Portions of this post are adapted from the text of a chapter to appear in Practicing Communication Theory: Exploring, Applying, and Teaching the Constitutive Metamodel, edited by Marc H. Rich and Jessica S. Robles, forthcoming from Cognella.
This post recounts the intellectual journey that took me to my 1999 article, "Communication Theory as a Field" (hereafter CTF), in which I first presented the (in)famous Seven Traditions of Communication Theory. Much of what I've been writing in this blog grows out of ideas in that article. Warning: this is a theory-heavy piece. If I were Paul Krugman writing about economics in The New York Times, I'd call it "wonkish." It's mainly for communication theory wonks.
CTF proposed that we think of communication theory as a field of "metadiscursive practice" - a field of discourse about discourse, dialogue and debate across a range of intellectual traditions for the purpose of informing and cultivating the ordinary metadiscourse about communication problems and practices that already goes on in society. This is the “constitutive metamodel” of communication theory, so-called because it is a model of models that would constitute the field as a conversation about alternative models for constituting the practice of communication. According to this metamodel, communication theory aspires to have a practical function in the world. By developing and disseminating through society the various traditions of thought in which communication has been conceptualized, the practice of communication theory enables people to reflect on problems from multiple perspectives as they deliberate on how best to communicate.
One confusion people sometimes have about CTF results from their assumption that its scheme of seven theoretical traditions is a model of the communication discipline in which the traditions represent subdisciplinary areas of study. On this interpretation CTF is oddly out of sync with the field’s current structure, much of which is simply missing from the metamodel. Where, for example, is the media studies tradition? What about the public relations tradition? In truth, however, CTF was never intended to represent the disciplinary substructure of communication studies. Instead, it was one thread of a larger project on communication as a practical discipline (Craig, 1989). Elsewhere I have told the story of how that larger project emerged from my personal struggles with the science-humanities divide in communication studies, beginning as an undergraduate in the late 1960s (Craig, 2006). The following paragraphs trace my thinking on communication theory through the 1980s and ‘90s to the 1999 publication of CTF.
My work on the idea of a practical discipline began around 1980 and centered on the premise that communication is a field of practical activities that can develop into practical arts with the assistance of systematic research, theory, and criticism. The Aristotelian art of rhetoric was a model that we could update by incorporating techniques of modern science and applying it to modern communicative activities to create a practical discipline of communication.
My theoretical interests in the 1980s were mainly epistemological. Steeped in the philosophy of science, I was trying to articulate the specific kind of knowledge that a practical discipline would produce and how it would differ from traditional conceptions of knowledge in the sciences, arts, and humanities. I was reading in social science metatheory, pragmatism, hermeneutics, rhetoric, and critical social theory and wondering how to position a practical discipline among those categories. As always, I conducted my education in public by having my theory seminar students read the very things I was struggling to understand.
From the early 1980s into the 2000s I worked intermittently on a book about communication as a practical discipline that I never managed to complete. Material written for the book was spun off as convention papers, articles and book chapters, but my working outline of the book kept changing as I explored different aspects of the idea of a practical discipline. The first decade’s work culminated in a major essay (Craig 1989) that I intended to revise as the first chapter of my book. Another spinoff, Grounded Practical Theory (Craig and Tracy 1995; 2021), grew from (and rather outgrew) a section of the methodology chapter. CTF in 1999 was yet another spinoff from the book project, culminating a line of work that began in the early 1990s.
Early draft outlines of my book-in-progress in the 1980s included chapters on the history and concept of the communication discipline, practical theory, methodology, and a shifting array of subsidiary problems like prescriptivism, authenticity, and intimate arts, but no chapter squarely focused on the subject matter of communication theory. Filling that gap became a priority for me around 1990, probably for several reasons. I became the founding editor of a new journal, Communication Theory, and worried about what it should publish. I took a faculty position at Colorado, where communication theory became my main teaching responsibility, and I worried about what to teach. Amid all of that, I worried that my writings on communication as a practical discipline had had a lot to say about practical and discipline but notably very little about the concept of communication! I was reading work by James Carey, Stanley Deetz, W. Barnett Pearce, Robyn Penman, John Peters, Gregory Shepherd, Stuart Sigman, and others, all interrogating the concept of communication, centering the communication discipline on that concept, and advancing some variation of what I came to call a constitutive model of communication.
By 1994, my book outline included a chapter on communication theory that opened with the point that definitions of communication reconstruct communication problems and practices and went on to list a series of “traditions” of communication theory (rhetoric, semiotics, cybernetics, media theory, social psychology, and dialogue). The chapter outline claimed that tensions among the traditions defined central problems of communication theory and concluded that other traditions (nonacademic, nonwestern) also should be engaged. In a 1994 Speech Communication Association convention paper, I reviewed the literature on the constitutive model of communication and argued that the transmission model was still useful for some purposes. Influenced by Carey’s (1989) discussion of the reflexive relationship between communication theory and culture, I argued that communication theory should respond to the problem of communication as it is variously experienced in contemporary societies, and that theory should interpret, critique and suggest alternatives reconstructions of communication as a cultural practice.
In 1994-1995, I was evidently grappling with some questions that that convention paper had left unanswered. Methodologically, how could the reflexive relationship between theory and practice be operationalized in a practical discipline, and how could the multifarious contents of communication theory be adapted to the purposes of such a discipline? I was already thinking in terms of theoretical traditions, but the idea of a tradition was undeveloped. Influenced by Talbot Taylor (1992), I began to see metadiscourse as a key concept for relating theories to each other and theory to practice, but my research in discourse analysis (which had been going on since the late 1970s) led me to interpret the concept differently from Taylor.
By the time of a March 1995 colloquium talk at Colorado, the title and a rough outline of “Communication Theory as a Field” had emerged, using concepts from Taylor’s (1992) critique of language theories to conceive the broader field of communication theory as one in which:
"…communication theories are mutually relevant (constitute a field) because they are relevant to a common practical world; they present alternative ways of conceptualizing communication problems and practices; theoretical metadiscourse draws topoi from, and becomes a source of topoi for, practical metadiscourse, and produces both theoretical as well as practical innovation.” (unpublished handout dated March 8, 1995)
In that talk, I sketched seven traditions (rhetoric, semiotics, social psychology/psychology, social psychology/sociology, phenomenology, cybernetics, and media theory) and posed, as a discussion question, “Which commonplaces of practical metadiscourse are appealed to, and which are problematized, by each tradition of communication theory?”
It may have been while preparing that colloquium that I set out jogging one morning, as I have often recounted, my head roiling with nebulous thoughts on the traditions of communication theory and returned home an hour later with a list of seven traditions that I promptly wrote down. The memory is vivid and makes a fun anecdote but is a bit misleading. I must have had some epiphany on that day’s run but by then I had been toying with lists of traditions and pondering metadiscourse, etc., for some time. Critical theory was not yet on my list of traditions, probably because I was still seeing it as an epistemological stance without a distinct concept of communication, a view I eventually rejected. The list of traditions continued to evolve as the manuscript of CFT developed slowly through the following two years.
I presented a more fully developed version in October 1996 as the Second Annual Lecture in Human Communication at Indiana University. In that version, the last three traditions were now Social Psychology, Interactionism and Critical Theory, and each tradition was presented along with a sketch of commonplaces that it appeals to and challenges, practical problems that it orients to, and conflicts with other traditions that suggest research problems. That November I submitted a partial draft for presentation at the International Communication Association convention the following May.
In the spring of 1997, I continued working on the manuscript while teaching a doctoral seminar on communication theory that followed the essay’s outline and assigned readings and student presentations on each of the seven traditions. The semester’s final reading was a draft of CTF that presented a rough version of the metamodel in one table and a half-completed matrix of arguments across traditions in a second table. I completed the manuscript, submitted it to Communication Theory on June 10, 1997, and received, dated October 26, 1997, one of those daunting “revise and resubmit” decisions accompanied by three detailed peer reviews, all very thoughtful, which raised good issues that took me some time to address in a revision that was finally submitted in mid-1998.
It wasn’t until a second revision, submitted that fall, trying to clarify the paper’s organization, that I formulated the metamodel’s two principles: the constitutive model as a metamodel, and communication theory as metadiscursive practice. Another minor revision submitted that later fall was accepted by the then-editor of Communication Theory, James Anderson, in December 1998 and, after some final tinkering, appeared in print the following May. The rest is history.
References & Further Reading
Carey, J. W. (1989). Communication as culture: Essays on media and society. Winchester, MA: Unwin Hyman.
Craig, R. T. (1989). Communication as a practical discipline. In B. Dervin, L. Grossberg, B. J. O'Keefe & E. Wartella (Eds.), Rethinking communication; Volume 1: Paradigm issues (pp. 97-122). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory, 9(2), 119-161. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1999.tb00355.x
Craig, R. T. (2006). A path through the methodological divides. Keio Communication Review, 28, 9-17. http://www.mediacom.keio.ac.jp/publication/pdf2006/review28/01_Brenda%20DERVIN.pdf
Craig, R. T. (2015). The constitutive metamodel: A 16-year review. Communication Theory, 25(4), 356-374. doi: 10.1111/comt.12076
Craig, R. T., & Tracy, K. (1995). Grounded practical theory: The case of intellectual discussion. Communication Theory, 5(3), 248-272. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1995.tb00108.x
Craig, R. T., & Tracy, K. (2021). Grounded practical theory: Investigating communication problems. San Diego: Cognella.
Taylor, T. J. (1992). Mutual misunderstanding: Scepticism and the theorizing of language and interpretation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.