In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hermeneutic Communication Studies

  • Introduction
  • General Overview: Integrating Understanding and Use
  • Embodied Hermeneutic Practices: Philosophical Background
  • Social Theory of Practices: Philosophical Precursors
  • Audience Practices: A Non-Media-Centric Hermeneutics
  • Audience Practices: Familial and Familiar Contexts
  • Audience Practices Online: Mediated Constructions of Reality
  • Communication Crossing Cultures: Discursive Consciousness
  • Interpreting Consumer Practices: Marketing Communication
  • Understanding Health Practices: Psychology’s Communication
  • Conclusion: For a Hermeneutic Communication Studies

Communication Hermeneutic Communication Studies
Tony Wilson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0218


Diverse approaches to communication studies philosophically underwritten by a hermeneutic perspective are integrated in their perception of ubiquitous communication as fundamentally an embodied, equipped, recurrent practice. Hence behaviour receives from agents initiating activity their minimal concurrent attention or reflection. Habitual communication’s tacit assuming, or its wider understanding of society, is behaviorally emplaced, affirmatively “put in place.” Yet such understanding effaced in pursuits may be reflected on by participants, not least during research following such goal-focused behavior. Activity can range from the mundane—choosing health sustaining apples in the supermarket or television’s daily use—to more exotic pursuits such as families tossing Yee Sang at Chinese New Year reunion dinners. Implicit “understanding how” is distinguished here from an explicit “understanding that,” cast as subsequent subject of reflection. Shared familial television viewing “understands that” program choice can converge. Research turns away from screen image to its habituated behavioral consumption practices. A routinized “understanding how,” with its wider understanding implicit in haptic practices, is re-centered in this hermeneutic approach to communication studies—its investigating of the “ordinary.” The following sections discuss “communication” as embodied “practical consciousness,” implicit knowing how evident in behavior from supermarket consuming to supportive caring, tacitly presupposing social arrangements manifest on reflection. Routine practice can be shared in the familial use of television as with program choice, emplacing or putting in place wider cultural preferences. Habitual hence little reflected upon activity constituting “home” may be challenged in travel with resulting reflection, a need to attend and amend. This philosophical perspective emphasizing recurring communicative activities as fundamentally “knowing how,” preceding reflective claims of incorporated “knowing that,” can equally be located across hermeneutic interpretive marketing studies and hermeneutic qualitative psychology as well as informing sociology’s widely influential practice theories. In the first, consuming is considered to be a habituated exercise of cultural disposition shaped (perhaps) by media branding, subsequently discussed through an extended focus group, a reorientation that has significantly challenged the quantitative history of marketing. Interpretative phenomenological analysis, which emphasizes within psychology research its hermeneutic concern with understanding communication (e.g., anger) as practice, is focused in analysis on participant “theme” during interviews as an affective embodied concern (e.g., coping with chronic pain). Sociology in its now contemporary turning to practice theories is shaped by earlier interpretive philosophical thinking on cultural forms of life “written into” practice. Engaging with communication, acknowledging its everyday practice to be constituted by habituated routines tacitly incorporating sociocultural reference is grounded in hermeneutic theory —diversified through multidisciplinary appropriation and application.

General Overview: Integrating Understanding and Use

Communication study oriented toward analytically reflecting on latent “practical consciousness” considers the latter as bodily incorporated understanding-in-use (how-to-do) from our keyboard typing to turning on a television set. Enabled or equipped materially (from laptop to television), habituated, recurring and so unreflective or “ready-to-hand” practices embody a goal-oriented focus on their purpose rather than attending to means of attainment, unless such a “harmony” between tool and teleology is subverted by issue or malfunction. Merleau-Ponty 1962 argues philosophically that a body “‘understands’ in the acquisition of habit” (p. 167) within an early discussion of communication as a recurrent embodied practice. Human understanding receives a similar subsequent delineation as being an incorporated process of “practical consciousness” by Giddens 1979 (p. 2), engaging in accustomed activity, denoted by Giddens 1982 (p. 8) as being minimally monitored tacit “recurrent practices.” Practices (from daily eating to mundane walking in a shopping mall) incorporate social rules, unreflectively emplacing wider cultural and political perspectives in generic activities (such as purchasing befitting a vegetarian lifestyle). Gadamer 1975 further argues that recurrent practices anticipate (or prefigure) and construct (or configure) embodied narrative, integrating therein its constituent activities within a “hermeneutic circle of understanding.” So materially and meaningfully situated, a habituated practice, as Taylor 1995 (p. 150) claims, incorporates a “home understanding”—our recognition of surroundings. The author of Taylor 1989 (p. 29) writes of a “horizon within which we know where we stand, and what meanings things have for us.” Minimally monitored since recurring, practices, denoted by Seamon 1979 as “place-ballets,” generate as well as presume perception of the familiar, enabling and encircling the everyday in recognized circumstances. For Warde 2005, noting their habitual integrating use and understanding, practices deny dualism—with its philosophically constructed separation of body and mind.

  • Gadamer, H. G. 1975. Truth and method. London: Sheed and Ward.

    A pivotal contribution to scholarship on understanding culturally located communicative practices, from embodied narrative to texts and visual artifacts. The process of understanding is characterized as a “fusion of horizons” or historically positioned perspectives. Meaning is not to be identified with an author’s intention but rather emerges from the reader’s or interpreter’s integrating understanding.

  • Giddens, A. 1979. Central problems in social theory: Action, structure and contradiction in social analysis. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-16161-4

    Giddens presents a theory of human subjectivity as “stratified” by the unconscious mind, practical or goal-focused consciousness with minimal self-monitoring of action and “discursive consciousness” or the capacity for reflection and revision. Here constancy and change are integrated.

  • Giddens, A. 1982. Profiles and critiques in social theory. London: Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-86056-2

    Drawing on his earlier writing, “recurrent practices” are considered here to form subject and society. Engaging in structured practices enables human action: equally, routine maintains a social structure. Giddens’s subsequent writing maintains and develops this account of societal “structuration.”

  • Merleau-Ponty, M. 1962. Phenomenology of perception. London and New York: Routledge.

    Criticizing an account of perception as fundamentally knowledge representing an external world or empiricism, Merleau-Ponty philosophically prioritizes embodied knowing. His phenomenology is an epistemological touchstone for several authors of non-media-centered communication research.

  • Seamon, D. 1979. A geography of the life-world: Movement, rest and encounter. London: Croom Helm.

    Recognizing that philosophical perspectives (explicitly considered or implicit in activity) shape the conduct of research, Seamon writes from a phenomenological horizon of understanding experience as fundamentally characterized by familiarity, or its disrupting. Practices instantiate the known.

  • Taylor, C. 1989. Sources of the self. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Taylor’s critique of empiricism or representationalism as a “baleful influence” in philosophy where the human subject is a passive recipient of sensory impression or “sense-data” as the basis of knowledge. Practices are resourced by “framework definitions,” engaging an already interpreted world.

  • Taylor, C. 1995. Philosophical arguments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Phenomenology’s hermeneutic separating of unreflective practices and subsequent reflection upon action, much discussed elsewhere (e.g., Giddens 1979), is scrutinized philosophically with the first presented as embodying “unformulated” knowing and the second as embedded in a life-world.

  • Warde, A. 2005. Consumption and theories of practice. Journal of Consumer Culture 5.2: 131–153.

    DOI: 10.1177/1469540505053090

    “Practices consist of both doings and sayings,” wrote Warde (p. 134), succinctly denying a dualism of separating body from mind: understanding is fundamentally developed and deployed behaviorally. People make their way around shopping malls or social media, exhibiting understanding-in-use.

  • Warde, A. 2014. After taste: Culture, consumption and theories of practice. Journal of Consumer Culture 14.3: 279–303.

    DOI: 10.1177/1469540514547828

    In this lucid paper, Warde posits practices theorizing as emphasizing “doing,” the “material” rather than its signifying, and “embodied practical competence” (p. 286). Integrating this trilogy denoting core characteristics of practices, the individual agent engages in the narrative constitution of identity.

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