A social semiotic theory of multimodal communication

 

© Daniel Oines, used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-2.0) licence

In the previous article, I considered the question ‘What is communication?’
In this article, I look at the roles of initiator and recipient in communication.

Kress calls his communication theory a social semiotic theory of multimodal communication. It is a ‘social semiotic theory’ because it is to do with the use of signs within the context of social relationships (as we explored in the first article in this series). Social semiotics is an approach to communication that seeks to understand how people communicate by a variety of means in particular social settings.1 It is a ‘theory of multimodal communication’ because all communication uses more than a single mode, and most combines modes in order to give us the affordances that we require.

Initiator and recipient

The two partners in communication (leaving aside for a while the additional complications of communicating to multiple people) are the initiator and the recipient. Kress sees the initiator as having two functions: as ‘rhetor’ and ‘designer’. The rhetor (from ‘rhetoric’) aspect is about deciding what concepts are to be communicated, whereas the designer aspect is about finding the best way of communicating the concepts.

The initiator’s perspective

© Rubin Starset, used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA-2.0) licence

The initiator must consider:

  • ‘the social relations with the audience’: For example, a group of friends communicating with each other, a congregation in a church listening to its pastor, or the unknown readers of an article reading the words of its writer. These all entail different social relations, and an initiator would need to find different ways of communicating in each case.
  • ‘the fit of modes, audience and message’: What modes will work best for this audience and this message?
  • ‘the fit of the materiality of mode with the phenomenon to be represented and communicated’: That is, what is the best form of mode, given what is being communicated?2

Kress draws a crucial distinction between representation and communication. Representation is entirely focused on me (the initiator) and my interests; communication is focused on the audience (the recipients), and their interests and needs. Many self-published books are examples of representation rather than communication. The author wants to set out their knowledge and ideas about a particular subject, often in great detail, and imagines that others will want to read it. They self-publish their book, without having had it edited or designed by professionals, and then wonder why no one reads it. Such a book is an exercise in indulging the author’s interests – it is only representation of the authors ideas. If the author had any concern for his audience, he would work hard to make the subject relevant, interesting, and engaging for that audience – it would be real communication.

This is not just good communication theory; this should be a fundamental value for all Christian communicators. The apostle Paul wrote: When you do things, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honor to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others. (Philippians 2:3–4, CEV) It is not that our interests don’t matter, but that we need to value others’ interests above our own. Communication, rather than representation, happens when we find a way to connect our interests with that of the audience. Representation creates prompts on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, which are easily ignored. Communication creates prompts that the audience wants to attend to. Communication is about the relationship between the initiator and the recipient. This advert from Apple is a brilliant example of a company communicating in a way which is deeply aware of the interests, desires, and needs of its audience.

Apple fans are not just interested in what the technology does, but in the way that it does it, in the design and style, etc. – and Apple is (or at least was) very aware of that. They are interested, according to the advert, in the experience of a product and how it make someone feel. All communicators should be just as aware of the experience of the end-user (the audience) and how it makes them feel. Christian communicators are sometimes so concerned to get their message out that they ignore how the audience is responding to it. We easily slip into representation, not communication – and that is a failure to love our audience.

Communication theory tends to be academic, and a ‘social semiotic theory of multimodal communication’ is difficult to communicate simply. But there are important ideas for Christian communicators here, so I have worked hard to communicate it as clearly, helpfully, and engagingly as possible. It is for you to judge whether or not I have succeeded! I believe that thinking seriously about these issues will enhance your communication. Your interests as recipients, therefore, match up with mine as initiator. I’m convinced that it matters because we are not communicating trivia, but the life-transforming good news of Jesus Christ. Nothing is more important than this, and central to our communication of the gospel must be communication – connecting our interests with the interests of our audience. We need love for those to whom we are communicating.

The recipient’s perspective

As Kress says, communication does not happen if the recipient does not engage with the message. A recipient must respond to the prompt, and then interpret the message. The recipient is also an interpreter. Kress says: An interpretation is a response to a prior prompt. The characteristics, the ‘shape’ of that prompt, constitute the ‘ground’ on which the interpretation happens. . . . Because interpretation is central, so therefore is the interpreter; without interpretation there is no communication.3 For this series of articles, I assembled my ideas and quotes, write my text and found images and videos, then I put all that into pages within this website, paying attention to layout and so on. I shaped all of it into a prompt for you as the potential recipients. By putting it online, I offer it to you as a prompt, and that combination of elements (in various modes) is the ground on which you do your interpretation. All of you will do something different with it, because each of you will interpret it in a somewhat different way. How you interpret it depends on your background, education, personality, context, and other aspects of your interests. I’ve set the same ground for every reader, but each reader’s response – each person’s interpretive work – is unique. Having responded to a prompt, and done interpretive work on the message, the recipient may re-shape the concept into a new prompt for another audience. They set a new ground for someone else. We will consider these processes more in the next article in this series.

Footnotes

Photo credits (from top)

Daniel Oines, used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-2.0) licence
Rubin Starset. Used under a Creative Commons (CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0) licence.
Tastwo, used under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0) licence.

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