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Analysis of the Transmission Model for Communication Theories and Research

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08/02/20 Languages Reference this

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‘Despite the critiques from within the reception or cultural context school of thought does the transmission model still provide the primary conceptual basis for theorizing and researching communication?’

The Transmission Model of Communication provided a conceptual ‘axiom’ framework for theorising basic communication processes and studies in the twentieth century. The model was constructed by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver in the late 1940s as a mathematical theory of signal transmission. Their objective was to ensure maximum efficiency with minimal distortion for radio waves and telephone services.

The model consists of a one-way linear process in which a sender transmits a message to the receiver. It operates on three levels (Level A = Technical problems, Level B = Semantic problems and Level C = Effectiveness problems). The simplicity and quantifiably of this scheme enabled it to be widely accepted as the standard theory of communication up until the late 1980’s. However, it’s structure remains irrelevant in effectively theorising and understanding communication presently.

In modern society, scholars argue that this model is underdevelopment and mechanistic in its nature. (Jensen & Neuman 2013) Nonetheless, the development of this model enabled scholars to evaluate the communication process in new ways which ultimately led to intricate alternative approaches. Theories such as Berlo’s Sender-Message-Channel-Receiver SMCR model (1960).

Despite the popularity of Shannon and Weaver’s Transmission model, it has been subject to multilateral criticism from a variety of scholars and schools of thought. Daniel Chandler, British Semiotician, best underpins the general critiques of the Transmission Model as a “dangerously misleading misrepresentation of the nature of human communication.” This notion is supported by the process of verbal and non-verbal communication occurring simultaneously between two people as participants both send and receive. However, the Transmission model divides and fixes the functions of ‘sender’ and ‘receiver.’ The source is conveyed as the active choice maker who governs the meaning of each message. The linearity of the model fails to identify communication as more than a one-way path, realistically, receivers can be more interpretively active then portrayed in this scheme.

Similarly, the model fails to establish a feedback loop occurring from both the receiver and the sender. This loop would enable the sender/receiver to modify their performance to the wants of those receiving.  The transmission model excludes content and meaning, as evidenced by Shannon “frequently the messages have message…these semantic aspect of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.” (Shannon 1948)

Although, the intended meaning and the meaning produced by receivers may be different. One message may signify various meanings, especially in relation to mass communication. Furthermore, there is no inclusion of contexts such as social, cultural, historical or institutional and meaning is not independent without these contexts. The model also assumes communication reaches a predetermined end and occurs strictly intentionally. However, individuals may communicate unintentionally via body language and gestures. (NOT FINISHED)

The existing critiques for the Transmission Model of Communication (1949) are the predominant reasoning behind its inability to be relevant to all aspects of communication in contemporary society. This central idea stems from the conception that the model stands as a linear mathematical theory for communication in a technical sense rather than its wider application to human communication. It is argued that all models of communication can be embodied within the original transmission scheme as a “transfer of information.” This in turn, attempts to conclude whether the transmission model in the primary form of thought pattern that serves as a reference point for how communication is theorised and researched. (Cobley and Schluz 2013)

Progressively, the interaction metaphor of communication – Osgood-Schramm’s Model of Communication was developed in the 1950’s and correlated with the previous works of Shannon and Weaver but included feedback as a central element and conveyed a more reciprocal and two-way process. It also takes context and culture into account as messages may have different meanings depending on these factors. Inclusion of ‘interpreter’ into process. Introduced the concept of field of experience.

It takes the basic elements of the transmission metaphor and adds two important components: feedback and fields of experience. Fields of experience is the attitudes, perceptions and backgrounds each of us brings to communication. An understanding of fields of experience allows senders to tailor their messages to receivers. This model views communication as an adaptive and interactional process. However, like the transmission model before it, the interaction model still treats senders and receivers as a fundamentally separate and disconnected.


The context of Shannon and Weaver’s Transmission of Communication Model enabled it to work efficiently for telephone/radio services in the historical times of World War II. This source to destination path however, is outdated to the current internet age and all of its complexities. This is evidenced throughout the notions of the model as it does not account for receivers becoming the sources. For a communication model to be a reliable framework in the digital age, it must take into account the numerous possible news sources and the fluidity with modern messaging processes used in recent times. The transmission model, however, is limited to its practical use in society, for example, the process that occurs in teaching environments i.e. lectures, where the lecturer speaks and the students construct notes accordingly. Thus, it represents a similarly transmissive model of teaching and learning.

The contemporary style of communication elements developed predominantly from the early work of Shannon and Weaver as well as Schramm. These scholars expounded the process of communication to enable it to be valuable for a range of situations. From their ideologies, the ultra-modern style of communication was established incorporating encoding, communicator, information, recipient, moderate, suggestions and decoding alongside sounds.

According to Michal Wendland, there are two standpoints in regards to the Transmission model relevance to contemporary society. The universalist approach would view that it is “not possible to go beyond the metaphorical conceptualisation, that the use of the metaphor is universal i.e. pan human.” (Wendland 2011) “While its narrow, more radical form would be expressed in the belief that in regard to communication only one particular metaphor is pan human and super cultural” and that is the Transmission Model. (Reddy 1993). A relativist approach obtains two ways in this discussion. A radical relativist discovers that there is another way to use a metaphor as they believe that “everything is relative, nothing is universal.” (ibid) Conversely, a radical relativist ought to propose a suggestion for an alternative and non-metaphorical way of speech in regards to communication.

In contrast, a moderate relativist views would align with that of a moderate universalist that individuals are fated to use particular patterns of thinking and that individuals cannot go outside the metaphor. Opposed to a radical universalist, a moderate relativist enables for a chance that there are various patterns, numerous diverse metaphors (excluding the transmission metaphor) which are changeable and comparative. Thereby, reliant on the circumstances of context. This debate between universalism and relativism can be resolved by referring to the distinctions between speech and language.

Structuralism was an intellectual approach and movement in France in 1950s and 1960s that was concerned with understanding human culture by their relationship to a broader structure or predominant system. (Deleuze). The social and aesthetic structures that an individual may exist within, governs the transmission of dominate philosophy to a rather powerless society. In terms of communication, structuralism denotes how meaning is created in texts.

Claude Levi-Strauss, French anthropologist, developed structuralism as an approach to analysis culture as an extension to Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of language. This covered all cultural practices and Strauss argued that meanings are precise to each culture but are

universal to all individuals in their ways of production. (McGee and Warms 2004, page 345)

The success of Shannon and Weaver’s Transmission Model is partly due to its structuralist reduction of communication as it obtains basic elements to outline how communication occurs. (Foulger). (NEEDS MORE INFO)

Comparatively, Post Structuralism rejects the ideologies of structuralism and proposes meaning and language as polysemic. Theorists such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida all portray various critiques of structuralism, however, the underlying argument centres around the denunciation of self-sufficiency and binary opposites in Structuralism. (Bensmaïa 2005)

The poststructuralist approach identifies structuralist perspectives to be too inflexible and limiting in their nature to effectively understand society and media. This is reflected in the Transmission Model of Communication as it follows a very structured pattern of power residing in one area and the message located at the end. This can be viewed by a post-industrialist as rigid in its linear path and additional elements (i.e. feedback and culture) refine the process to create reception in a discursive framework. Thereby, Post-structuralists reject the idea of sender, message, receiver.

Post structuralist theorist Jacque Derrida criticises the Transmission Model of Communication in his book “Signature Event Context” signifying “why context is never absolutely determinable.” In place of context, Derrida suggests the idea of “dissemination” by which a text is fundamentally adrift of the circumstances of its reception.

Despite the criticism from within the reception of the Transmission Model of Communication, it is undoubtedly that this model is prevalent in other scholar’s models and theories of communication. For example, John Fiske, American Scholar, defines a metaphor as “communicate the unknown by transposing it into the terms of the known.” (Fiske 1998). This evidences the dynamic role of the transmission metaphor as it is repeatedly used to conceptualise the notion of a metaphor. 

Moreover, he furthers this explanation of metaphor depicted in “Metaphors…require active, imaginative decoding: the reader has to find which characteristics can be meaningfully transposed.” (ibid) Fiske utilises transmission-based terms such as ‘decoding’ to justify how metaphors work. Additionally, Fiske definition and use of the metaphor views it as active and vital to the process, thus not portraying the audience as passive as various critics suggest that the metaphor does.

Furthermore, Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding Model of 1973/1980 exhibits the progression of the transmission metaphor. The model is transmission-based in its conception of communication, offering an another version (adding notions of production, distribution, reproduction and circulation). Hall’s model, like Laswell, signifies the communication path as a circuit, incorporating transmission model terms such as encoding, decoding, code, message, receiver, vehicle and source. (Hall 1980)

Hall offers a proposed solution to overcome these faults adding an additional layer of complexity on to the metaphor and enabling it to evolve through the inclusion of “distinctive moments – production, circulation, distribution/consumption, reproduction.” (Hall 1980)

Interestingly, Hall not only utilises the transmission/conduit metaphor but also employs its correspondent in the vehicle/container metaphor. He argues that language embodies the container/vehicle for language, whereas, communication signifies the distribution of its contents. For example, Hall states “The apparatuses, relations and practices of production thus issue, at a certain moment (the moment of, production/circulation) in the form of symbolic vehicles constituted within the rules of ‘language.” (Hall 1980)

In summary, the reception or cultural context school of thought critiques the transmission model as a simplistic notion of communication, however, this is solely dependent upon the complexity or simple the comparison is to be. It is thus argued, Shannon and Weaver’s Transmission Model for Communication is mischaracterised in its historical framework. Nonetheless, the various improvements and expansions proposed by other models more successfully convey a better understanding of human communication. The Transmission Model can be thought of as the birth of theorising communication on which, other models were built. Ultimately, theorists and researchers can discover commonality through valuing the diversity of distinct approaches and the philosophy in which they have created.


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