"'
'What is the meaning of life?'
'Health means everything.'
'His look was full of meaning
'What's the dictionary meaning of "meaning"?'

That's fairly typical of the sort of things we might say. You can see from those that we don't even use the word 'meaning' with the same meaning every time. Some of the examples are taken from The Meaning of Meaning by Ogden and Richards (1923), in which they identified 16 different meanings of the word!

The last example, with its reference to 'dictionary meaning' suggests that there is some kind of 'correct' meaning of words. If two people disagree about what a word means, they might well settle their argument by referring to the dictionary.

However, when we stop for a while to consider just what we mean by meaning, things get pretty complicated pretty fast. A number of thought-provoking statements about the nature of meaning were made by the communication theorist David Berlo Berlo (1960):

Dimensions of meaning

If you have already looked through the comments on Berlo's statements about meaning, you should find this section fairly straightforward.

Denotative Meaning

We can probably reasonably say that certain signs refer fairly unequivocally to things in the world 'out there'. We can also say that they denote the things 'out there' (which is another way of saying that they 'refer to' them). So, for example, the word Bill refers to, or denotes, this bloke here, London refers to this town here and so on.

Hence, this dimension of meaning is known as the denotative or referential meaning of a sign.

At first, that seems fairly obvious, but a moment's thought suggests it's perhaps not quite that obvious. Do words normally work like names (Bill, London)? What about dog? That's a bit different from Rover, which denotes 'this dog here'. Just what are we referring to when we use the word dog? We might be referring to one specific dog: 'My dog's name is Rover', but what's going on when we say 'Rover is a dog'? Presumably, in that case we are referring to some kind of mental concept of a kind of generalized dog.

The idea of words having some kind of denotative dimension gets even more difficult when we ask ourselves what thing is denoted by ask, find, difficult, popular, tradition etc.

We'll leave this discussion of denotation by saying that some words clearly have a denotative content, but the number of words where there is this simple and clear sign ----> thing relationship is probably very limited.


If you are familiar with the idea of a code, then you'll know that a code consists of an agreed vocabulary and an agreed set of rules, known as a grammar.

The grammatical rules, which prescribe how the signs can be combined, set out the structure of the code. We get some meaning from the structure itself. Berlo uses the example:

Most smoogles have comcom

We don't know what smoogles and comcom are, but we still know something about them: we know that a smoogle is something countable and can be referred to in the plural, unlike, say, water or milk. We know that smoogles is a noun and not a verb. We know that more than one smoogle is referred to in this sentence. We know that comcom is a noun and that it is a quality or thing which most smoogles are claimed to have. We still don't know what is referred to, but the formal properties of English grammar have already provided us with a lot of information.


My gyxpyx is broken

From the structure of the language you know that gyxpyx is a noun. You know that it's something that it makes sense to refer to as broken (unless it transpires that this person is talking rubbish).

One of its keys is stuck

Now we're getting a bit closer - a gyxpyx is maybe a typewriter, calculator, musical instrument; at any rate it's something that has keys.

and I think it could do with a new ribbon, as well

Well, that pretty well clinches it. We're still left with the question of just what the difference is between a typewriter and a gyxpyx or why this person has the odd habit of referring to typewriters as gyxpyxes, but we can be reasonably sure already that a gyxpyx is something typewriter-like.

The meaning we have for gyxpyx has come partly from the structure, because we know it's a noun and we know it can be broken, have keys and a ribbon. But the meaning has also come from the context. You come across a sign for which you don't have a meaning within the context of signs for which you do have meanings. These meanings generate other meanings because of the formal relations between them and the unknown signs.

We should never overlook the usefulness, as well as the pitfalls, of context when we formulate messages, in whatever medium. The context can introduce unknown signs to the receiver and give her clues to the meanings we want her to get for them. Typically, for example, a language teacher will introduce new words within the context of known words. But it's not only language teachers who do that; any good teacher will introduce new concepts within the context of familiar concepts. In that way, semantic noise can be reduced.


The denotative meaning of 'cabbage' when I say to the greengrocer 'I'll have a cabbage, please' is 'a green leafy vegetable etc.' Whenever I hear or use the word 'cabbage', I feel slightly nauseous because it reminds me of my revolting school dinners, which nearly always included cabbage. That association of 'cabbage' with my school dinners is what we refer to as connotation. It is the connotative dimension of meaning, which varies more or less greatly from one user of the sign to another. When we speak of 'The Queen of England' and 'The wrinkly old woman who owns the house at the end of the Mall' we are referring to, or denoting, the same person, but the connotations are quite different.

Consider words such as good, desirable, unpleasant, beautiful. They are closely tied to the person who uses them; the meanings we have for them therefore vary greatly in communication. They often cause us trouble, particularly if we don't allow for the possibility that other people's connotations for them may well be radically different from ours.

Osgood (1957) has attempted to develop a method of measuring connotations, known as the semantic differential, which you could find useful for your project work.


Following Berlo, we have said that meaning has the following dimensions:

denotative or referential: the sign ----> thing relationship
structural: the meanings given by the formal grammatical structure of the code
contextual: the meanings we get from the context surrounding the sign
connotative: the meanings (often highly personal) which individuals associate with a sign)

When we communicate we use all of these:

My mother is alive.

What is our meaning for the word mother?

We can say that it is a noun (structural meaning).

We can say that it refers to a person who bears a specific biological relationship to us (denotative meaning).

Finally, the connotative meaning is the sum total of all of our previous experiences with a) our own mothers, b) other peoples mothers, and c) all of the situations in which we have used or heard the word mother.

Ang on meaning:

Criticism of transmission models - Ien Ang

As Ang's criticism is so eloquently expressed, it is quoted in full here:

I would suggest ... that it is the failure of communication that we should emphasize if we are to understand contemporary (postmodern) culture. That is to say, what needs to be stressed is the fundamental uncertainty that necessarily goes with the process of constructing a meaningful order, the fact that communicative practices do not have to arrive at common meanings at all. This is to take seriously the radical implications of semiotics as a theoretical starting point: if meaning is never given and natural but always constructed and arbitrary, then it doesn't make sense to prioritize meaningfulness over meaninglessness. Or, to put it in the terminology of communication theory: a radically semiotic [see the section on semiotics] perspective ultimately subverts the concern with (successful) communication by foregrounding the idea of 'no necessary correspondence' between the Sender's and the Receiver's meanings. That is to say, not success, but failure to communicate should be considered 'normal' in a cultural universe where commonality of meaning cannot be taken for granted.

If meaning is not an inherent property of the message, then the Sender is no longer the sole creator of meaning. If the Sender's intended message doesn't 'get across', this is not a 'failure in communications' resulting from unfortunate 'noise' or the Receiver's misinterpretation or misunderstanding, but because the Receiver's active participation in the construction of meaning doesn't take place in the same ritual order as the Sender's. And even when there is some correspondence in meanings constructed on both sides, such correspondence is not natural but is itself constructed, the product of a particular articulation, through the imposition of limits and constraints to the openness of semiosis in the form of 'preferred readings', between the moments of 'encoding' and 'decoding' (see Hall 1980a). That is to say, it is precisely the existence, if any, of correspondence and commonality of meaning, not its absence, that needs to be accounted for. Jean Baudrillard has stated the import of this inversion quite provocatively:

[M]eaning [...] is only an ambiguous and inconsequential accident, an effect due to ideal convergence of a perspective space at any given moment (History, Power etc.) and which, moreover, has only ever really concerned a tiny fraction and superficial layer of our 'societies'.

Baudrillard (1983)

What we have here is a complete inversion of the preoccupations of communication theory, of meaningful human interaction as the basis for the social - of, for that matter, for the global village.

Ang (1996)


Students of communication often use models to try to present a simplified version of communication, containing the essential 'ingredients' only. With a bit of luck, these models should help us to tease out the factors which are common to all forms of communication. If we can do that, then we can hope to judge how effective a communication has been, find our where it went wrong if it wasn't successful and improve it next time.

Like most of the other models in this section of simple models, the model proposed by Aristotle is a linear one. In his Rhetoric, Aristotle tells us that we must consider three elements in communication:

  • the speaker
  • the speech
  • the audience

If you just think for a moment about the variety of communication acts, you shouldn't have too much difficulty seeing those elements. In some cases, of course, Aristotle's vocabulary doesn't quite fit. In the example of you reading the newspaper, no one is actually 'speaking' as such, but if we use, say, the terms 'writer' and 'text', then Aristotle's elements can still be found.

The Lasswell Formula

The Lasswell Formula

Please note: The Lasswell Formula is typical of what are often referred to as transmission models of communication. For criticisms of such models, you should consult the section on criticisms of transmission models.


The sociologist, Harold Lasswell, tells us that in studying communication we should consider the elements in the graphic above.

Lasswell was primarily concerned with mass communication and propaganda, so his model is intended to direct us to the kinds of research we need to conduct to answer his questions ('control analysis', 'effects research' and so on). In fact, though, it is quite a useful model, whatever category of communication we are studying. Note, incidentally, that the Lasswell Formula consists of five major components, though this is by no means obligatory. You might be interested to look at the comments on Maletzke's model to see which components a selection of other researchers have considered essential.

Lasswell: Communicator

Lasswell was primarily concerned with mass communication. In every form of communication, though, there must be someone (or something) that communicates.

How appropriate is the term communicator? You might say that you can't really talk about communication if the audience for the message don't respond appropriately. Maybe that's a reason that many communication specialists refer to the communicator as source or transmitter or sender of the message - at least that doesn't presuppose that communication does actually take place.

Control analysis

Because of the application of Lasswell's Formula to the media, his question Who? has come to be associated mainly with control analysis:

  • who owns this newspaper?
  • what are their aims?
  • what are their political allegiances?
  • do they attempt to set the editorial policy?
  • does the fact that they are a republican account for the newspaper's repeated attacks on the Royal Family?
  • are they subject to any kind of legal constraints?
  • how does the editor decide what to put in the paper?
and so on.

Can you see, though, how that sort of question can be applied to, say, interpersonal communication? You're asking a similar sort of question when, reflecting on a comment someone has just made, you say to yourself something like: 'Blimey, that was a strange thing to say. He must be really weird.'

Lasswell: The Message


Being concerned with the mass media, Lasswell was particularly concerned with the messages present in the media. This relates to an area of study known as content research. Typically, content research is applied to questions of representation, for example: how are women represented in the tabloid press? or: how are blacks represented on television? or: how is our society represented to us in the movies? Content research will often be a matter of counting the number of occurrences of a particular representation (for example, the housewife and mother who does not work outside the home) and comparing that with some kind of 'objective' measure, such as official statistics.

Interpersonal communication

What about our everyday communication, though? Do you spend much time thinking about how best to formulate your messages? In much of our everyday interpersonal communication with our friends, we probably are not all that conscious of thinking much about our messages. Still, you can probably think of certain messages you are communicating now to anyone passing by as you read through this. Think about it for a minute -

  • what clothes are you wearing?
  • how is your hair done?
  • are you wearing specs?
  • what about that deodorant?

The answers to those questions may not be the result of a lot of thought before you left home this morning, but they are the result of a variety of decisions about the image you want to project of yourself - the messages about you, your personality, your tastes in music etc.

No doubt also during the day, there'll be certain messages you will think about more carefully - that thank you letter you've got to send; that excuse you've got to find for not handing in your essay; that way of telling that person you wish they'd really leave you alone.

Lasswell: Channel


The channel is what carries the message. If I speak to you my words are carried via the channel of air waves, the radio news is carried by both air waves and radio waves. I could tap out a message on the back of your head in Morse Code, in which case the channel is touch. In simple terms, messages can be sent in channels corresponding to your five senses.

This use of the word 'channel' is similar to the use of the word medium when we talk about communication. The words are sometimes used interchangeably. However, strictly speaking, we often use the word medium to refer to a combination of different channels. Television for example uses both the auditory channel (sound) and visual channel (sight).

Media analysis

The question of which channel or medium to use to carry the message is a vitally important one in all communication. Can you think of any examples of when you might have chosen the wrong channel to communicate with someone? An obvious example of the possible pitfalls would be trying to use the telephone to communicate with a profoundly deaf person. For some time I taught a blind person how to use a computer. As you can probably imagine, it was incredibly difficult to use the auditory channel only.

The choice of medium for your practical work

You could, for example, produce a very polished video tape for your practical work, but is it appropriate? Can you think why it might be the wrong medium? If you don't know how to distribute it to the intended audience, or if your audience can't afford to buy it, you could well have wasted your time. You might well have been better advised to produce a leaflet - less impressive perhaps, but cheaper and easier to distribute. Video is also a very linear medium - you start at the beginning and work your way through to the end - if you're communicating information which your audience already know a lot of, maybe they would have been better off with a booklet that they can skim through to find something they don't already know. Video isn't easily portable either - if your audience need to refer back to your information, then a booklet they can stuff in their pocket might be a better bet.

When you produce your practical work, you'll have to investigate the possible media available for the message you want to communicate, asking questions like:

  • what are the conventions of this medium?
  • is this medium appropriate to my audience?
  • does it appeal to them?
  • how will they get hold of it?
  • can they afford it?
  • is this medium appropriate to my message?
  • can it explain what I want it to explain?
  • do I need to show this in pictures or words?

and so on.

These are all questions of 'media analysis'. Advertising agencies employ Media Buyers who decide what is the most suitable medium, or combination of media (newspapers, billboards, flysheets, TV ads etc.) for the type of message they want to communicate. They will also have decided on a particular target audience they want to communicate it to and so, using, say the TGI, the NRS etc., will decide what is the most appropriate magazine, newspaper to reach that audience.

A classic example of using the wrong channel is that of research conducted by an American newspaper on the eve of the Presidential elections in the 1940's. The message was simple: Who will you vote for? The audience was easy to define: a random sample of voters. The newspaper duly conducted a telephone poll of voters chosen at random from the phone book and announced that the Republicans would win. In fact the Democrats won with a massive victory. The reason they got it wrong was quite simple: at that time only the wealthier members of society would have telephones and the wealthier members of society would vote Republican.

You should also give some thought to the notion of channel capacity, which is quite clearly defined in information theory, but less clear in everyday communication. Certainly, though, it's clear that there are limits to the information which can be carried in a single channel - hence the need to think about channel redundancy as a means of carrying more of the message of your practical work.

Lasswell: The Receiver


Many Communication scholars use the rather technological-sounding terms: sender, source or transmitter to refer to the Communicator. You'll also come across the technological receiver to refer to what we might ordinarily call audience or readership. This whole question of audience is vitally important to successful communication.

Audience research

Professional broadcasters use the ratings figures and other data from BARB and advertisers in the print media use information from Gallup, the TGI and a range of other sources to find out as much as they possibly can about their audiences.

Audience research and your practical work

When you come to do your practical work, you'll probably need to demonstrate that you have found out as much as you reasonably can about your audience, using the appropriate techniques. Because it's so important, we have a unit devoted entirely to Researching Your Audience.

Interpersonal communication

It's not only the mass media, though, where knowledge of our audience is vitally important. The same applies in everyday life in our contact with other people. In many cases, we don't have to know a lot about the person we're dealing with because we each act out the appropriate rôle. I don't have to know anything about the shop assistant who sells me a packet of fags - I ask for the fags, he gives me them, I give him the money, he gives me the change, we smile briefly, say 'Cheerio' and that's it. I don't need to know anything about him.

But there are numerous occasions when we do need to know more, or we make unjustified assumptions about what our audience are like. Can you think of any examples from your everyday life where communication has broken down because you didn't know enough about your audience or because you made the wrong guess as to what they were like? What about the teacher who waffles on incomprehensibly because she makes the assumption that you know nearly as much about the subject as she does? Or that you actually remember what she told you last lesson? Or that you're actually interested in the subject?

Lasswell: Effects


Lasswell's model also introduces us to the question of media effects. We don't communicate in a vacuum. We normally communicate because we want to achieve something. Even if we just pass someone in the corridor and say 'hello' without really thinking about it, we want to have the effect of reassuring them that we're still friends, we are nice people, and so on.

Practical work

Lasswell was concerned not with interpersonal communication, but with the effects of the mass media. The question of whether the media have any effect or not and, if so, how they affect their audiences, is not just a large chunk of most communication and media courses, it's also a question you have to answer about your practical work and, of course, it's a constantly topical issue in society.


To find out what kind of effect our communication has, we need some kind of feedback. If I speak to you, I listen to your responses and watch for signs of interest, boredom etc. In other words, I use feedback from you to gauge the effect of my communication. If you give me positive feedback by showing interest, I'll continue in the same vein; if you give me negative feedback by showing boredom, I'll change the subject, or change my style, or stop speaking. When broadcasters transmit a programme, they use the services of BARB to gain feedback in the form of ratings. Advertising agencies use a variety of services, such as Gallup, to find out whether their campaign has worked. These are all forms of feedback.

Feedback is not shown specifically in Lasswell's formula, but very many communication models do show it. A simple one which does so is the Shannon-Weaver Model.

Before going on, try taking a look at some typical examples of forms of communication. For each one, see if you can identify the separate components of the Lasswell Formula

Osgood & Schramm Circular Model

If you've already looked at the other models in this section on basic models of communication, you'll be aware that a criticism that could be made of some of them is that they present communication as a linear process, within which the rôles of sender and receiver are clearly distinguished.

Schramm stated:

In fact, it is misleading to think of the communication process as starting somewhere and ending somewhere. It is really endless. We are little switchboard centers handling and rerouting the great endless current of information....

(Schramm W. (1954) quoted in McQuail & Windahl (1981)

The Osgood and Schramm circular model is an attempt to remedy that deficiency: The model emphasizes the circular nature of communication. The participants swap between the rôles of source/encoder and receiver/decoder.


Osgood & Schramm: Interpreting


The model is particularly helpful in reminding us of the process of interpretation which takes place whenever a message is decoded.

The more mechanical models, particularly those concerned primarily with machine communication, tend to suggest that fidelity will be high as long as physical noise is reduced to a minimum or strategies (such as increasing channel redundancy) are adopted to counter the noise. This circular model reminds us that receiving a message is not simply a matter of decoding, but also of interpreting the message.

Whenever we receive data from the world around us, even in, say, the apparently very simple act of seeing what's in front of us, we are engaged in an active process of interpretation, not simply taking in information, but actively making sense of it. An important question is: what criteria are we using to make sense of what we are receiving? Since the criteria we use will inevitably differ from one person to another, there will always be semantic noise. If we can answer that question about our audience, then we stand a chance of communicating successfully.

But it's certainly not an easy question to answer, as you will see if you take a look at Berlo's SMCR Model, which is one of the most useful models as a starting point for organizing any practical work in communication.

Gerbner's General Model

Similarly to the Schramm & Osgood Circular Model, Gerbner's General Model emphasizes the dynamic nature of human communication. It also, in common with other models, such as, say, David Berlo's S-M-C-R model, gives prominence to the factors which may affect fidelity.


The model shown diagrammatically is to be read from left to right, beginning at E - Event. Please click on the model for further details.

Gerbner: E


An event takes place in the 'reality'

Gerbner: Perceptual dimension


The event (E) is perceived by M (the man (sic) or machine).

The process of perception is not simply a matter of 'taking a picture' of event E. It is a process of active interpretation (as Schramm & Osgood emphasize in their circular model).

The way that the E is perceived will be determined by a variety of factors, such as the assumptions, attitudes, point of view, experience of M. This is similar to Berlo's S-M-C-R model which draws our attention to the way that attitudes, knowledge level, communication skills, culture and social position affect the encoding and decoding of messages.

E can be a person talking, sending a letter, telephoning, or otherwise communicating with M. In other words, E could be what we conventionally call the Source or Transmitter. In this case, the model draws our attention to those factors mentioned by Berlo and is applicable to interpersonal communication.

Equally, E can be an event - a car crash, rain, waves crashing on a beach, a natural disaster etc. In this case, we could be applying the model to mass media communication, say the reporting of news.

It is this generality in the model which makes it a useful starting point for the analysis of wide variety of communication acts. Note that the model, besides drawing our attention to those factors within E which will determine perception or interpretation of E, also draws our attention to three important factors:

  • Selection: M, the perceiver of the event E (or receiver of the message, if you prefer) selects from the event, paying more attention to this aspect and less to that. This process of selecting, filtering is commonly known as gatekeeping, particularly in discussion of the media's selection and discarding of events or aspects of them.
  • Context: a factor often omitted from communication models, but a vitally important factor. The sound represented by the spelling 'hair' means an animal in one context, something that's not supposed to be in your soup in another. Shouting, ranting and raving means this man's very angry in one context, raving loony in another.
  • Availability: how many Es are there around? What difference does availability make? If there are fewer Es around, we are likely to pay more attention to the ones there are. They are likely to be perceived by us as more 'meaningful'. What sort of Es are there - for example, in the UK's mainly Conservative press, how many non-Conservative messages are available to us?

Gerbner: E1 and M


E1 is the event-as-perceived (E) by the man (sic) or machine M. In terms of human communication, a person perceives an event. The perception (E1) they have of that event is more or less close to the 'real' event. The degree of correspondence between M's perception of event E (E1) will be a function of M's assumptions, point of view, experiences, social factors etc.

Gerbner: Means and Controls


In the next stage of the model, M becomes the Source of a message about E to someone else. M produces a statement about the event (SE). To send that message, M has to use channels (or media) over which he has a greater or lesser degree of control. [For comment on channels, see the Lasswell Formula.] 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? And so on? 'Control' may also be a matter of access - does he own this medium? can he get to use this medium? Think of teachers in classrooms controlling the access to communication channels, parents at home, owners of newspapers, editors of letters pages etc.

Gerbner: SE


SE (statement about event) is what we would more normally call the 'message'. S stands for Signal in fact, so in principle an S can be present without an E, but in that case it would be noise only. The process can be extended ad infinitum by adding on other receivers (M2, M3etc.) who have further perceptions (SE1, SE2 etc.) of the statements about perceived events.

McQuail and Windahl (1981) suggest that the generality of the model makes it useful both for the analysis of interpersonal and mass communication. For example, on an individual-to-individual level,

it useful to illustrate communicative and perceptual problems in the psychology of witnessing before a court: How adequate is the perception of witness M of event E, and how well is E1 expressed in SE and to what degree does the perception of SE1 of judge M2 correspond to SE? Where the mass media are concerned, they suggest E could be potential news, M the mass media, SE media content and M2 the media audience. That then allows us to ask: 'How good is the correspondence between reality and the stories (between E and SE) about reality given by the media (M)?' and 'How well is media content (SE) understood by the media audience (M2)?'

The Shannon-Weaver Model

Please note: The Shannon-Weaver model is typical of what are often referred to as transmission models of communication. For criticisms of such models, you should consult the section on criticisms of transmission models.

If you have looked through the examples of typical everyday forms of communication, you will have noticed that some of the examples refer to less immediate methods of communication than face-to-face interaction, e.g. using the radio, newspapers or the telephone. In these cases, technology is introduced.

When, for instance, the telephone is used, you speak, the phone turns the sound waves into electrical impulses and those electrical impulses are turned back into sound waves by the phone at the other end of the line.

Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver produced a general model of communication:

This is now known after them as the Shannon-Weaver Model. Although they were principally concerned with communication technology, their model has become one which is frequently introduced to students of human communication early in their study. However, despite the fact that it is frequently used early in the study of human communication, I think it's worth bearing in mind that information theory, or statistical communication theory was initially developed to separate noise from information-carrying signals. That involved breaking down an information system into sub-systems so as to evaluate the efficiency of various communication channels and codes. You might ask yourself how viable the transfer of Shannon's insights from information theory to human communication is likely to be. The concepts of information theory and cybernetics are essentially mathematical and are intended to be applied to technical problems under clearly defined conditions. After you've read this section, which, I think, is a reasonable attempt to loosely apply Shannon's ideas to human communication, ask yourself whether you feel enlightened.

The Shannon-Weaver Model (1947) proposes that all communication must include six elements:

  • a source
  • an encoder
  • a message
  • a channel
  • a decoder
  • a receiver

These six elements are shown graphically in the model. As Shannon was researching in the field of information theory, his model was initially very technology-oriented. The model was produced in 1949, a year after Lasswell's and you will immediately see the similarity to the Lasswell Formula.

The emphasis here is very much on the transmission and reception of information. 'Information' is understood rather differently from the way you and I would normally use the term, as well. This model is often referred to as an 'information model' of communication. (But you don't need to worry about that if you're just starting.)

Apart from its obvious technological bias, a drawback from our point of view is the model's obvious linearity. It looks at communication as a one-way process. That is remedied by the addition of the feedback loop which you can see in the developed version of the model:


A further drawback with this kind of model is that the message is seen as relatively unproblematic. It's fine for discussing the transformation of 'information', which might be, say &Hui9%/?PLM, but, when we try to apply the model to communication, problems arise with the assumption that meanings are somehow contained within the message.

Shannon-Weaver: The Source


All human communication has some source (information source in Shannon's terminology), some person or group of persons with a given purpose, a reason for engaging in communication. You'll also find the terms transmitter and communicator used.
For a fuller discussion of 'source', see The Lasswell Formula

Shannon-Weaver: The Encoder


When you communicate, you have a particular purpose in mind:

  • you want to show that you're a friendly person
  • you want to give them some information
  • you want to get them to do something
  • you want to persuade them of your point of view

and so on. You, as the source, have to express your purpose in the form of a message. That message has to be formulated in some kind of code. How do the source's purposes get translated into a code? This requires an encoder. The communication encoder is responsible for taking the ideas of the source and putting them in code, expressing the source's purpose in the form of a message.

It's fairly easy to think in terms of source and encoder when you are talking on the phone (transmitter in Shannon's terminology). You are the source of the message and the 'phone is the encoder which does the job of turning your sounds into electrical impulses. The distinction is not quite so obvious when you think of yourself communicating face-to-face.

In person-to-person communication, the encoding process is performed by the motor skills of the source - vocal mechanisms (lip and tongue movements, the vocal cords, the lungs, face muscles etc.), muscles in the hand and so on. Some people's encoding systems are not as efficient as others'. So, for example, a disabled person might not be able to control movement of their limbs and so find it difficult to encode the intended non-verbal messages or they may communicate unintended messages. A person who has suffered throat cancer may have had their vocal cords removed. They can encode their messages verbally using an artificial aid, but much of the non-verbal messages most of us send via pitch, intonation, volume and so on cannot be encoded.

Shannon was not particularly concerned with the communication of meanings. In fact, it is Wilbur Schramm's model of 1954 which places greater emphasis on the processes of encoding and decoding. The inclusion of the encoding and decoding processes is very helpful to us since it draws our attention to the possibility of a mismatch between the operation of the encoding and decoding devices, which can cause semantic noise to be set up. With good reason, the source of the message may wonder whether the picture in the receiver's head will bear any resemblance to what's in his/her own. Schramm went on to introduce the notion of a 'field of experience', which shows a much greater awareness of the subtleties involved in human-to-human communication, drawing our attention to the numerous shared socio-cultural factors which are necessary for successful communication to take place (see David Berlo's S-M-C-R model).

Shannon-Weaver: The Message


The message of course is what communication is all about. Whatever is communicated is the message. Denis McQuail (1975) in his book Communication writes that the simplest way of regarding human communication is 'to consider it as the sending from one person to another of meaningful messages'.

The Shannon-Weaver Model, in common with many others separates the message from other components of the process of communication. In reality, though, you can only reasonably examine the message within the context of all the other interlinked elements. Whenever we are in contact with other people we and they are involved in sending and receiving messages. The crucial question for Communication Studies is: to what extent does the message received correspond to the message transmitted? That's where all the other factors in the communication process come into play.

The Shannon-Weaver model and others like it tends to portray the message as a relatively uncomplicated matter. Note that this is not a criticism of Shannon since meanings were simply not his concern:

Frequently the messages have meaning, that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These considerations are irrelevant to the engineering problem.


This was particularly emphasized in Warren Weaver's introduction to Shannon's paper:

The word information, in this theory, is used in a special sense that must not be confused with its ordinary usage. In particular information must not be confused with meaning.
In fact, two messages, one of which is heavily loaded with meaning and the other of which is pure nonsense, can be exactly equivalent, from the present viewpoint, as regards information.

It may however be a criticism of the application of Shannon's model to the more general area of human-to-human communication. Meanings are assumed to be somehow contained within the signs used in the message and the receiver can, as it were, take them out again. Matters such as the social context in which the message is transmitted, the assumptions made by source and receiver, their past experiences and so on are simply disregarded. In this respect, models which incorporate such factors are probably more revealing of the complexity of the communication process. (See, for example, the sections on Berlo's SMCR model or Maletzke's model of mass communication)

Shannon-Weaver: The Channel


You tap on a membrane suspended above a steadily flowing jet of water. The air under the membrane causes slight deflections in the jet of water. A laser is aimed at a receiver. The jet of water flows through the laser beam, deflecting it from its target. Every time the water jet is deflected by the movement of the air, the laser beam hits its target. The laser receiver is connected to a computer which takes each 'hit' and turns it into a 1 and each miss and turns it into a 0. The computer sends these etc. etc......

You get the idea: the air waves, the jet of water and so on are all channels. The words channel and medium are often used interchangeably, if slightly inaccurately. The choice (a pretty stupid one above) of the appropriate channel is a vitally important choice in communication. It's obvious that you don't use the visual channel to communicate with the blind or the auditory channel with the deaf, but there are more subtle considerations to be taken into account as well. A colleague of mine was clearly much more responsive to visual communication than I. To elucidate his arguments he would inevitably grab a pencil and a piece of paper and sketch out complex diagrams of his arguments. Though they may have help him to clarify his ideas, they merely served to confuse me, who would have preferred a verbal exposition. It's curious that in the college where I work many students who are dyslexic or have other learning difficulties end up studying information technology in so-called flexible learning centres. Bearing in mind the statement above that "the choice of the appropriate channel is a vitally important choice in communication", it's less than obvious how a student who has difficulty reading and writing can have their needs met by a learning model which boils down in essence to 'read this; it will tell you what to write'.

Shannon-Weaver: Physical noise


Shannon is generally considered to have been primarily concerned with physical (or 'mechanical' or 'engineering') noise in the channel, i.e. unexplained variation in a communication channel or random error in the transmission of information. Everyday examples of physical noise are:

  • a loud motorbike roaring down the road while you're trying to hold a conversation
  • your little brother standing in front of the TV set
  • mist on the inside of the car windscreen
  • smudges on a printed page
  • 'snow' on a TV set

It might seem odd to use the word noise in this way, unless perhaps you're a hi-fi buff, in which case you'll be familiar with looking up the claimed 'signal-to-noise ratio' for the various bits of equipment you buy. In this technical sense, 'noise' is not necessarily audible. Thus a TV technician might speak of a 'noisy picture'. Generally speaking, in this kind of everyday communication, we're fairly good at avoiding physical noise: we shout when the motorbike goes past; you clout your little brother; cars have demisters.

However, it is possible for a message to be distorted by channel overload. Channel overload is not due to any noise source, but rather to the channel capacity being exceeded. You may come across that at a party where you are holding a conversation amidst lots of others going on around you or, perhaps, in a Communication lesson where everyone has split into small groups for discussion or simulations.

Shannon and Weaver were primarily involved with the investigation of technological communication. Their model is perhaps more accurately referred to as a model of information theory (rather than communication theory). Consequently, their main concern was with the kind of physical (or mechanical) noise discussed above.

Although physical noise and how to avoid it is certainly a major concern of scholars of communication, the Shannon and Weaver model turns out to be particularly suggestive in the study of human communication because of its introduction of a decoding device and an encoding device. The possibility of a mismatch between the two devices raises a number of interesting questions. In technological communication: I give you a PC disk and you stick it into a Mac - the Mac can't decode it; I give you an American NTSC video tape and you stick it into a European PAL video recorder - the recorder won't decode it. Transfer this notion of a mismatch between the encoding and decoding devices to the study of human communication and you're looking at what is normally referred to as semantic noise (see below). That concept then leads us on to the study of social class, cultural background, experience, attitudes, beliefs and a whole range of other factors which can introduce noise into communication.

It might be worth mentioning here, especially in connexion with the reference to the linearity of the Shannon-Weaver model, that some workers in the newly developing science of complexity have pointed to a fundamental twin flaw in our science since Newton (I am greatly simplifying here), namely that science has been concerned to understand the world using linear models and has also been concerned to discount as 'experimental noise' anything which might hinder the application of a linear model. Complexity theorists point out that when you add the noise into the system, you generally end up with something non-linear, complex, unpredictable.

Shannon-Weaver: Semantic noise


Semantic noise is not as easy to deal with as physical noise. It might not be an exaggeration to say that the very essence of the study of human communication is to find ways of avoiding semantic noise. Semantic noise is difficult to define. It may be related to people's knowledge level, their communication skills, their experience, their prejudices and so on. There is more detailed discussion of those factors in Berlo's SMCR Model.

Examples of semantic noise would include:

Bullet.gif Distraction: You are physically very attracted to the person who is talking to you. As a result, your attention is directed to their deep blue eyes rather than what they are saying. There is no physical noise which prevents the message from reaching you. You hear it, but you don't decode it. Equally, your attention could be distracted by the other person's peculiar tics and so on. Or think of when you watched the TV news: the reporter was standing outside No.10 Downing Street, but behind him the policeman outside the door was picking his nose. As soon as the report's over you realize you haven't a clue what it was about.
Bullet.gif Differences in the use of the code: The other person is waffling on in Aramaic about fishes and loaves. You don't understand. There is nothing which physically prevents the elements of the message from reaching you, you simply can't understand it.
Bullet.gif Emphasising the wrong part of the message: Maybe you can think of an advertising campaign which has been so successful with some new style or gimmick that everyone is talking about it. However, no one has actually noticed what product is being advertised.
Bullet.gif Attitude towards the sender: You're talking to someone a lot older than you. On the basis of their age, you make a lot of assumptions about the kind of code appropriate to them - and the conversation goes wrong because they were the wrong assumptions.
Bullet.gif Attitude towards the message: I may have a very positive attitude to the Aramaic-speaking bearded chap in the flowing robes. But, despite that, I'd be unlikely to find him very persuasive even if he were talking to me in English about his fishes and his loaves. He believes in transcendent beings and I don't. Whilst I may respect his right to hold to what I consider to be silly convictions, I can find little respect for the beliefs themselves. So, unless he can find what I consider a more convincing explanation of this particular trick, he's wasting his breath, however convinced he may be.

Berlo on Meaning

Please click here to ensure that Berlo's comments on meaning are displayed - they are used for navigating this section.

Meanings are in people

As Cherry puts it in On Human Communication,

...though many different pairs of people may say 'the same thing' (linguistically) on different occasions in conversation, each occasion, as an event, is observably different in many aspects from the others; such differences depend upon people's accents, their past experiences, their present states of mind, the environment, the future consequences of interpreting the message, knowledge of each other, and many other factors.

Cherry (1977)

If meanings were found in words, it would follow that any person could understand any language or code. Clearly we cannot, since some people have meanings for some codes and others do not. Some people have meanings for the signs of Mandarin Chinese and others don't. You can only get the meaning if you know the code.

It's worth bearing in mind that the term 'sign' is used by students of Communication to refer to signs in codes other than language. It might seem obvious that people from whatever culture would interpret the signs of photographs in a similar manner, but the evidence is that the meanings read from photographic texts are very different for two people who don't share the same photographic code. Indeed, research has even shown that peoples in remote areas who had not previously been exposed to communication in the form of drawings or photographs on paper had some difficulty in recognizing that photographic portraits portrayed people at all.

Shannon-Weaver: The Decoder


Just as a source needs an encoder to translate her purposes into a message, so the receiver needs a decoder to retranslate. The decoder (receiver in Shannon's paper) is an interesting and very useful development over, say, the Lasswell Formula.

If you take a look at our discussion of the receiver, you'll see that we considered how, for example, a blind person would not have the equipment to receive whatever non-verbal messages you send in the visual channel.

The notion of a decoder reminds us that it is quite possible for a person to have all the equipment required to receive the messages you send (all five senses, any necessary technology and so on) and yet be unable to decode your messages.

An obvious example would be:

You can see it. You probably guess that it's a language, maybe even that it's Arabic. You probably don't understand it, though. In fact, it is Arabic and it does mean (but nothing very interesting). My message, encoded to you in that short sentence, cannot be decoded by you. You have the appropriate receiving equipment, but no decoder. You don't understand the code.

Can you think of where you might come across a similar inability to decode where the English language is concerned? Suppose you've been reading around Communication Studies and have come across a reference to the philosopher Immanuel Kant. So you ask your teacher about him. She replies, "Well, the Critique of Pure Reason is essentially all about answering the question: how are synthetic judgements a priori possible?" Eh? You probably have a meaning for every one of those words, except perhaps 'a priori'. You might perhaps guess that she is using the title of one of Kant's works in her answer. But the statement is incomprehensible unless you know the technical jargon of philosophy. You can't decode the message - and your teacher is a pretty lousy teacher for having failed to predict your inability to decode it (or for having accurately predicted your inability and using it as an excuse to show off!).

Those two examples may seem pretty obvious and also rather unusual. Indeed, they are, but they do serve to illustrate how communication breakdown can occur because we make the false assumption that receivers decode messages in the same way we do, that they use the code in the same way. There's a whole host of reasons why they won't - age differences, class differences, cultural differences and so on (dealt with more thoroughly in Berlo's SMCR Model).

Shannon-Weaver: The Receiver


For communication to occur, there must be somebody at the other end of the channel. This person or persons can be called the receiver. To put it in Shannon's terms, information transmitters and receivers must be similar systems. If they are not, communication cannot occur. (Actually Shannon used the term destination, reserving the term receiver for what we have called decoder. However, I think the terminology I have been using is more common in the broader understanding of 'communication theory' as distinct from Shannon's information theory.)

What that probably meant as far as he was concerned was that you need a telephone at one end and a telephone at the other, not a telephone connected to a radio. In rather more obviously human terms, the receiver needs to have the equipment to receive the message. A totally blind person has the mental equipment to decode your gestures, but no system for receiving messages in the visual channel. So, your non-verbal messages are not received and you're wasting your energy. See also the Lasswell Formula for a more detailed discussion of 'receiver'.

Shannon-Weaver: Feedback


Feedback is a vital part of communication. When we are talking to someone over the phone, if they don't give us the occasional 'mmmm', 'aaah', 'yes, I see' and so on, it can be very disconcerting. .This lack of feedback explains why most of us don't like ansaphones. In face-to-face communication, we get feedback in the visual channel as well - head nods, smiles, frowns, changes in posture and orientation, gaze and so on. Advertisers need feedback which they get in the form of market research from institutions like Gallup. How else would they know if their ads are on the right track? Broadcasters need feedback which they get from BARB's ratings. Politicians need feedback which they get from public opinion polls and so on.

Why do people often have difficulty when using computers, when they find it perfectly easy to drive a car? You'd think it should be easier to operate a computer - after all there are only a few keys and a mouse, as against levers, pedals and a steering wheel. A computer's not likely to kill you, either. It could be due to the lack of feedback - in a car, you've the sound of the engine, the speed of the landscape rushing past, the force of gravity. Feedback is coming at you through sight, hearing and touch -overdo it and it might come through smell as well! With a computer, there's very little of that.

Some years ago, our students used to play games on College computers during the lunch hour. Occasionally - if we held a lunchtime meeting, say - we would have to ask them to turn the sound off. It was amazing to see how their scores plummeted when that single channel of feedback was removed. Xerox at the Palo Alto research Centre (PARC) have been researching for years how to provide more feedback - for example, when you save a file to your hard disk, there might be a clanging noise and the more echo there is the emptier your hard disk is. You might at the moment be using a 'clicky' keyboard. There's no very good reason why a modern keyboard should make a constant clatter, but I'm used to using one at home and find it quite difficult to use keyboards which deprive me of that feedback.

Feedback is defined by the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, as follows:

In its simplest form the feedback principle means that a behaviour is tested with reference to its result and success or failure of this result influences the future behaviour

Wiener (1958 : 55)

(Please note that this is translated from the German - I haven't read the original English of Wiener's book)

Well, that's the Shannon-Weaver model. Do you feel enlightened? I shouldn't imagine that any student of human-to-human communication would feel especially enlightened by Shannon's original paper, since it's all to do with information theory and, in essence, human beings don't process information, but process meanings. In the above discussion of the model I have often referred to meaning, a topic largely absent from the original model, but it is only by broadening the model to take in meaning and the biological, cognitive, technological, socio-cultural and other factors which influence it that this model can be of any use.

Perhaps one of the main reasons for the model's popularity amongst communication theorists in the 'humanities' has been that it provides them with a ready-made jargon that ordinary mortals are not likely to be familiar with, as well as conferring on the subject a kind of pseudo-scientific respectability. Students of human communication nowadays are likely to use, at least early in their studies, terminology taken from Shannon: transmitter, receiver, channel, bandwidth, channel capacity, code, mechanical noise and so on. I suspect, however, that they are rarely required to know that i = log21/p , or that no material system can compute more than 2 x 1047 bits per second and per gram of its mass. And, if they are not required to deal with information theory in that way, then the terms 'transmitter', 'channel' and 'receiver' are just fancy words for 'speaker', 'listener' and 'air', more obfuscation than communication, a simple, but, alas, immediately suspect, means of appearing clever.

However, it has to be said that the model's separation of the communication process into discrete units has proved fruitful and has formed the basis of several other models which provide some more insightful elaboration of the human communication process. However, in disregarding meaning it may well be downright misleading. Those researchers who take this model and simply slap meaning on top of it are probably even more misleading. Some models developed upon the basic constituents of the Shannon-Weaver model are linked to below under 'related articles'. I would refer you also to the article on criticism of transmission models.

[Finally, if you've been sent to this article as a trainee teacher and find that the Shannon-Weaver contributes nothing to your understanding of the teaching/learning process, for God's sake say so.]


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