COM 270
Introduction to Theories of Human Communication

LECTURE 5-6: Philosophical Underpinnings of Communication Theories


A. All theories of communication reflect the assumptions that the theorist makes about everyday life.

1. Some of these assumptions are concerned with the NATURE OF REALITY-- that is, what is true and not true? We refer to these as ONTOLOGICAL assumptions.

2. Other assumptions are concerned with NATURE OF KNOWLEDGE -- that is, how do we discover what is true and not true? We refer to these as EPISTEMOLOGICAL assumptions.


A. "Ontology" is the branch of philosophy that deals with the question: "What is the nature of reality?"

B. There are two basic ontological positions that underlie communication theories:

1. The "realist" stance

a. OBJECTIVE -- that is, reality is made up of tangible things that can be experienced directly through our five senses -- e.g., they can be seen, touched, tasted, smelled, or heard.

b. CAUSAL -- that is, everything happens for a reason; all events and behaviors are governed by cause-effect relationships.

Ex: Watching violent programs on TV causes children to behave aggressively.

c. PREDICTABLE -- once we know cause-effect relationships, we can predict future events based on a knowledge of past causal events.

Ex: Fishermen in Hawaii can predict when certain types of fish will be abundant based on a knowledge of when they spawn.

2. The "nominalist" stance

a. SUBJECTIVE -- that is, reality exists in our personal understandings and interpretations of the physical world around us. Hence, different people can experience the same event but "see" it differently.


Look at each picture carefully. What do you see?

These famous optical illusions remind us that:

1. There is always more than one way to interpret or explain something.

2. The way we interpret or make sense of something depends on the perspective that we take.

3. Since it is possible to take different perspectives in interpreting something, it is foolish to argue about who's interpretation is correct -- because they are all likely to be partially correct AND partially wrong.

b. UNCERTAIN -- that is, not all aspects of the physical world around us can be explained in terms of cause-and-effect relationships; many things occur because of coincidence, happenstance, magic, and other things that are not explainable by cause-effect relationships.

Ex: Can you think of an example from your personal life where something happened to you that you can't explain?

c. UNPREDICTABILITY -- because what happens around us is not completely explainable in terms of cause-and-effect relationships, we cannot predict with certainty what will happen in the future. At best, we have to deal with likelihoods and probabilities -- e.g., there is a greater or lesser chance of something happening.

Ex: You have a golf outing planned for tomorrow. The weather forecast calls for a 50% chance of thunderstorms tomorrow. Would you cancel your golf outing plans because of this forecast ? WHY OR WHY NOT?


What happens when the "realist" stance comes in contact with the "nominalist" stance? See for yourself.

"Contact" Quicktime clip (broadband)

"Contact" Quicktime clip (56K)



A. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature and origin of knowledge.

B. Epistemological assumptions revolve around such questions as:

1. What can we know?
2. What counts as knowledge?
3. How is knowledge accumulated?

C. Our epistemological assumptions are usually consistent with our ontological assumptions because the assumptions we make about how best to learn about something is obviously tied to the assumptions we make about what that thing is.

Ex: There are several T.V. programs like Ghost Hunters, Ghost Hunters International, and Destination Truth that engage in paranormal investigation. Take a look at the kind of equipment used on these T.V. programs. What ontological assumptions are being made about paranormal activity? Do they reflect those held by a "realist" or "nominalist?"

D. Epistemological Assumptions of "Realists"

1. Knowledge is best obtained through direct observation -- that is, data is gathered by relying on one (or more) of our five senses.

2. Objective data best obtained if a separation exists between the knower (investigator) and the known (subject of investigation) through the use of the "scientific method."

a. Observable evidence
b. Reliable observers
c. Clear definitions
d. Valid measuring instruments
e. Control over phenomenon

E. Epistemological Assumptions of "Nominalists"

1. Inquiry from within -- social world can only be understood from the point of view of the individuals who are directly involved in the activit(ies).

2. Data cannot be generalized -- knowledge is situated and relativistic

EX: Ethonography -- where the researcher relies on his/her lived experiences and first-hand familiarity with the communication phenomena s/he is studying.








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