Models of Communication

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Models are representations. There are model airplanes, mathematical models, and models of buildings. In each case, the model is designed to provide a simplified view of some more complex object, phenomenon, or process, so that fundamental properties or characteristics can be high-lighted and examined. Models highlight some features that their designers believe are particularly critical, and there is less focus on other features. Thus, by examining models, one learns not only about the object, situation, or process, but also about the perspective of the designer.

In communication study, models function in this same way, allowing for the simplification of complex dynamics to help scholars and students better understand the components and processes that are involved. As with other models, communication models also provide important insights into the perspectives of the designers.

One of the first scholars to examine the communication process in terms of its component parts was Aristotle (385-322 B. C. E.), who characterized communication (then called "rhetoric") in terms of an orator (i.e., a speaker) constructing an argument to be presented in a speech to an audience (i.e., listeners). This view is illustrated in visual form in Figure 1. This Aristotelian view of communication usefully highlighted the perspectives of communication thinkers until the midtwentieth century.

In the late 1940s, and through the 1950s and 1960s, a number of new communication models were advanced. Many of the new models preserved the basic themes of the Aristotelian perspective. In 1949, Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver published a model that they called the "Mathematical Model of Communication." Based on their research with telephones and telephonic communication, the model also used boxes and arrows to represent the communication process. However, their view was more complex. They began with the "information source" box and then, using arrows as the connections, progressed on to boxes for the "transmitter," the "channel," the "receiver," and, finally, the "destination."

Box-and-arrow models of communication, of which there have been many over the years, emphasize the components of communication (e.g., a sender, message, and receiver) and the direction of influence. Where arrows go from left to right, that is, from a sender to a receiver, the implication is that it is the sender who, through messages or speeches, brings about communication influences on the receiver.

Other models, including a helical-spiral model developed by Frank Dance (1967), a circular model proposed by Lee Thayer (1968), and a "sawtooth" model advanced by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson (1967), emphasized the dynamic and evolutionary nature of the communication process rather than the components or the directions of influence.

A "sawtooth" model that is similar to the sort advanced by Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) is shown in Figure 2. The lines represent messages that are exchanged during the course of a communication event. The downward lines with arrows represent messages sent by Person 1, while the upward lines represent messages initiated by Person 2. A model of this sort highlights the communication process, dynamics, and history, while it minimizes the emphasis on direction of influence.

Other types of models that have become popular emphasize communication networks—the flow of messages among individuals in a group or organization, for example. Such a model for a hypothetical group is depicted in Figure 3. Each circle represents an individual, and the arrows denote messages.

Communication models serve to clarify the nature of communication, to provide a guide for research, and to offer a means of displaying research findings. Such models are a tool by which scholars, practitioners, and students can illustrate their thinking about what they consider to be the most important aspects of communication.

See also:Evolution of Communication; Group Communication; Instructional Communication; Interpersonal Communication; Networks and Communication; Nonverbal Communication; Organizational Communication; Paradigm and Communication.


Aristotle. (1954). Rhetoric and Poetics, tr. Robert W. Rhys. New York: Random House.

Dance, Frank E. X. (1967). Human Communication Theory: Original Essays. New York: Holt.

Ruben, Brent D., and Stewart, Lea P. (1998). Communication and Human Behavior, 4th edition. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Schramm, Wilbur. (1954). The Process and Effects of Mass Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Shannon, Claude E., and Weaver, Warren. (1949). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press

Thayer, Lee. (1968). Communication and Communication Systems. Homewood, IL: Irwin.

Watzlawick, Paul; Beavin, Janet H.; and Jackson, Don D. (1967). Pragmatics of Human Communication. New York: W. W. Norton.

Brent D. Ruben