Communication Models

Michael E. Holmes & Heather L. Hundley

The Action Model

The action model is most simply defined as the view that communication is something that one person does to another; it is accordingly sometimes labeled the conduit, injection or hypodermic needle model. Berko et al. (1992) describe it as a "one-directional view of communication according to which a person performs specific actions in a specific sequence during a speech and elicits desired responses from listeners" (p. 49). Stewart and Logan (1993) similarly associate the action model with public speaking, attributing it to Aristotle, but they note that it is also the paradigm embodied in Shannon and Weaver's (1949) mathematical model of communication (Figure 1). Figure 1.

The identification of the Shannon and Weaver (1949) model with action models of communication is noted by Adler and Towne (1990) and Beebe et al. (1996). Only twelve years after its initial publication, Johnson and Klare called Shannon and Weaver's model of communication "the source of impetus for many subsequent diagrammatic models of the general communication process" (1961, p. 15). The Shannon and Weaver model is the archetypal action or linear communication model: it diagrams communication as a one-way flow of messages from a sender to a receiver, through a potentially noisy channel. Figure 2.

Shannon and Weaver were, of course, engineers, and presented the model to illustrate their mathematical theory of communication. The theory is concerned with electronic signal transmission rather than human communication, though its potential application to the human sphere is asserted in Weaver's chapter of the monogram: "the theory of Level A [signal transmission] is, at least to a significant degree, also a theory of levels B and C [meaning and effectiveness]" (1949, p. 98). According to Johnson and Klare, later variations of the model differ mainly in "making some clear place for human behavior in the analysis" (1961, p. 45). An action model from a communication textbook is displayed in Figure 2.

The Interactional Model

Figure 3.

The interactional model of communication builds on the action model by addition of a feedback loop. It is represented in the historical development of communication models by Schramm's (1954) general model of communication (Figure 3) and DeFleur's extension of the Shannon and Weaver model (see McQuail & Windahl, 1981).

The interactional model describes the communication process as an alternating exchange of messages. According to Adler and Towne, it resembles "a verbal and nonverbal tennis game in which messages pass back and forth between parties" (1990, p. 12). Beebe et al. adopt a similar metaphor: "messages, like a Ping Pong ball, bounce back and forth" (1996, p. 10). Figure 4.

Stewart and Logan also invoke a Newtonian analogy, calling the interactional model the "billiard ball" model because sender and receiver alternate active and passive roles in a step-by-step sequence of events (1993, p. 41). The response message from the receiver is typically identified as feedback: the receiver's message is a reaction to the message received. The feedback serves a cybernetic function as it allows the sender to adapt to the receiver's response. A textbook interactional model is shown in Figure 4.

The Transactional Model

The transactional model is intended to overcome the one-directional nature of action models and the restriction of alternating "active sender--passive receiver" roles of interactional models. DeVito (1995) identifies Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) as the originators of the transactional model (see also Barnlund, 1970). The key differences between the transactional model and other models are simultaneity of encoding and decoding and fusing of sending/receiving activities. DeVito defines the transactional view as "each person is seen as both speaker and listener, as simultaneously sending and receiving messages" (1995, p. 28). Adler and Towne (1990) argue that, from a transactional view, it is difficult to isolate a single discrete communicative act. Beebe et al. echo this claim, noting that the transactional model has the same components as interactional models, "but in this model, all of the interaction is simultaneous" (1996, p. 11).

The transactional view emphasizes interdependence of all elements of the communication process, changing rather than static participants, and the co-creation of meaning. According to Stewart and Logan, the model "highlights collaboration, how people construct meanings together" (1993, p. 43). Beebe et al. argue that the transactional view escapes the mechanistic trappings of other models, as from this view "we would not simply transfer or exchange meaning; we would create it during a communication transaction" (1996, p. 11). Figure 5.

The transactional model is identified by the textbook authors as the best, most complete, and most accurate speech communication model. They also describe it as the most difficult to visualize: "a clear cut model of the process is not easy to construct" (Berko et al., 1992, p. 52); "it is more difficult to graphically represent a transaction than to model an action or interaction" (Stewart & Logan, 1993, p. 43);

Adler and Towne suggest "an animated version in which environments, communicators, and messages constantly change would be an even better way of capturing the process" (1990, p. 15). Despite these caveats, each offers a diagram of the model except for Stewart and Logan (1993), who opt for the artistic vehicle of an M.C. Escher print.

The text in this assignment is excerpted from: Holmes, M. E., & Hundley, H. L. (1998). Visualizing Communication for the Basic Course: Narrative and Conceptual Patterns in Textbook Communication Diagrams. Presented at the 1998 annual conference of the Western States Communication Association, Denver, Colorado. Copyright © by the authors. All rights reserved.

Department of Communication

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