I Make My Own Reality…And Maybe Yours
Influenced by Linguistics, Kenneth Pike constructs a set of terms (etic and emic) that help describe different observational stances. However, although the classification utility of Pike’s phrases seems without question, the major contribution of Pike’s work seems to be a shift from either/or thinking to one that is described as both/and. Although Pike describes the merits of both etic and emic lenses, he also importantly suggests that a unit of information can assume varied—but reconcilable!—layers of meaning. In fact, Pike alludes to the interconnected nature of etic and emic positions, noting that etic work might provide general theories that are refined by emic inquiry, which might resultantly generate newer working hypotheses that are etic in nature. Furthermore, Pike implies that a more sophisticated analysis can occur when a researcher is able to see/understand both layers simultaneously—in other words, being able to conceptualize how data fits into a broad/horizontal array while also appreciating its role in a closed/vertical system.
In a similar fashion, James Carey’s chapter in Communication as Culture speaks to a paradigmatic model of Communication that also features two complimentary—though distinct—views. Throughout this work Carey endeavors to expand the perception of communication, challenging readers to look past the more commonplace understanding of communication as a means of information transmission. Invoking concepts that highlight religion and ritual as a community of practice, Carey’s words overlap with Robert Orsi’s thoughts on lived religion. Using religion as a lens, Carey comments on religion’s ability to reflect culture even as it acts to create it: a critical study of communication allows one to glimpse the ordering structures that serve to imbue symbolic meaning in culture while our interaction with media (e.g., checking a website for news as part of a daily routine) becomes a ritual whose practice is then incorporated into culture! In fact, in some ways, Carey’s ideas speak to communication as a force that can act to maintain or change; it is in this dual nature that we see resonance with Pike, for communication seems to be able to assume these roles without contradiction. Moreover, etic and emic lenses can be applied to Carey’s newspaper analogy for while one can see that the same general categories of news continue to exist (e.g., Politics, Economics, Entertainment, etc.), the specifics of those topics (e.g., amount of space/attention given, tonality, order in the newspaper) are often particular to a given culture in a particular temporal context.
The major contribution of Carey, however, seems to be a recognition of communication’s ability to superimpose an additional layer of meaning upon the world: in effect, communication transforms the reality of “what is” into a reality of “what is understood” in a process that mirrors the distinction between sensation and perception in Psychology. Although the presentations can assume various forms or modes, the important point seems to be that reality is realized through communication and it might be argued that, in some ways, the symbolic reality matters more than whatever the objective reality might be. In short, the reality formulated by communication constitutes a reality of meaning.
In this regard, Carey’s work builds upon work by Gross, who speaks to the symbolic power of communication and reminds readers (through Piaget) that communication contains an ability to structure reality. Furthermore, although some data may have inherent value, it becomes useful knowledge only after it is construed in relation to other bits of information—in other words, information becomes valuable largely because it is structured. Challenging readers to look beyond the American privileging of verbal symbols, Gross speaks to other modes in a process that foreshadows Carey’s example of maps that can be pictorial, oral, or kinesthetic. In some ways, we continue to suffer from the culture lamented by Gross in modern scholarship with American Higher Education largely privileging lexical skills while generally dismissing multi-modal production; although the model seems to be changing slowly, most educational settings appear to ask that students continually funnel symbolic knowledge through speech or writing.
Also speaking to the confluence of education and communication, Edward Hall points out the pervasive influence that learning styles can have on culture. Although it may seem obvious to any who would study culture in the modern age, Hall points out that ways of seeing are shaped by the learning process; cultural misunderstandings, then, result from an inability of people to transcend their own learning styles and to assume the perspective of others. Applying this to Communication, it reminds us that we must not only study content but also endeavor to understand how a particular piece (or set) or information was acquired.