In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Definitions and Concepts of Communication

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Online Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • History of the Idea
  • Culturally Based Concepts
  • Conceptual Models and Metaphors

Communication Definitions and Concepts of Communication
Robert T. Craig
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0172


What is communication? The question is deceptively simple, not because there is no straightforward answer but because there are so many answers, many of which may seem perfectly straightforward in themselves. Communication is human interaction . . . the transfer of information . . . effect or influence . . . mutual understanding . . . community . . . culture . . . and so on. Any effort to reconcile these straightforward definitions quickly runs into contradictions and puzzles. Human interaction involves the transfer of information, but machines also exchange information, and so do animals, so do chemical molecules. Is human communication essentially different in some way? Effect or influence is not the same as mutual understanding and is sometimes quite the opposite. Is mutual understanding ever really possible? Is communication an intentional act or a process that goes on regardless of our intentions? If communication is culture, is it necessarily also community? Doesn’t the concept of communication vary, depending on how it is understood and practiced in each particular culture? Is it all relative, then, or are there good reasons to be critical of particular cultural concepts? Obviously, communication can be defined in many different ways, and at least some of those differences seem potentially consequential. Whether we think of communication as essentially information transfer, or mutual understanding, or culture can make a difference, not only for how we understand the process intellectually but also for how we communicate in practice. Of course, we needn’t all agree on a single definition or choose a single definition for ourselves, but we can learn a lot by contemplating and debating the theoretical and practical implications of different concepts and theories of communication. This is what communication theorists do, and the academic subject of communication theory is a rich and varied resource for learning how to think about communication. The field of communication theory encompasses a number of distinct intellectual traditions, some thousands of years old, others very new. Some theories lend themselves to scientific empirical studies of communication, others to philosophical reflection or cultural criticism. This article is intended to represent the diversity of communication theory, hopefully in ways that are useful and inviting of further study rather than merely confusing. Included are introductory overview essays, textbooks, and other general sources such as encyclopedias, anthologies, and journals. Other sections cover historical studies on the idea of communication, ethnographic studies on culturally based concepts of communication, and theoretical models of the communication process. The heading entitled Conceptual Issues is divided into eleven subsections, each focusing on a key conceptual issue or controversy in communication theory.

General Overviews

For readers wanting to dip a toe in communication theory before diving in, the articles in this section provide overviews of the concept of communication while introducing important issues and conceptual approaches. Eadie and Goret 2013 surveys key concepts of communication that have influenced the academic field of communication studies. Cobley 2008 sketches the origins and historical development of the concept of communication. Steinfatt 2009 discusses the problem of defining communication and some characteristics of communication that affect the usefulness of definitions. Craig 1999 presents a conceptual model of communication theory as a field that integrates seven distinct intellectual traditions.

  • Cobley, Paul. 2008. Communication: Definitions and concepts. In International encyclopedia of communication. Edited by Wolfgang Donsbach. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Sketches the ancient origins of the concept of communication, the distinction between communication as process and product, the social uses of communication, and 20th-century concepts that contributed to communication theory. Also notes the importance of understanding miscommunication.

  • Craig, Robert T. 1999. Communication theory as a field. Communication Theory 9:119–161.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2885.1999.tb00355.x

    Conceptualizes communication theory as a field of “metadiscursive practice” in which diverse theoretical concepts of communication are engaged with each other and with ordinary (nontheoretical) concepts in ongoing debates about practical communication problems. Identifies seven interdisciplinary “traditions” of communication theory, each grounded in a distinct, practically oriented definition of communication.

  • Eadie, William F., and Robin Goret. 2013. Theories and models of communication: Foundations and heritage. In Theories and models of communication. Edited by Paul Cobley and Peter J. Schulz. Handbooks of Communication Science, HOCS 1. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter Mouton.

    With a focus on concepts of communication within the academic field of communication studies, this chapter organizes conceptions of communication under five broad categories: shaper of public opinion; language use; information transmission; developer of relationships; and definer, interpreter, and critic of culture.

  • Steinfatt, Thomas M. 2009. Definitions of communication. In Encyclopedia of communication theory. Edited by Stephen W. Littlejohn and Karen A. Foss. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Argues that the problem of defining communication not is to discover the correct meaning of the term, but is rather to construct a definition that is useful for studying communication. Distinguishes several characteristics of communication that affect the usefulness of definitions. A critique of this piece is that it presupposes a transmission (speaker to listener) model of communication and fails to address alternative models that highlight constitutive, systemic, and other characteristics of communication (see under Conceptual Issues).

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