21st Century Perspective to Understand Communication Contexts

Posted: November 8, 2010 in Analysis, Communication, Popular Culture
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Is the menu still the same?

Research scholars and educators often interchange the use of the terms levels and contexts in referring to a communication situation. Joseph De Vito (2004) describes seven contexts of communication, which include, intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, organizational, public, intercultural and mass communication. An axiom in communication is that it is multilevel activity. Thus, the reference of the various contexts of communication is also used for the multiple or varied levels of communication.

Communication as human behavior and social act vary in context. Theoretically, is there a form of communication higher or more valuable than another context that we should apply the term level in our classification?  Axiomatically, are those seven contexts or levels the only situations that would describe how people communicate? Another epistemological concern regarding the contexts or levels of communication is that of the understanding of digital communication. The question here stems from the fact that since it uses media should it be classified as mass communication?

The term level brings cognitive tension in terms of classifying communicative behavior. This tension arises from attributing hierarchical traits to the various forms of human interaction. It brings a reader or a student to attribute power in the communication dynamics in terms of the number of people engaged or reached in a communication situation. Looking at communication as multilevel also suggests a complex set of behavior happening at the same time and at the same place. Indeed, there are situations that individual multi-task, and so individuals can be engaged into several contexts of communication at the same time at the same place.

To illustrate this complexity, if one is within a group communication context like brainstorming on a project. An individual who is present in the circle can think for himself and so engage in an intrapersonal context. To verify his ideas, he may consult another by sharing his thoughts. If the idea seem worthy, that individual will discuss and share it with the group. A point that should be clarified here is that is that mere presence in the group that defines the context of communication, or the actual process of meaning making and sharing of meanings that should be considered as communication. If the latter is more considerable, the process will occupy a different set of time.

Hence, it could be misinforming to say that an individual can engage in multiple process of communication at the same time and at the same place. However, it is still plausible to consider the axiom that communication is a multilevel activity, in terms of looking that several interacting parties within a  particular setting. That multiple contexts of communication may exist along with each other. A good illustration here is that within a party, a speaker may be facing the public, while the audience is not really in full attention and instead engaged in various contexts of communication. Such multilevel communication is more likely problematic, in the most conventional terms of having the message get to be understood by another.

Whereas, the contexts of communication are mutually exclusive. One exist without bias to another, but scholars have expressed and attributed power to each by the use of word level. Assuming that the contexts of communication are levels, are there degrees of importance, values, immediacy or proximity? The only basis for such way of classifying the contexts of communication is the number of individuals engaged or reached in that communication situation. If this cognitive assumption is considered, then we regarding less the value of intrapersonal communication.

This construction of communication in terms of levels can be traced in the development of our understanding of communication. In ancient times, Socrates have emphasized the value of self-knowledge. This is what intrapersonal communication is all about. But then came Plato’s dialectics that focus on interpersonal communication. This is further supported by Aristotle’s Rhetoric in public communication that emphasize on the art of persuasion. For a long time in human history, our knowledge of communication was limited to those levels. Modern development brought innovations in communication. From the invention of the printing press, to the radio and the television, our knowledge of communication was expanded to drive our attention to media.

The power of the mass media undermined the power of the message. The medium became the message according to  Marshall McLuhan. That was in the modern times. Postmodern innovation have brought the information age and ushered the knowledge age. This era that we live in largely dependent on the hypermedia and the Internet. More powerful than the television in terms of reach and function, novel information communication technological advances are rapidly replacing the dynamics of communication. To stick to the modern construct that the use of these innovation still qualifies as mediated communication will also be troublesome to our episteme.

It would be troublesome for several reasons. First, the definition of mediated communication is influenced by how we construct mass communication. Mass communication is mediated communication but mediated communication is not generally mass communication. McQuail (2010) defines mass media as the organized means of communicating, at a many, at a distance in a short space of time. The mass media includes the print, television, radio and film, the modes in which the 20th world communicates.

According to McQuail, mass communication is a large-scale, one-way flow of public content, continues unabated, but is it no longer carried only  by ‘traditional media’, as it is supplemented by new media like the Internet and mobile technology (p.4). He furthered, that “mass communication is not confined to the mass media, but relates to any aspect of that original process, irrespective of the technology or network involved, that it included all types and processes of communication that are extensive, public and technically mediated” (p.5).

Definitions should be able to limit and clarify.  The re-definitions of mass communication in McQuail’s updated book Mass Communication Theory is expanded to include any technically mediated process, but clarifies that it is extensive and directed to the public or mass audience.  He also argues that “there is no absolute line between the public and private, but a broad distinction can usually be made” (p.5). If private and public can be distinguished, then they can be differentiated to set a clear line between them, maybe not absolute though as evidenced in the public in private or private in public states in glass-house online social networks. But an individual can engage himself in private mode while using the hypermedia.

Digital communication is a fitting term to describe 21st century context of communication that uses post modern ICT innovations. This context of communication transcends the boundaries of the various contexts of human communication. Digital communication is mediated communication like mass communication, but it is used in various ways at real-time anywhere in the world. It is not bound by space and time, it uses technology in massive and minute scale to serve various purposes be it intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, public, mass, intercultural or organizational.

The 21st century world uses a different media from that of the traditional mass media. The communication medium now may be used in traditional ways to serve conventional needs, but its power is beyond that. Digital natives are using it in a different way than people of another generation would understand. Digital communication as using hypermedia for provides  hyperreal contexts of communication, where we can no longer identify the virtual and real, as well as how it can be switched for public or for private use. These new modes of communication are not evident in the traditional mass media. Instead, the traditional media is being transformed by digitization.

Mass communication could have been the most powerful context of communication from since the classical age. But this is now replaced by digital communication that can serve as metacontext to enable anyone to engage in various contexts of communication by using digital technology. Digital communication is another context of communication that should be appreciated and aligned to other levels or contexts that people engage with to construct and share meaning. It is network and technology based, that serves various purposes, and some of those purposes are not achieved with the use of traditional media.

If communication scholars would want to understand the ways in which contemporary society’s communicate, then it must embrace 21st century perspectives of understanding communication.


De Vito, J. (2004). Essentials of Human Communication, 5th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

McQuail, D. (2010). McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory, 6th ed. London, UK: Sage.


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