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The Complexity of Human Communication (Hampton Press Communication)

Salem, Philip
Hampton Press: Cresskill NJ, 2009
ISBN 9781572738652 (pb)

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Reviewed by Klaus G. Troitzsch
University of Koblenz-Landau

Cover of book "Communication is a process. This is a nearly sacred statement that begins most communication textbooks. And then, like magic, any mention of process disappears". These are the first three sentences of the first chapter of this book which tries to get rid of the simple idea that communication can be treated "as if it were printed text" (p. 1). The opposition against the Print Paradigm, as Philipp Salem calls it, is a returning argument which can be found throughout this book, and Salem tries to replace it with more appropriate paradigms which are introduced as early as in the first chapter (p. 22-24).

The following chapters are organised as follows: The second chapters gives an overview of part of the complexity discussion of the past few decades, quoting René Thom's catastrophe theory (Thom 1975), Maturana's and Varela's autopoiesis theory (Maturana and Varela 1980), Lorenz's chaos theory and butterfly effect (Lorenz 1967) as well as Mandelbrot's fractals and finally Prigogine's dissipative structures (Nicolis and Prigogine 1989), ending up in some very short comments on complexity theory, reporting the famous 1987 Santa Fe Institute conference, turning to the SimCity simulation. The third chapter contrasts information with persuasion as two possible purposes of communication, but begins with an informal recapitulation of Shannon's and Weaver's information theory and then, with a number of more or less informal diagrams, adds to classical information theory what he deems necessary to understand human communications and finishes this chapter with a diagram which he takes from Weick's Social Psychology of Organizing which he interprets as an algorithmic process of "matching and connecting frames to cues ... that repeats itself ..., involves using rules to enact the initial phase ... and ... to continue and conclude the process" (Weick 1979, p. 79). This superficial description of an algorithm might be a starting point for building an artificial society which simulates human communication in groups of any size and over a long time - where both, size of group and duration of the communicative process should be unrestricted rather than restricted to two persons (sender and recipient) and one exchange as in the "Print Paradigm".

Chapter 4 aims at "Modeling the Complexity of Human Communication" (p. 86). This model says that two persons ("communicators") sending each other messages open a relation between themselves which "produces an episode" (p. 88) which in turn has an effect on both communicators - an idea which extends what was reported as earlier work in chapter 3 and which is further extended in a conclusion which reads "Human communication occurs when individuals in a social relationship create messages as part of an ongoing episode. Human communication is an effort to make sense of an episode created by the process itself" (p. 97, Salem's italics).

Chapter 5 extends the idea of communication in so far as communication can also be about the communicators themselves. This motivates the headline of the chapter "You are how you communicate who you are". This chapter ends in a criticism of traditional communication research which is mainly "locating the important factors for explaining communication inside the heads of the individual actors"(p. 123). This leads directly to chapter 6 which is about story telling stories being "representations of the connections between events relevant to human experience" (p. 139) or "segment[s] in a stream of behaviour" (p. 142).

Chapter 7 starts with a comparison of animal and human behaviour, both of which are in some way and at least partly controlled by fear which has "connections to uncertainty and making sense" (p. 153). Fear is then connected to trust, and the role of communication is that trust can "emerge from that interaction" (p. 159), an idea which leads back to earlier chapters which described "the development of structural coupling between living organisms [which] improved fitness" (p. 163, with another reference to Maturana and Varela). The concluding section of this chapter discusses the interdependence between trust and communication, the latter being the main means "of structural coupling between'" humans. Chapter 8 adds to these ideas the issue of conflict, leads back to classical game theory and its various dilemmas, partly using the language of mathematical systems theory with their attractors and bifurcation points (which in this context are only used somewhat metaphorically). Chapter 9 summarises, again pointing to the interpretation that "communication is a process of constructing episodes together" (p. 209). Its theory section names "three challenges to developing communication theory" (p. 211). These are "the nature of the process itself" (p. 211), "explaining emergence" (p. 212) and "how to represent complexity in any model of communication" (p. 213). No final answers to these challenges are given, but one would not have expected any final answers to these fundamental challenges.

The book is full of examples of communication situations, some of them taken from belletristic literature, others from everyday experience which readers certainly share, such that most of the text is very graphic. On the other hand it is full of references to literature on communication, complexity and related areas such that it leads readers to more specific literature. In most of its parts it is rather informal where an algorithmic treatment would sometimes have been helpful. Anyway, the book could give computational social scientists a lot of hints of what to consider in their agent-based models of communication within human groups.

* References

LORENZ, E (1967) The Nature of the Theory of the General circulation of the Atmosphere. Geneva, World Meteorological Organization WMO, Technical Paper No. 218, 115-161

MATURANA, HR & Varela, F (1980) Autopoiesis and Cognition. Reidel

NICOLIS, G and Prigogine, I (1989) Exploring Complexity. An Introduction. New York

SHANNON, CE and Weaver, W (1949) The Mathematical Theory of Communication (fourth printing, 1969 ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press

THOM, R (1975) Structural Stability and Morphogenesis. Reading MA: Benjamin, Addison Wesley

WEICK, K (1979) The Social Psychology of Organizing, 2nd ed.. McGraw-Hill, New York


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