Laswell’s theory of communication

7. Explain Laswell’s theory of communication. (10)

The Lasswell Formula

Please note: The Lasswell Formula is typical of what are often referred to as transmission models of communication. For criticisms of such models, you should consult the section on criticisms of transmission models.

The sociologist, Harold Lasswell, tells us that in studying communication we should consider the elements in the graphic above.

Lasswell was primarily concerned with mass communication and propaganda, so his model is intended to direct us to the kinds of research we need to conduct to answer his questions (‘control analysis’, ‘effects research’ and so on). In fact, though, it is quite a useful model, whatever category of communication we are studying. Note, incidentally, that the Lasswell Formula consists of five major components, though this is by no means obligatory. You might be interested to look at the comments on Maletzke’s model to see which components a selection of other researchers have considered essential.

Lasswell: Communicator

Lasswell was primarily concerned with mass communication. In every form of communication, though, there must be someone (or something) that communicates.

How appropriate is the term communicator? You might say that you can’t really talk about communication if the audience for the message don’t respond appropriately. Maybe that’s a reason that many communication specialists refer to the communicator as source or transmitter or senderof the message – at least that doesn’t presuppose that communication does actually take place.

Control analysis

Because of the application of Lasswell’s Formula to the media, his question Who? has come to be associated mainly with control analysis:

  • who owns this newspaper?
  • what are their aims?
  • what are their political allegiances?
  • do they attempt to set the editorial policy?
  • does the fact that they are a republican account for the newspaper’s repeated attacks on the Royal Family?
  • are they subject to any kind of legal constraints?
  • how does the editor decide what to put in the paper?

and so on.

Can you see, though, how that sort of question can be applied to, say, interpersonal communication? You’re asking a similar sort of question when, reflecting on a comment someone has just made, you say to yourself something like: ‘Blimey, that was a strange thing to say. He must be really weird.’

Lasswell: The Message

Being concerned with the mass media, Lasswell was particularly concerned with the messages present in the media. This relates to an area of study known as content research. Typically, content research is applied to questions of representation, for example: how are women represented in the tabloid press? or: how are blacks represented on television? or: how is our society represented to us in the movies? Content research will often be a matter of counting the number of occurrences of a particular representation (for example, the housewife and mother who does not work outside the home) and comparing that with some kind of ‘objective’ measure, such as official statistics.

Interpersonal communication

What about our everyday communication, though? Do you spend much time thinking about how best to formulate your messages? In much of our everyday interpersonal communication with our friends, we probably are not all that conscious of thinking much about our messages. Still, you can probably think of certain messages you are communicating now to anyone passing by as you read through this. Think about it for a minute -

  • what clothes are you wearing?
  • how is your hair done?
  • are you wearing specs?
  • what about that deodorant?

The answers to those questions may not be the result of a lot of thought before you left home this morning, but they are the result of a variety of decisions about the image you want to project of yourself – the messages about you, your personality, your tastes in music etc.

No doubt also during the day, there’ll be certain messages you will think about more carefully – that thank you letter you’ve got to send; that excuse you’ve got to find for not handing in your essay; that way of telling that person you wish they’d really leave you alone.

Lasswell: Channel

The channel is what carries the message. If I speak to you my words are carried via the channel of air waves, the radio news is carried by both air waves and radio waves. I could tap out a message on the back of your head in Morse Code, in which case the channel is touch. In simple terms, messages can be sent in channels corresponding to your five senses.

This use of the word ‘channel’ is similar to the use of the word medium when we talk about communication. The words are sometimes used interchangeably. However, strictly speaking, we often use the word medium to refer to a combination of different channels. Television for example uses both the auditory channel (sound) and visual channel (sight).

Media analysis

The question of which channel or medium to use to carry the message is a vitally important one in all communication. Can you think of any examples of when you might have chosen the wrong channel to communicate with someone? An obvious example of the possible pitfalls would be trying to use the telephone to communicate with a profoundly deaf person. For some time I taught a blind person how to use a computer. As you can probably imagine, it was incredibly difficult to use the auditory channel only.

The choice of medium for your practical work

You could, for example, produce a very polished video tape for your practical work, but is it appropriate? Can you think why it might be the wrong medium? If you don’t know how to distribute it to the intended audience, or if your audience can’t afford to buy it, you could well have wasted your time. You might well have been better advised to produce a leaflet – less impressive perhaps, but cheaper and easier to distribute. Video is also a very linear medium – you start at the beginning and work your way through to the end – if you’re communicating information which your audience already know a lot of, maybe they would have been better off with a booklet that they can skim through to find something they don’t already know. Video isn’t easily portable either – if your audience need to refer back to your information, then a booklet they can stuff in their pocket might be a better bet.

When you produce your practical work, you’ll have to investigate the possible media available for the message you want to communicate, asking questions like:

  • what are the conventions of this medium?
  • is this medium appropriate to my audience?
  • does it appeal to them?
  • how will they get hold of it?
  • can they afford it?
  • is this medium appropriate to my message?
  • can it explain what I want it to explain?
  • do I need to show this in pictures or words?

and so on.

These are all questions of ‘media analysis’. Advertising agencies employ Media Buyers who decide what is the most suitable medium, or combination of media (newspapers, billboards, flysheets, TV ads etc.) for the type of message they want to communicate. They will also have decided on a particular target audience they want to communicate it to and so, using, say the TGI, the NRS etc., will decide what is the most appropriate magazine, newspaper to reach that audience.

A classic example of using the wrong channel is that of research conducted by an American newspaper on the eve of the Presidential elections in the 1940′s. The message was simple: Who will you vote for? The audience was easy to define: a random sample of voters. The newspaper duly conducted a telephone poll of voters chosen at random from the phone book and announced that the Republicans would win. In fact the Democrats won with a massive victory. The reason they got it wrong was quite simple: at that time only the wealthier members of society would have telephones and the wealthier members of society would vote Republican.

You should also give some thought to the notion of channel capacity, which is quite clearly defined in information theory, but less clear in everyday communication. Certainly, though, it’s clear that there are limits to the information which can be carried in a single channel – hence the need to think about channel redundancy as a means of carrying more of the message of your practical work.

Lasswell: The Receiver

Many Communication scholars use the rather technological-sounding terms: sendersource or transmitter to refer to the Communicator. You’ll also come across the technological receiver to refer to what we might ordinarily call audience or readership. This whole question of audience is vitally important to successful communication.

Audience research

Professional broadcasters use the ratings figures and other data from BARB and advertisers in the print media use information from Gallup, the TGI and a range of other sources to find out as much as they possibly can about their audiences.

Audience research and your practical work

When you come to do your practical work, you’ll probably need to demonstrate that you have found out as much as you reasonably can about your audience, using the appropriate techniques. Because it’s so important, we have a unit devoted entirely to Researching Your Audience.

Interpersonal communication

It’s not only the mass media, though, where knowledge of our audience is vitally important. The same applies in everyday life in our contact with other people. In many cases, we don’t have to know a lot about the person we’re dealing with because we each act out the appropriate rôle. I don’t have to know anything about the shop assistant who sells me a packet of fags – I ask for the fags, he gives me them, I give him the money, he gives me the change, we smile briefly, say ‘Cheerio’ and that’s it. I don’t need to know anything about him.

But there are numerous occasions when we do need to know more, or we make unjustified assumptions about what our audience are like. Can you think of any examples from your everyday life where communication has broken down because you didn’t know enough about your audience or because you made the wrong guess as to what they were like? What about the teacher who waffles on incomprehensibly because she makes the assumption that you know nearly as much about the subject as she does? Or that you actually remember what she told you last lesson? Or that you’re actually interested in the subject?

Lasswell: Effects

Lasswell’s model also introduces us to the question of media effects. We don’t communicate in a vacuum. We normally communicate because we want to achieve something. Even if we just pass someone in the corridor and say ‘hello’ without really thinking about it, we want to have the effect of reassuring them that we’re still friends, we are nice people, and so on.

Practical work

Lasswell was concerned not with interpersonal communication, but with the effects of the mass media. The question of whether the media have any effect or not and, if so, how they affect their audiences, is not just a large chunk of most communication and media courses, it’s also a question you have to answer about your practical work and, of course, it’s a constantly topical issue in society.

Feedback

To find out what kind of effect our communication has, we need some kind of feedback. If I speak to you, I listen to your responses and watch for signs of interest, boredom etc. In other words, I use feedback from you to gauge the effect of my communication. If you give me positivefeedback by showing interest, I’ll continue in the same vein; if you give me negative feedback by showing boredom, I’ll change the subject, or change my style, or stop speaking. When broadcasters transmit a programme, they use the services of BARB to gain feedback in the form of ratings. Advertising agencies use a variety of services, such as Gallup, to find out whether their campaign has worked. These are all forms of feedback.

Feedback is not shown specifically in Lasswell’s formula, but very many communication models do show it. A simple one which does so is the Shannon-Weaver Model.

Before going on, try taking a look at some typical examples of forms of communication. For each one, see if you can identify the separate components of the Lasswell Formula.

One Response to “Laswell’s theory of communication”

  1. Njeri Says:

    thank you ..quite applicable, this is a 1948 theory that was applied during the propagandist eras so i was wondering how i can make it applicable or borrow theoretical aspects.

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