Paradigm and Communication

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Philosopher Thomas Kuhn (1970) is generally credited with having introduced the term "paradigm" to refer to a broad framework that guides the thinking and research of scholars over a long period of time as they conduct research and develop specific theories. Perhaps the most classic illustration of a paradigm was the long-standing view that Earth was the center of the universe, around which center the Sun, moon, and planets revolved. This way of thinking, attributed to Alexandrian geographer and astronomer named Ptolemy (130 C. E.), was widely accepted and used until astronomers encountered discrepancies that were not easily explained by Ptolemy's geocentric paradigm. Inconsistencies of this kind, which Kuhn calls "anomalies," can lead to a scientific revolution and the emergence of a new paradigm. In this case, the new framework, advanced by Nicolaus Copernicus in the fifteenth century, was able to address the anomalies by advancing a new way of thinking, which proposed that Earth rotates on its axis and that the planets (including Earth) revolve in orbits around the Sun. This paradigm replaced the Ptolemaic view and has continued to provide the overarching framework for scholarship and research in the centuries since then.

In communication study, as in astronomy and other fields, the concept of paradigm is quite useful for understanding the evolution of thought. From the earliest formal study of communication by Aristotle and his contemporaries in Ancient Greece, communication was generally viewed as a process through which a speaker conveys messages to influence or persuade one or more receivers. This paradigm emphasizes the importance of a source and his or her intended message. Receivers are typically viewed as being passive recipients of messages, and thus as the endpoint in what is viewed as a straightforward and predictable cause-and-effect process.

This Aristotelian framework remained pervasive in communication study until the middle of the twentieth century. As noted above, paradigms change as a result of anomalies. In the case of communication study, it was observed by a number of scholars that messages sent by a speaker often are not received and/or acted on by receivers in the manner in which the sender or message advocated. These observations were at odds with the traditional paradigm. Gradually, the anomalies led to the erosion of the traditional paradigm and the growing acceptance of a communication paradigm that emphasizes the active and powerful influence of receivers on the process.

Contemporary models of communication assert that receivers play a much more active and discriminating role in the process. They emphasize the variety of ways in which receivers attend to, interpret, and respond to messages. The factors that affect these processes are related to the sender and the message, as well as the channel, the situation, the relationship between sender and receiver, and so on.

Paradigms are important in communication study, as in other fields, because they guide scholarship, research, and sometimes policy and professional practice. For example, based on the earlier communication paradigm, it made sense to think that smoking could be greatly reduced or eliminated if warnings pointing out the health hazards were printed on cigarette packages. Research and observation, however, indicated that the intended message was often ignored or distorted by receivers; it certainly was not reacted to as advocated by the source or message. Anomalies such as these led to a view that suggests the importance of focusing on the intended receiver of messages rather than just on a sender and the intended message.

Paradigms evolve slowly and are sometimes rejected with reluctance even when many anomalies exist. Thus, even though important changes began to take place in the communication paradigm in the middle of the twentieth century, it is still not uncommon to hear the process described in terms that reflect the older view, such as when someone says, "I don't know why he didn't get my message. It was a simple point, and I repeated it two times!" This kind of utterance implies that communication outcomes are primarily influenced by the sender and his or her message; it does not acknowledge the very active role that receivers play and the variety of factors that influence the outcomes of the communication process.

See also:Communication Study; Evolution of Communication; Human Information Processing; Models of Communication.


Harper, Nancy L. (1979). Human Communication Theory: History of a Paradigm. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden Books.

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Brent D. Ruben