By Valerie Devoy

Communication theory is like a prism; it is multidimensional and can be understood in both narrow and broad contexts. For example, there are many different theories on how we define our reality through the language we use: some theorists take a narrow humanistic approach, while others base theories on broad traditions such as the phenomenological and critical traditions. In trying to understand these various theories, I found the metaphor of a zoom lens to be useful in organizing large chunks of information into bite-size pieces. With the use of the zoom lens we can first look at language in the most narrow sense (with the lens tightly focused) to see how it shapes our individual realities; secondly, by zooming out, we can see that language shapes our collective reality through conversation and socialization; and lastly, in the broadest sense, (zooming all the way out) we can see that language can define us culturally (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011).

Language, in the most narrow sense, becomes “the vehicle by which we interpret the world” and is one of the main philosophical assumptions underlying many communication theories (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 63). This concept––that reality is constructed by language––takes a humanistic approach and analyzes how words give meaning to an individual’s reality. Under this assumption, theorists examine differences in language and meaning and how cultures develop diverse perceptions of reality.

Next, by zooming out, we move from words to dialogues and begin exploring theories of conversation and collaboration. Here, theorists start to ask ontological questions about the “group” and how it functions: “Is human experience primarily individual or social” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 23)? Themes of social interaction can also be found in various traditions, such as in the phenomenological tradition where communication “is the vehicle by which meaning is assigned to experience… linking experience with language and social interaction” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 49). With these ideas, communication theories become less individualistic and more focused on the interaction of individuals.

Finally, we zoom all the way out and see how language shapes us culturally. Under this lens we start to see language under a different paradigm: knowledge becomes “a product of symbolic interaction within social groups” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 22). In other words, reality is socially constructed and a product of a group and cultural life. Under this assumption, we begin to understand the critical tradition where “scholars investigate how power, oppression, and privilege are the products of certain forms of communication throughout society” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 57).

 As can be seen, theories of language are essential in understanding the complex “prism” of today’s communication theory. Researchers draw on all kinds of themes around language as a way to address communication theory at large. And it only makes sense, right? Language, in all its forms and functions, is what makes communication possible.


Work Cited: Littlejohn, S. W., & Foss, K. A. (2008). Theories of human communication. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

884 thoughts on “Understanding Communication Theories of Language Through the Metaphor of a Zoom Lens

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