James Carey Communication As Culture

(Lecture Notes)

Mass Communication scholar James W. Carey compares two views or models of communication, the “ritual” model and the “transmission” model. These two views, the values associated with them, emphasize different aspects of communication. The transmission model comes from the traditional social-scientific Sender-Message-Channel-Receiver or S-M-C-R approach, whereas the ritual model comes from the social constructionist paradigm.

Although Carey primarily refers to mass media, and particularly journalism, his comparison fits for public speaking as well. In fact, many communication textbooks, including public speaking books, begin with the transmission model of communication. The following are excerpts, quotes, and paraphrases from the first two chapters of the book Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

“Society not only exists by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication.”
— Dewey


General Observations about Communication

The most important single change in human consciousness in the last century, and especially in the American consciousness, has been the multiplying of the means and forms of what we call “communication.” Modern communications have drastically altered the ordinary terms of experience and consciousness, the ordinary structures of interest and feeling, the normal sense of being alive, of having a social relation.

Technological extensions and resettlement could never unload the instincts and necessities of an ancient past outside history. We remained possessed by that which we no longer quite possessed: rituals and narratives that are in the strict sense anthropological. Democracies are limited to range of foot and tongue. America is an oral democracy.

Reading the news is a dramatic ritual act. [The news is ] not information but a portrayal of contending forces in the world. [The ritual model is not about] information acquisition, though that’s part, but of dramatic action in which the reader joins a world of contending forces as an observer at a play. News is not information but drama, part of the ritual actions of everyday social life.


Definition of Ritual Model of Communication — communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.


Communication–most common and mundane of human experiences; difficult to recognize just like the fish doesn’t recognize water; communication creates the ambiance (water) of human existence.

Assumptions about the relationship between communication and reality in the transmission model:

1. a real world of objects, events, and processes that we observe.

2. language or symbols name these events in the real world and create more or less adequate descriptions of them.

3. there is a reality and then, after the facts, our accounts of it.

4. distinction between reality and fantasy

5. our terms stand in relation to this world as shadow and substance.

6. language distorts and confuses our perception of external world; we peel away semantic layers of terms and meanings to uncover more substantial domain of existence.

Assumptions about the relationship between communication and reality in the ritual model (invert the transmission model’s relationship of communication to reality):

1. reality is not given, not humanly existent, independent of language and toward which language mirrors.

2. Rather, reality is brought into existence, produced by communication, by the construction, apprehension, and utilization of symbolic forms.

3. Reality is not a mere function of symbolic forms, but is produces by humans that focus existence in specific terms.

4. Reality is not there to discover in any significant detail

Explanation of the Symbolic Process

1. The map and territory—draw the child a map to school

symbolic = displacement–displacement–producing a complicated act when the “real” stimulus is not physically present

three levels of symbolic processes

a. map is representation of an environment, guiding behavior transforming space into known space

b. or we can map a space by creating a song or poem—first you turn left, then you turn right….

c. or dancing a ritual.

2. productive–capable of producing an infinite number of representations on the basis of a finite number of symbolic elements.

3. Constitutes nature–concept made manageable by reduction of information–but more than one way to draw a map, so maps not only constitute activity of mapmaking, but also constitute nature itself

4. nature of thought–thought is essentially private vs. thought is predominantly public and social, depends on publicly available stock of symbols, AND thinking consists of building maps of environments.

The map becomes representation of reality but also shapes our experiences of reality; we not only produce but must maintain reality–reality has to be repaired.

To study communication is to examine the actual social process wherein significant symbolic forms are created, apprehended, and used. We understand communication insofar as we are able to build models or representations of the process. But our models, like all models, have dual aspect of and for. of tells us what the process is, for produce the behavior they have described. Models are templates that describe. Our models create what they pretend merely to describe. They give us a way to rebuild a model of and for communication of some restorative value in the shaping our common culture.

Transmission Model of Communication

TRANSMISSION View of Communication–idea of communication as the transmission of signals or messages over distance for the purpose of control; characterized by the desire to increase the speed and effect of messages as they travel in space.

* most common view in industrial culture

* metaphor of geography or transportation

* defined by terms such as “imparting,” “sending,” “transmitting,” “giving information to others” –ex: traditional classroom

* originated in religion, age of exploration and discovery (e.g., manifest destiny; moral meaning of transport is extension of god’s kingdom

Communication is a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people.

Ritual Model of Communication

RITUAL View of Communication–projection of community ideals and their embodiment in material form–dance, plays, architecture, news stories, strings of speech–to create a symbolic order that provides information, but also confirms, represents underlying order of things, and manifests ongoing and fragile social processes.

* generally dismissed in American thought

a. Puritan individualism

b. we devalue process in favor of product

c. we isolate science from culture–science provides culture-free truth whereas culture provides ethnocentric error. * linked to terms such as “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” “fellowship,” “possession of common faith,” “communion,” and “community.”

* not directed toward extension of messages in space but toward maintenance of society in time

* not imparting information but representation of shared beliefs

* sacred ceremony draws persons together in fellowship and commonality.

* downplays role of sermon and highlights role of prayer.

Communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.

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