Chapter 1: Introduction to the field of Communication Studies

1.1 What is Communication?

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Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how communication in defined in the field of Communication Studies.
  2. Compare and contrast the three models of communication.
  3. Identify and explain the elements of the transactional model of communication

Communication is a complex process, and it is difficult to determine when a communication encounter starts and ends. Models of communication simplify the process by providing a representation of the various aspects of a communication encounter. Some models explain communication in more detail than others, but even the most complex model still doesn’t fully recreate what we experience in a communication encounter. Models still serve a valuable purpose for students and scholars of communication because they allow us to see parts the process of communication, define communication, and analyze communication with specific language (i.e., concepts). When you become aware of how communication functions, you can think more deliberately about your communication encounters, which can help you prepare for future communication and learn from your past. The three models of communication we will discuss are the linear, interaction, and transactional models.

We will begin by discussing the definition of communication, and then review each of the models that have been used to study this phenomenon. In the last section, we will review the central elements of the transactional model of communication.


To begin, there is no agreed upon definition of the word “communication” in the field of Communication Studies. In fact, various scholars have attempted to examine the term and generally found that there are a vast array of different approaches to understanding the term. In one of the most exhaustive examination of the types of definitions created by various academics, Dance (1970) examined 95 unique definitions and broke them down into fifteen different types of definitions. While all of these definitions may exist, not all of them are equally complete for our purposes. As we will see in our review of the models of communication, the most comprehensive and relevant model to date is the transactional model. This model conceptualizes communication as a relational  process of created meaning.  Thus, we will use the following definition of communication throughout this book: Communication is the creation of shared meaning through symbolic processes.


At the most basic level, the three models of communication (linear, interactional, and transactional) can be represented by the following figure:

Figure 1.1  Three Concepts of Communication

The linear model originated in the 1940s, the interactional in the 1950s, and the transactional in the 1970s. The original linear model of communication remains influential but theorists have long noted its limitations: the assumptions that listeners are passive, that only one message is transmitted at a time, that communication has a beginning and an end. In fact, a source could transmit a confusing or nonsensical message, rather than a meaningful one, and the linear model would work just as well; there is no provision for gauging whether a message has been understood by its receivers. Neither is the context of a communication situation taken into account. Nevertheless, the linear model introduces helpful concepts and terms that are the basis for understanding, as we will see later, the interactional and transactional models of communication.


Inspired by postwar research at Bell Laboratories on telephone transmissions, Shannon and Weaver  (1949) developed the “mathematical model” of human communication.  In this model, successful sending and receiving of a message is a function of the channel’s capacity to handle signal degradation caused by static noise on the line. When applied in general to human communication, “noise” can be physical (background noises that make the message harder to hear), physiological (impairments such as hardness of hearing), semantic (difficulties in understanding choices of words), and psychological (predispositions and prejudices that affect how the message is interpreted).

A decade after Shannon and Weaver, Berlo (1960) adapted the concepts into the now-familiar SMCR (source, message, channel, receiver) model.  Berlo’s adaptation was “tremendously influential” in offering a more flexible and “humanized conception of Claude Shannon’s model” that facilitated its application to oral, written, and electronic communication (Rogers, 2001).

Sender "encoding" sending a message to the Receiver "decoding".
Figure 1.2  Linear Model of Communication

Yet, as we will see below in the descriptions of the interactional and transactional models, subsequent theorists have attempted to show how communication is better understood as circular rather than linear, how listeners are also active participants in communication, how multiple messages may be sent simultaneously, and how context and culture impact understanding.

Computer-Mediated Communication

When the first computers were created around World War II and the first e-mails exchanged in the early 1960s, we took the first steps toward a future filled with computer-mediated communication (CMC) (Thurlow, Lengel, & Tomic, 2004). Those early steps turned into huge strides in the late 1980s and early 1990s when personal computers started becoming regular features in offices, classrooms, and homes. I remember getting our first home computer, a Tandy from Radio Shack, in the early 1990s and then getting our first Internet connection at home in about 1995. I set up my first e-mail account in 1996 and remember how novel and exciting it was to send and receive e-mails. I wasn’t imagining a time when I would get dozens of e-mails a day, much less be able to check them on my cell phone! Many of you reading this book probably can’t remember a time without CMC. If that’s the case, then you’re what some scholars have called “digital natives.” When you take a moment to think about how, over the past twenty years, CMC has changed the way we teach and learn, communicate at work, stay in touch with friends, initiate romantic relationships, search for jobs, manage our money, get our news, and participate in our democracy, it really is amazing to think that all that used to take place without computers. But the increasing use of CMC has also raised some questions and concerns, even among those of you who are digital natives. Almost half of the students in my latest communication research class wanted to do their final research projects on something related to social media. Many of them were interested in studying the effects of CMC on our personal lives and relationships. This desire to study and question CMC may stem from an anxiety that people have about the seeming loss or devaluing of face-to-face (FtF) communication. Aside from concerns about the digital cocoons that many of us find ourselves in, CMC has also raised concerns about privacy, cyberbullying, and lack of civility in online interactions. We will continue to explore many of these issues in the “Getting Plugged In” feature box included in each chapter, but the following questions will help you begin to see the influence that CMC has in your daily communication.

  1. In a typical day, what types of CMC do you use?
  2. What are some ways that CMC reduces stress in your life? What are some ways that CMC increases stress in your life? Overall, do you think CMC adds to or reduces your stress more?
  3. Do you think we, as a society, have less value for FtF communication than we used to? Why or why not?


Only a few years after Shannon and Weaver published their one-way linear model, Schramm (1954) proposed an alternate model that portrayed communication as a two-way interaction. He was the first to incorporate feedback—verbal and nonverbal—into a model of communication. The other important innovations in Schramm’s interactive model, which we have adapted in Figure 1.4  “Interactional Model of Communication” below, were the additions of the communication context (the specific setting that may affect meaning) and of “fields of experience” (the frames of reference and the cultures that each participant brings to the communication).

A circular model exploring the relationship between the message/context and the 'field of experience" around a sender/receiver.
Figure 1.3 The Interaction Model of Communication

With Schramm’s model, communication moves from a linear to a circular process in which participants are both senders and receivers of messages. Yet the model portrays communication like a tennis match: one participant serves up a message and the other participants then makes a return. Each waits, in turn, passively for the other. Thus, communication goes back and forth as one person (on the left of Figure 1.3) initiates a message and waits until the other (on the right) responds. But if you think about times when you have engaged in conversation, you will recognize how the other person is simultaneously sending messages—often nonverbally—while you are talking. Unlike a tennis match, you do not wait passively until the “ball is in your court” before acting communicatively. To demonstrate the simultaneity of communication, we move next to a transactional model.


Perhaps the first model to portray communication as a simultaneous transaction is attributed to Barnlund (1970). Later theorists have developed this idea of simultaneity, which is illustrated in Figure 1.4 “Transactional Model for Communication” below. As you can see, messages and feedback are being exchanged at the same time between communicators. And because they are engaged together in the transaction, their fields of experience overlap.

Physical & Psychological Context for co-creation of meaning.
Figure 1.4  “Transactional Model for Communication

This expanded view of how communication functions can help us to better understand how individuals communicate with one another in a variety of context and relationships (e.g., interpersonal, public speaking, small groups, organizations). Communication scholars view communication as more than sending messages like computers, as we don’t neatly alternate between the roles of sender and receiver as an interaction unfolds. We also don’t consciously decide to stop communicating when communicating with others in person.

In summary, the transactional model of communication is the most complete model to date. This model characterizes communication as something that participants do with one another, not to one another. Communication is a process that is ongoing, ever-changing, and meaning making occurs through verbal and nonverbal symbols. The central elements of the transactional model of communication are reviewed below. While these elements are listed as separate concepts, they overlap in practice. These elements, and the transactional nature of communication, will be woven throughout the remaining of this book and our discussions, so this is only a brief introduction of each element for now.

Elements of the transactional model of communication

1. Participants

The transaction model of communication does not conceptualize individuals as either sender or receivers, but simultaneously senders and receivers. As participants in the communication interaction, we bring our past experiences, expectations, skills, knowledge and cultural contexts with us to our interactions. All of these inform our communication experiences with others.

2. Channel

The channel is the means through which the message is communicated and received. When interacting with others in person, we use verbal and nonverbal channels of communication. As a general rule of thumb, the more complex or unfamiliar the others are with the message, the more channels of communicate we should use. Thus, in addition to our verbal and nonverbal channels, we may need to use written and visual channels as well.

In our modern world, we are also able to communicate with individuals that are not occupying the same physical space as we are. A mediated channel is the use some kind of technology (e.g., text message, Instagram, TicTok). In today’s technologically advanced world, we are increasingly spending more and more time communicating with each other using mediated channels of communication.

3. Message

When communicating with others, a primary goal is usually to create shared understanding. Notice the caveat of “usually”, as there are times that individuals are purposefully vague or deceptive. But when we are attempting to create shared meaning, the content and organization of our messages are important considerations. Content has to do with the words we choose to use, the level of detail we provide, and the thoroughness of our messaging. Organization represents how well we connect the content in a meaningful way.

4. Feedback

Feedback refers to a response to a message. Feedback can be verbal (e.g. ask/answer a question), nonverbal (e.g., nodding, frown on one’s face) and the apparent lack of feedback (i.e., not responding). However, by not responding to someone, you are providing feedback.

5. Noise

Noise refers to those things that get in the way of the participants staying present in the communication interaction, and falls into three categories: external, psychological and physiological. External noise is “stuff” in the environment that distracts us for attending to the others we are communicating with. This may be a loud noise, strong odor, poorly lite room, etcetera. Psychological noise occurs when we are thinking about things other than the message being created at that time. We may be preoccupied by thinking about an upcoming exam, or a difficult conversation we are going to have later in the day. Additionally, psychological noise can occur when we are thinking about what was just said, and not keeping pace with what’s being added to that message (e.g., interested by the example shared but now missing the next point). Lastly, physiological noise refers to things having to do with our bodies that keep us from staying present in the interaction. Perhaps we have a horrible migraine, or we are extremely tired. These physiological states can inhibit our ability to attend to message creation with the others.

6. Context

A final element of the transactional model of communication important to review is context. Context includes the physical setting (e.g., stadium seating in a large lecture hall) location of the interaction (e.g., at the park) as well as social and cultural contexts.

As we grow up, we learn the pragmatic rules of how to communicate with others using our same language system. For example, in the United States, we learn pragmatic rules like don’t interrupt people, greet people when they greet you, and so on. Our interactions with others (e.g., parents and teachers) often explicitly convey these rules, however, these social expectations (contexts) are also learned via our interactions with generalized others. What is important to recognize is that these pragmatic rules can inform our interpretation of a message and ‘appropriate’ types of feedback. For example, we tend to learn that when at the grocery store in the checkout line, the clerk’s question “How is your day going?” is a social greeting as opposed to a request for detailed disclosure. Conversely, when a best friend asks us the same question, we interpret the message differently, and share our true feelings about the day. This is one example of  how social context informs our creation of shared meaning with others.

Cultural context(s) are also an important piece of the transactional nature of communication. Cultures includes various aspects of identities such as race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, and ability. We all have multiple cultural identities that influence our communication with others. Some people, especially those with identities that have been historically marginalized, are regularly aware of how their cultural identities influence their communication and influence how others communicate with them. Conversely, people with identities that are dominant or in the majority may rarely, if ever, think about the role their cultural identities play in their communication. We will discuss this in more detail in our chapter on culture and communication.


To review, communication will be defined in this book as the creation of shared meaning through symbolic processes. Communication was originally conceptualized as a linear process. The linear model viewed communication as a thing, like an information packet, that was sent from one person to another. From this view, communication would be defined as sending and receiving messages. The interaction model viewed communication as a process in which a message is sent and then followed by a reaction (feedback), which is then followed by another reaction, and so on. From this view, communication is defined as producing meaning with alternating roles between being a sender and a receiver.

The transactional model of communication describes communication as a process in which communicators create shared meaning with one another. Unlike the interaction model, which suggests that people alternate positions as sender and receiver, the transactional model suggests that we are simultaneously senders and receivers. In this model, we don’t just communicate to exchange messages; we communicate to create relationships, understand one another, shape our self-concepts, and engage with others in dialogue to create communities. In short, we don’t communicate about our realities; communication helps to construct our realities.

To fully understand the transactional nature of communication, scholars have identified several elements of this process (e.g., participants, message, context, feedback, noise, channel) that help us think about communication as a complex process of meaning-making with others.

Key Takeaways

  • Communication models are not complex enough to truly capture all that takes place in a communication encounter, but they can help us examine the various steps in the process in order to better understand our communication and the communication of others.
  • The Linear model of communication describes communication as a one-way process in which a sender encodes a message and transmits it through a channel to a receiver who decodes it. This model is too simple to characterize communication, but was an important seminal work that more robust models have expanded.
  • The interaction model of communication describes communication as a two-way process in which participants alternate positions as sender and receiver and generate meaning by sending and receiving feedback within physical and psychological contexts. This model captures the interactive aspects of communication but represents the process as turn taking between sending and receiving, which is incomplete.
  • The transactional model of communication describes communication as a process in which communicators create meaning together.  This model includes participants who are simultaneously senders and receivers and accounts for how communication constructs our realities, relationships, and communities.


  1. Getting integrated: How might knowing the various components of the communication process help you in your academic life, your professional life, and your civic life?
  2. Use the transaction model of communication to analyze a recent communication encounter you had. Sketch out the communication encounter and make sure to label each part of the model (participants; message; channel; feedback; noise; contexts).

Page Attribution

This page is derived from the following sources.  Modified text is licensed CC-BY 4.0 by Tresha Dutton, Whatcom Community College.


Barnlund, D. C., “A Transactional Model of Communication,” in Foundations of Communication Theory, eds. Kenneth K. Sereno and C. David Mortensen (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1970).

Berlo, D. (1960). The process of communication. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Dance, F. E. X. (1970). The “concept” of communication. The Journal of Communication, 20, 201–210.

Ellis, R. and Ann McClintock, You Take My Meaning: Theory into Practice in Human Communication (London: Edward Arnold, 1990).

Rogers, E. M. (2001). The department of communication at Michigan State University as a seed institution for communication study. Communication Studies, 52, 234-248; pg. 234.

Schramm, W. (1954). How communication works. In W. Schramm (Ed.), The process and effects of communication (pp. 3-26). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Schramm, W., The Beginnings of Communication Study in America (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997).

Shannon, C. and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1949).

Thurlow, C., Laura Lengel, and Alice Tomic, Computer Mediated Communication: Social Interaction and the Internet (London: Sage, 2004).


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