Thinking Through Communication
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Thinking Through Communication

An Introduction to the Study of Human Communication

Sarah Trenholm

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eBook - ePub

Thinking Through Communication

An Introduction to the Study of Human Communication

Sarah Trenholm

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The ninth edition of this textbook for hybrid introductory communication courses provides a balanced introduction to the fundamental theories and principles of communication.

The book explores communication in a variety of contexts—including interpersonal, group, organizational, and mass media—and provides students the theoretical knowledge and the research and critical thinking skills they'll need to succeed in advanced communication courses and professions. The first section explores the history of communication study and explains basic perspectives used by scholars in the field. The second looks at how communicators decode and encode messages, while the third examines channels and contexts, from interpersonal to mass media. This edition devotes attention to how new technologies are changing the ways we think about communication, with revised and updated examples, and gives special attention to relevant critical theory. Two appendices give users the flexibility to tailor their courses to the interests and needs of their students, offering guidelines for preparing and presenting public presentations and giving examples of major research methods.

Thinking Through Communication is an ideal textbook for Introduction to Communication courses that aim to provide a comprehensive overview of the field.

Material for instructors containing PowerPoint slides, test questions, and an instructor's manual is available at

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Introduction to Communication

The Communication Tradition

What Do YOU Think?

Here are some questions to ask yourself as you read Chapter 1.
  1. How many times and in how many ways have you communicated today? How would your life be different if you weren’t able to communicate for an entire day?
  2. Think of a public figure you admire. Which of his or her characteristics attract you? How are these characteristics communicated?
  3. Who is the best communicator you know personally? What does that person do that makes him or her such a good communicator? Does his or her success lie in the originality of what is said, how ideas are arranged, language style, delivery, or some other factor?
  4. When you want to persuade others to agree with you, what kinds of appeals do you use? How often do you use rational argument? How often do you stress your own credibility or character? How often do you use emotional appeals? What kind of persuasive strategies work best for you?
  5. If you could change one thing about the way politicians communicate, what would it be?
  6. In what ways do you think modern communication technologies affect communication norms? In an age when a lot of communication occurs on social media platforms, what qualities do you think make someone a successful communicator?
  7. Think of three professions that don’t call for skill in communication. How hard was it to think of three? (And are you sure that the three you thought of don’t require communication, either with colleagues or the public?)
  8. What are your strengths and weaknesses as a communicator? What would you like to improve about the way you communicate?
  9. What would you most like to learn about in this course?
The serious study of communication can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, where rhetoricians first laid out the principles that guide us today. Photo credit: anyauvabiva/Shutterstock.
After Reading This Chapter, You Should Be Able to
  • Identify the four periods of rhetorical study.
  • Describe the way in which scholars viewed communication in the classical period.
  • Describe the five canons of rhetoric.
  • Explain the major characteristics of communication study during the medieval period and the Renaissance.
  • Outline rhetorical study during the modern period.
  • Distinguish between humanistic and scientific approaches to communication study.

Chapter 1 The Communication Tradition

Language philosopher Harley Shands once said that “people, in cultures, speaking to each other in the local tongue and following the rules and regulations of the group, are playing a great game, the central game of the human condition.”1 This book is about that game. It’s about how the game is played and how playing it affects us and the world we live in. It’s about the rewards that come from playing the game well, and it’s also about the costs of losing. It’s about a game that affects us deeply, both on a cultural and on an individual level.
No society has existed, or ever could exist, without a well-ordered system of communication, and no individual could survive for long without knowing how that system operates. Without the ability to communicate, we could not form relationships with others, nor could we understand the world around us, for it is in the constant interplay between communication and experience that our world is shaped.
In the following pages, we look at how communication affects us as individuals and how it affects us as a culture. We look at the verbal and nonverbal skills that make communication possible and at the many contexts in which it occurs. In short, we’ll examine the knowledge and skills necessary to operate successfully in an age that has often been labeled the “age of communication.”

A Brief History of Communication Study

Before we begin our study of contemporary communication, it is useful to look at the development of the field—the history of communication study. Communication has been studied seriously for many centuries. In fact, many of the communication principles we believe today were taught in ancient Greece over 2,500 years ago. In the
In every culture and at every time, people feel the need to connect. Even the simplest conversation is part of the great game we call communication. Photo credit: ESB Professional/Shutterstock.
remainder of this chapter, we’ll see how the formal study of communication began in fifth-century Sicily and developed in ancient Athens; we’ll trace it through the medieval period and the Renaissance, discover how it evolved in the modern period, and look at some recent trends (see Table 1.1 for a summary). This brief tour should help you to appreciate the importance of the subject you are about to study and should give you a sense of how it has changed over the years.
Table 1.1 A Short History of Rhetoric and Communication Theory
Cave paintings attest to the universal human need to record and communicate experience. Written records in all ancient civilizations (Egypt, Babylon, India, China) show that communication has long been an object of study.
Classical Period (500 B.C.E.-400)
With the rise of Greek democracy, public communication became an important tool for problem solving. Rhetoric, the study of “the available means of persuasion,” was a respected discipline taught by the great philosophers. The first known communication model, the canons of rhetoric, divided rhetoric into five parts: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Classical rhetoric emphasized credibility, ways to ground arguments, and audience analysis. Major figures included Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian.
Medieval Period and the Renaissance (400-1600)
In response to the rise of monolithic Christianity, rhetoric became secondary to theology. Major rhetorical acts were letter writing and preaching. Parts of the classical paradigm were kept alive, but the focus was prescriptive, not theoretical. Rhetoricians emphasized methods of embellishing and amplifying rhetorical style. Major figures included Augustine, Cassiodorus, John of Salisbury, and Erasmus.
Modern Period (1600-1900)
Once again, public rhetoric was a major force in determining public policy. The written word became an important medium as books and newspapers became more available. Rhetoric followed four paths: classical rhetoric revived the work of the ancients; psychological/ epistemological rhetoric investigated receivers’ psychological responses to persuasive messages; belletristic rhetoric saw written and spoken communication as art and developed theories of rhetorical criticism; elocutionists focused on developing elaborate rules for delivery. Major figures were Francis Bacon, René Descartes, John Locke, Fénelon, Lord Kames, George Campbell, Joseph Priestley, and Thomas De Quincey.
Contemporary Period (1900-present)
Modern departments of communication were formed. Communication study took two paths: rhetoricians used humanistic methods to analyze rhetorical effects of public discourse; communication theorists used scientific methods to analyze communication behavior as a social science. Communication study expanded to include interpersonal and group, as well as public, communication. The rise of electronic media signaled additional changes in communication study.

Studying Rhetoric in Ancient Greece

If by some mysterious twist of fate you were to wake up tomorrow and find yourself in ancient Greece, you could still pursue your education, although it’s unlikely that you would be able to put together the same class schedule you have today. Many of the courses and majors you now take for granted wouldn’t exist. However, if you were interested in studying communication, if you wanted to learn public speaking, oral interpretation, argumentation and debate, or communication theory, you would have no problem, for in Athens, about 300 years before the birth of Christ, communication was as popular a subject as it is today. It would be quite easy for you to find a school, for there were many famous teachers willing to take on new students. You would simply have to keep in mind that in those days, the study of communication was called rhetoric and teachers of communication were known as rhetoricians.
If you were looking for a place to study rhetoric in Athens around 335 B.C.E., your best bet would be a school called the Lyceum. The Lyceum was founded by Aristotle, whose writings on rhetoric are considered by many to be the single greatest source of rhetorical theory. Born in 384 B.C.E., Aristotle was a student of the other great Greek philosopher, Plato, and attended Plato’s Academy. Before starting the Lyceum, Aristotle served as tutor to the young son of Philip of Macedon. This son grew up to be Alexander the Great.
Those of you who are male would have no difficulty attending the Lyceum, for the school was open to any young man who showed an interest in education. Those of you who are female would, unfortunately, have a problem. Although historical records show that two women managed to attend Plato’s school, it was not Athenian custom for women to receive higher education. Indeed, Axiothea, one of the women who attended the Academy, resorted to the strategy of disguising herself as a man.2
If you were to attend Aristotle’s public lectures (whether or not in disguise), you would have to rise early. Accompanied by your paidagogos—the attendant hired by your parents to make sure you didn’t cut classes—you would make your way through the busy agora, or central marketplace, to the great wall surrounding the city. Outside the wall, you would enter the wooded sanctuary of Apollo the Wolf Slayer, site of the Lyceum. As you passed the huge gymnasium, you might see young men practicing throwing the discus or wrestling. If it were during one of the many periods in which Athens was at war, you could observe troops, clad in bronze breastplates and shields, taking part in military drills on the open parade ground. In Athens, as in other Greek city-states, physical activity was important to education, and teachers of philosophy and rhetoric shared space in the public gyms with teachers of physical culture and the military arts. As you neared the school library (one of the first of its kind), you would undoubtedly meet friends, and together you would look for seats in front of the colonnaded portico from which Aristotle customarily spoke.
Aristotle held his public lectures in the mornings, covering philosophy, science, and logic.3 In the afternoons, he walked along the shaded walkways known as peripatos, stopping from time to time to sit in one of the roomy recesses and talk with his students about et...