While the meaning of theory may not be contested ground in academia, theory remains controversial in the public sphere. For instance, the theory of evolution is widely criticized as only a theory by school boards that propose teaching creationism or intelligent design as part of their science curriculum (Harris, 2013). In addition, theory can be a word of disdain in business settings where practice and experience take precedent. Therefore, it is important for academics in the communications discipline to have a nuanced and practical understanding of theory and its value to society. What follows in this paper is a brief description of the theoretical terrain in the communications discipline, a perspective on what makes good theory, and finally, an evaluation of cultural studies, semiotics, and practical theory to determine whether they meet the standard for good theory.
Theory is contested ground in the academic sphere just as much at it is in the public sphere. According to Griffin (2012), the field is largely split between objective and interpretive approaches to theory, with different views on knowing, human nature, values, research methods, and even the goals of theory. Indeed, theory appears to be a value-laden term that can define a scholars approach to theory building. The scientific, or objective approach to theory seeks to explain the past and present and predict the future, while the humanistic or interpretive approach seeks to “create understanding, identify values, inspire aesthetic appreciation, stimulate agreement, reform society, and conduct qualitative research” (Griffin, 2012, p. 31). It is necessary to understand these metatheoretical differences to avoid falling into the trap of criticizing a theory simply because the values and purpose are misunderstood. In addition, given theory is value-laden, it is equally important to clarify personal values for what makes a good theory. Indeed, borrowing from Craig (2007), this author considers a good theory one that is useful to help solve individual or social problems. Therefore, this author will use Griffin’s (2012) criteria for evaluating theory on the objective/interpretive scale, while also considering the theory’s usefulness.
According to Griffin (2012), “critical theory and cultural studies are close relatives” (p. 345). Indeed, an interpretative theory, Hall’s cultural studies focus on how power is maintained by dominant institutions through the media, recognizing the presence of ideology even in objective theory. Truly, Hall is a critical theorist that views the maintenance of power through a cultural lens. Heavily, influenced by Marxism, cultural studies “examines power relations and social structures” (Griffin, 2012, p. 345). In particular, Hall extends Marxism by drawing on Gramsci’s idea of hegemony to explain how the media works to produce consent through ideology (Davis, 2004). In addition, Hall draws from semiotics to explain how meaning is made from the discourse of people, and how discursive formations have real-world consequences (Griffin, 2012). However, is it good theory? This author believes it is.
Cultural studies helped to develop new perspectives on the problems of racism in the United Kingdom and abroad, suggesting that racism discourse is a mask for addressing the real problems of equality and the social and economic integration of immigrants (Davis, 2004). Moreover, cultural studies values exposing the legitimizing myths that maintain unequal power distribution, seeking to go beyond interpretation of the world, to actually change it (Griffin, 2012). Of course, the most significant criticism of cultural studies is the absence of remedies for the problems of hegemony, unequal power distribution, and other social ills that Hall identifies. Despite criticism, cultural studies are useful to uncover sites where ideology operates, that are equally sites of resistance to the dominant code. In this author’s view, cultural studies is good theory, because it creates understanding, values equality, is oriented towards reform, and has a wealth of qualitative research to support it. In addition, the theory builds on the work of previous theorists and is useful.
Semiotics is an interpretive theory concerned with interpreting signs, “anything that can stand for something else” (Griffin, 2012, p. 332). While semiotics includes the study of both verbal and nonverbal signs, semiologist Roland Barthes was most interested in signs that “communicate ideological or connotative meaning and perpetuate the dominant values of society” (Griffin, 2012, p. 332). Barthes built upon Saussure’s conception of the sign as a correlation between the signifier and the signified, and extended it by conceiving how signs carry connotations or myths that work to transform history into nature, thus supporting the status quo (Griffin, 2012). Indeed, Barthes abiding contribution to semiotics was the ability to demonstrate through interpretive analysis, how mythic signs reinforced a culture’s dominant values (Griffin, 2012). Accordingly, it appears clear that Barthes provided a significant body of qualitative research that provided a new understanding of how signs carry connotative meanings that are both understood, yet obfuscated from critical examination. Thus, Barthes’ semiotics sought to open up mythic signs to examination in order to address reform. Of course, Griffin (2012) points out that Barthes’ work lacks a community of agreement, suggesting that the focus on how signs support the status quo borders on conspiracy theory or that “visual signs can’t be used to promote resistance to dominant cultural values” (p. 342). This author suggests that such criticism views Barthes’ work too narrowly.
More broadly conceived, Barthes’ created the basis for using second-order semiological systems as sites of resistance for later scholars and modern day culture jammers. Indeed, Eco’s “semiological guerillas” subtly alter mythic signs to provide an alternative code that exposes the lie in mythic signs. In addition, modern day culture jammers and pranksters like Adbusters, also use mythic signs as a site of resistance (Klein, 2000). Thus, Barthes helped identify the signs whose meanings could be subverted into oppositional code, becoming a site of site of cultural resistance. Therefore, this author considers semiotics to be good theory, given it remains relevant, useful, and promotes societal reform.
Practical theory, as described by Deetz (2000) suggests that objective theory is simply one approach to theory building that directs attention to the values of prediction and control as the primary context for determining whether the theory is good. Furthermore, Deetz (2000) suggests that communication theorists should be open to other theoretical constructs based on their usefulness to solve real-world problems in ways that build the type of future people desire. Thus, Deetz (2000) argues, the need for specific type of interpretive theory that directs the attention of the theorist in the most useful way, rather than in a dogmatic fashion, organizes experience into patterns, and enables useful responses, defining it as practical theory. As such, practical theory is described as way of using theory to think and see differently (Deetz, 2000). In a sense, Deetz appears to encourage theorists to try different metaphors based on how well the metaphor helps create useful insights and conceptions of the world. Nevertheless, is it good theory?
In one sense, Deetz’s (2000) argument is a rehash of the objective versus interpretive debate Griffin (2012) warns against. In another sense, Deetz (2000) offers a new take on the pragmatic tradition that offers practical theory as an alternative approach to reconceive of theory according to its practical utility to solve problems, an argument with aesthetic appeal. Of course, a primary concern of practical theory is avoid the politics within knowledge through new conceptions of theory, thus posing “practical theory against privilege” (Deetz, 2000, p. 21). As such, practical theory is, at its essence, reformist. While, in general, it appears practical theory meets many of the conditions for a good interpretive theory, there appears to be little in the way of community of agreement or a body of qualitative research. Therefore, this author wonders whether enough work has been done to move practical theory into the forefront of interpretive theory building. Indeed, Griffin (2012) does not even acknowledge practical theory in A First Look At Communication Theory. Thus, this author remains somewhat skeptical.
In the preceding analysis of Hall’s cultural studies, Barthes’ semiotics, and Deetz’s practical theory, this author used Griffin’s (2012) framework to evaluate whether each represents good interpretive theory. Indeed, this author found compelling reasons to believe that both cultural studies and semiotics represent good interpretive theory, while remaining somewhat skeptical of practical theory. However, in the author’s view, practical theory has great aesthetic appeal and warrants further exploration. Indeed, the idea that theory should be conceived according to usefulness rather than dogma or history is an appealing on that encourages experimentation and risk-taking. Of course, the greatest benefit of the preceding analysis was that it helped this author understand theoretical values and more importantly, the values that matter to the author.
Craig, R. T. (2007). Pragmatism in the field of communication theory. Communication Theory, 17, 125-145.
Davis, H. (2004). Understanding Stuart Hall. London ; Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
Deetz, S. (2000). Theory as a Way of Seeing and Thinking. Paper presented at the National Communication Association, Seattle, WA.
Griffin, E. A. (2012). A first look at communication theory (8th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
Harris, P. (2013, January 31, 2013). Four US states considering laws that challenge teaching of evolution, Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jan/31/states-laws-challenge-teaching-evolution
Klein, N. (2000). Culture jamming: Ads Under Attack. Brandweek, 41, 7.