Sunday, September 18, 2011

Transmitting and Ritualizing

Coming from a “practical” major of broadcast journalism, this week’s intense coverage in class of communication theory has been a little rough. For me, it’s strange to talk and think so much about communicating. We are analyzing communication techniques and methods, and that process of analyzing and discussing is communication, in and of itself. I know, mind blown, right?

Anyway, this is the first time I have truly thought about communication in the abstract, as opposed to thinking of it as pure words, written and spoken. I found the differences between Transmission and Ritual theories to be the most interesting. Transmission theory of course is about the movement of goods, people and messages. It’s the transmission of messages over any distance, often for the reason of control. Ritual theory is even more abstract and claims information that’s shared in a message is less important than the act of sharing the message itself.

So I wanted to look as some messages as examples to really understand this theoretical difference.
  • Emergency Announcements – I think almost any message has some mixture of the two theories that can apply to it. But this example seems to me almost entirely Transmission theory. All over the world, whether it’s communicated through a siren, through a basic radio station in the savanna, or through TV news warning of hurricanes and earthquakes in D.C., the most important thing in all these cases is that people are informed about what they need to do to be safe. In this case, what the message says is most important.
  • Press Conferences: This might be less obvious than the last example, but I think press conferences are a great example of Ritual theory. Sure the messages might be important, but what’s in the message could easily be transmitted through a press release, newspaper article, etc. The act of holding a press conference draws together the people attending it, but also the many people who watch it or see clips of it on the news. It creates community. That’s why when Obama makes an announcement, everyone watches. The next day, everyone chats about it at the water cooler. Do you think everyone would chat about a press release that gets written up in the same way ?
  • Super Bowl commercials: I think Super Bowl commercials are a great example of a combination of Transmission and Ritual theories. They are first and foremost an advertisement, so they are meant to sell what they are promoting. In that way, the message is important. In addition though, all commercials (but especially Super Bowl commercials) want to get people talking and create a community that is centered on their product or service.
  • Nightly news: I see nightly news as another example of both theories. On a micro level, what is told in one specific story can be important in its message. But on a macro level, when people watch one station’s nightly news every night, they form a feeling of community and belonging with the anchor, reporters and other viewers.

Looking at these concrete examples really helps me conceptualize these theories. I think it also proves that there is no right answer. Neither theory takes everything into account. We learned about lots of other theories, like Modernization theory and Dependency theory, but they tackle completely different and more complex aspects of communications. I feel like there is no theory that combines transmission and ritual theories that defines basic communication in a way that makes sense and I think that’s strange… maybe it’s time for a new theory? 


  1. Jess, thanks for your post! I was having trouble myself with wrapping my mind around the theories because as was mentioned in the readings, communication is such a commonplace act that it in many ways it seems effortless. It's so simple that it becomes hard to analyze.

    I think the example you gave of Super Bowl commercials is really interesting. Watching the Super Bowl is a national ritual. While some watch for the game, many non-sports fans tune in just to see the commercials. The commercials will inevitably elicit a reaction from the audience. Whether it's "That was stupid" or "I can't stop laughing," people feel compelled to say SOMETHING.

    What's so amazing is that those same commercials could air without comment on any other day. But because of the medium, i.e. the Super Bowl, they are held to a different standard and scrutinized much more intensely. That seems to be at the heart of the ritual theory of communication.

  2. I think your examples are a great way to try to conceptualize the two definitions.

    However, I thought it was funny that my initial reaction about the first two, emergency announcements and press conferences, was actually flipped from yours.

    I definitely see your point that emergency announcements fit the transmission mold - sending out information about the coming emergency to the people, the receivers. But at the same time, those beeps that come before the message, whether it's a "test" or the "message" follows, the beeps alone immediately bring up the feelings that something is important and dangerous. So to me, the emergency announcement is not so much about the content of it but the ritual of calling people into action, reflecting underlying values of our society of coming together, of preparing for a disaster. The "communication" elicits a certain reaction inside of us and means something to us as members of society, even despite the content of the actual message.

    I also agree with your ritual take on the press conference and the action of gathering together for a message. Again, more than the words, it signifies change so we all want to get together and move forward, or deal with a problem, together. Then again, it is at the same time the very simple model of a sender transmitting a message, it is called because someone has something to say, something to transmit.

    I think that is why the best communication definition for me is Carey's "communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired and transformed" - whether that be new information producing a new reality or a ritual maintaining a common reality, it is both symbolic and transformative at the same time.