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Communication, Political

Communication, Political

I. IntroductionIthiel de Sola Pool


II. International AspectsCharles A. McClelland



Definition. Both the word “communication” and the word “political” may be defined in various ways. A broad definition of “communication” is any transmission of signs, signals, or symbols between persons. A broad definition of “political” is of or pertaining to a process whereby intentional changes are effected in the rules governing the relations between individuals. By such broad definitions “political communication” is a category that includes a large proportion of all deliberative and hortatory activities that take place outside of the household. An international ultimatum or the speeches of a candidate are, of course, political communications; but so, by this definition, are an employee’s request that his superior address him as “Mr.” rather than by his first name, or a letter from a club to its members telling them that the dues are to be raised.

By a narrower definition, however, “political communication” refers only to the activity of certain specialized institutions that have been set up to disseminate information, ideas, and attitudes about governmental affairs. This narrow definition is often implicit in institutional studies of political communication. For example, studies of psychological warfare may focus on across-the-lines broadcasts and leaflet distribution (Lasswell 1927; Lerner 1949; Daugherty & Janowitz 1958). Studies of election campaigns may focus on the use of television, posters, and speeches (Herring 1940; Ostrogorskii 1902; Childs 1965). Studies of legislative communication may focus on letters to the Congress, committee documents, and floor speeches (Schattschneider 1935). Studies of administrative management may focus on office memoranda and letters (Simon [1947] 1961, chapter 8).

Implicit in such studies is the notion that certain institutions have as their primary function the facilitation of the exchange and dissemination of messages, and that the characteristics of such institutions constitute the special province of the student of communications. But it is equally clear that although the rate of flow of political messages may be distinctly lower in other environments than these institutions it is not nil. Some students of political communications expand their scope to consider under that rubric much more than just the characteristics of specialized communications institutions (Berelson et al. 1954; Hovland et al. 1953; A Plan of Research … 1954; Schramm 1964).

To report the infinity of facts that make up even the smallest social event is impossible. Every phenomenological statement about society is, as historiographers are fond of pointing out, really a report of certain selected indices that are believed to reflect what is happening in the whole. The particular indices that a scholar selects to report is a matter of his style and his discipline. Yet some indices are more widely useful than others. In its broad definition “communication” belongs among that limited set of concepts which provides convenient handles for describing social life in its entirety.

Just as the economist focuses his antenna on exchange relations (either in the particular institution, the market, where such relations are most active or, alternatively, as a way of conceptualizing any or all of social life), and just as the political scientist focuses his antenna on power relations (either solely in the state or as a way of conceptualizing any or all of social life), so too the student of communication may use the exchange of messages either as an index by which to describe institutions (such as the press) that are specifically set up for the purpose of message dissemination or may use the universal social act of communicating as a powerful index for describing any and all aspects of social life. The domain of the study of communication can thus legitimately be the entire domain of the social sciences.

If one takes the communications approach to the study of society as a whole, then the study of political communication becomes just one particular approach to the study of all of politics.

Some classical contributions. One can document the breadth of the topics that may be analyzed as political communication by reviewing some of the classical contributions to the field. Among works prior to 1914 that a student of communication would have to consider as major contributions to his field would be Plato’s Gorgias, which considers morality in propaganda; Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Mill’s System of Logic, which analyze the structure of persuasive argumentation; Machiavelli’s The Prince and Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? which are handbooks of political communication for the securing of power; Milton’s Areopagitica and Mill’s On Liberty, which consider the systemic effects of permitting individual variation in the flow of political messages; Dicey’s The Development of Law & Opinion in England in the 19th Century, which considers the effect of the ideological context on public actions; and Marx’s German Ideology, Sorel’s Reflections on Violence, and Pareto’s The Mind and Society, which distinguish the social function from the true value of beliefs.

Propaganda and persuasion

The study of political comunication underwent a major efflorescence after World War i. A number of factors stimulated that growth. The Allies, particularly after Wilson’s Fourteen Points, had undertaken a substantial psychological warfare effort against Germany (Lasswell 1927). The German ultra-right, unwilling to admit the facts of defeat, perpetrated the myth that the German soldier had been undefeated on the field of battle but had had victory snatched away by an Allied propaganda “Schwindel” that fooled Germany into giving up. This myth was expressed in a large body of German literature that overestimated the power of propaganda (Thimme 1932).

Such illusions about the vast powers of the “hidden persuaders” (Packard 1957) were in the same period reinforced in the United States by the growth of advertising and public relations. The men in these new businesses, eager to win clients, overstated their own powers over the public mind. They acted as propagandists for propaganda.

While the illusion that clever propagandists with the aid of the mass media could achieve great manipulation of the public became widespread, both research and experience were showing how painfully hard it was to educate the public to preferred civic attitudes. Notable was the National Opinion Research Center’s study (1948) of a large-scale United Nations week in Cincinnati, which despite Herculean efforts affected an almost unnoticeable segment of the population. Such observations of the ineffectuality of propaganda led students of political communication to seek by field and experimental studies to understand the conditions under which persuasion does change attitudes and the conditions under which it does not.

Among the field studies perhaps the most notable were the studies by Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and others, of the impact of election campaigns. They demonstrated that relatively few minds are truly changed by a campaign but that a campaign serves other important functions; it may define the issues and mobilize interest and partisanship.

Communication has many effects besides that of persuading people of the thing said. It also affects attention, information, interest, and action. It often does so without causing a person to decide that what he previously thought to be false is true, or vice versa (Lerner 1951; Pool et al. 1956). Nonetheless, a large part of the sociological and psychological literature on political communication has dealt with the conditions of persuasion.

Laboratory studies, most notably those of Carl Hovland and his associates at Yale, have shed substantial light on the conditions under which messages persuade. Certain individuals show a general tendency to be more easily persuaded than others. Informed and intelligent persons are more apt to be persuaded permanently by a presentation that refutes the arguments on the other side as well as presenting its own arguments, while uninformed and unintelligent persons are moved more by a one-sided presentation. Threatening communications, where circumstances permit, are apt to be disregarded and forgotten more than communications that present encouraging information. Arguments on matters of attitude (not fact) when presented to persons already predisposed to accept the arguments are apt to have more effect on the hearer’s attitude after a passage of time than they did immediately after the presentation. Factual information and also attitudinal material that goes against the hearer’s predisposition lose part of their impact with time (Hovland 1959).

Psychological experiments have also shown that when a person’s opinion structure is dissonant or unbalanced, his opinions are apt to change. If a person simultaneously believes two things that are hard to reconcile, and if circumstances force attention to this imbalance, then a person is apt to change an attitude or redefine the situation to avoid such imbalance (Abelson & Rosenberg 1958; Brown 1962; Festinger 1964; Attitude Change 1960). The classic political case is cross-pressure in an election campaign, when a voter favors a candidate in one respect and dislikes him in another (Berelson et al. 1954). Balance may be restored by deciding that only one of those aspects is important, or by forgetting one of them, or by reversing one of the perceptions of the candidate, or by changing one’s own evaluation on one of the points.

However, the results of laboratory studies of attitude change, as Hovland pointed out (1959), diverge from the results of field surveys in one important respect. In the laboratory the messages communicated usually have an effect on the subject; in the field the usual finding is that propaganda makes little discernible difference in any democratic, that is, competitive communication situation. That is because the paid or otherwise controlled subject in the laboratory is in a forced communication situation. In real life, on the other hand, exposing oneself to communication is generally a voluntary act. Persons listen and read selectively, and they do not readily expose themselves to communications that will change their minds. In politics voters attend primarily to their own candidate. They seldom listen to the opposition and even when they do so may selectively misperceive or forget things that are said that they disagree with. So, in real-life situations the directly persuasive effects of political communication are much less cogent than they are in the laboratory. A book that summarizes comprehensively and well what social scientists know about the impact of communications on their receivers is Joseph Klapper’s The Effects of Mass Communication (1960).

Contents of communications

Political scientists have long been interested in effects of communications other than their immediate persuasive power over their receivers. They have often been interested in describing, for example, the contents of the information flow permeating a society. Dicey’s study of the spread of collectivist ideas in England is a classic example. Perhaps the foremost contemporary exponent of such studies is Harold Lasswell, who has either made or instigated the most systematic attempts to provide surveys of the social distribution of attention. In the 1930s he initiated the use of content analysis to compare the political propaganda output at different times and places (Lasswell & Blumenstock 1939), an effort expanded at the Library of Congress during World War ii. The studies at the Hoover Institute, originated by him, produced comparisons of the political symbols used in editorials in major papers in five countries over a sixty-year period (Lasswell et al. 1952; Pool et al. 1952).

A study of the contents of political communications in a country may be motivated by purely descriptive purposes. It is interesting to note, for example, the growth of attention to world affairs in the United States or the decline of attention to economics in political campaigns as the great depression has receded into the past. But study of the distribution of attention in society can have more than just descriptive interest. Content analysis of political media can be useful both for intelligence purposes and for social scientific purposes.

During World War ii content analysis of enemy broadcasts was effectively used by both British and American agencies to decipher Nazi military plans (George 1959). Kremlinology is a present version of the same technique (Griffith 1963; Rush 1958). The order in which leaders are named, the disappearance of one formula and the appearance of another, or the allusion to some past analogical event may provide clues to major political developments. Needless to say, this kind of analysis is superfluous when a political movement is willing to engage in free discussion of its problems and precluded when it can afford total silence.

The deciphering of Aesopian meanings becomes important when a political group feels simultaneously obliged to communicate and constrained not to communicate frankly. That happens under a variety of circumstances. It happens when dissidents attempt to express their views in ways that will avoid repression by the powers that be. It happens when elites wish to communicate to fellow cognoscenti without revealing their hand to naive hearers. It happens when a politician wishes to convey a message without unduly disturbing established conventions.

Historical examples of such Aesopian political communication have been analyzed most extensively by Leo Strauss (1948). The logic of such analysis has been most fully dissected by Alexander George (1959). Actual analyses of Soviet covert debates are many, but little careful attention has been given to just why it is that the Soviets choose to engage in a mode of political communication that is probably no longer well adapted to their needs. It reveals much that they would like to keep secret, while making the conduct of their policy discussions inefficient. Various relevant factors may be adduced to account for their discussion of policy questions in covert but revealing ways in their major public organs. Among these are the heritage of an illegal revolutionary past, but also a past full of ideological debate; the heritage of the authoritarian tsarist past; and an irrational reaction-formative preoccupation with secrecy in the Russian culture. There is also the need to give directives to thousands of middle-echelon persons on how to behave, for a complex society, even a centralized planned one, must find a way to have millions of independent decisions made in a socially functional way. Finally, informal communications are so severely hampered by Soviet fear of uncontrolled social action that discussion in major media often becomes just as easy as more private kinds of informal discussion. For example, only one central mimeograph facility is allowed in each major department, all stencils are numbered, and a card on the use of each kept by the police authorities.

Effects of political communication

The ways in which Aesopian political material can provide insights into a political system may also demonstrate how the distribution of communication content can be a matter of interest to social scientists concerned with the effects of communication. Clearly, there are both systemic and individual consequences to the distribution of attention, quite different from the persuasive consequences of individual messages.

One example is the emergence of political alienation when the contents of communications in the official and the mass media do not correspond to the perceptions and the interest of their audiences (Kris & Leites 1947; Levin 1962). Modern totalitarian societies, unlike historical authoritarian ones, are very public-opinion conscious and put out vast amounts of political communication to the public. The publics, however, may learn to consider such communications unreliable, often trusting more to rumor (Bauer et al. 1956); they then become less involved in political matters and devote minimum attention to the mass of material thrown at them. But the depolitization is, of course, never complete, and people who are given highly censored versions of the news acquire great skill at reading between the lines and become quite energetic at seeking information by such means as listening to foreign broadcasts. The non-Asian communist countries are now virtually covered by short-wave radios (about twenty million in the Soviet Union); and listening to foreign broadcasts is fairly universal. A very different situation exists, of course, in some underdeveloped countries, where large parts of the public do not know about major outside world events and trends. Nowadays, since every major nation broadcasts internationally the latest trends in culture, art, and popular music, political matters too become universally known, among interested persons, without much delay. The political consequences of such a change in the attention situation have already been profound and may be accentuated as communication satellites make international communication even easier.

Practicing propagandists are generally aware that it is much easier to change people’s distribution of attention than to change their values and attitudes. Virtually all propaganda efforts serve only to focus people’s attention on certain issues rather than to reverse their previous views on those issues. Advertisers seldom seek to change the desires of the public; they try to convince the public that their product meets those desires. Successful psychological warriors do not try to convert the enemy nationals into rejecting their own fatherland and joining in the cause of the propagandists. They succeed only when their target forces are falling apart anyway and they can simply focus the attention of the enemy troops on that fact and inform them how to save themselves (Lerner 1949; Shils & Janowitz 1948). In general, it may be said that persuasion as such is only a small part of political communication. Most of it consists of modifying the information on which people will act, given their own values and preferences.

The mass media

The growth of the mass media has had a major impact on the conduct of political activity. In the United States, for example, radio and, even more, television have significantly reduced the power of the local political machine and drastically reduced the use of rallies and mass meetings. Since Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats on radio in the 1930s it has been possible for the president or the presidential candidate to establish a direct campaign relationship with every individual voter. In a presidential campaign this relationship is far more significant than the remarks of a local politician. Television, of course, adds an extra element of visibility and probably some extra impact. There is some evidence that different political personalities are more effective on radio than on television, but this has not been much investigated (Pool 1959). Both media certainly give an opportunity for the exercise of political charisma.

Furthermore, the cost-effectiveness of the mass media is likely to be greater than that of more individualized campaign methods, at least in terms of spreading information. Expensive as television time may be, it is apt to be cheap per person reached. This is true even if one disregards the mammoth audiences reached on such special occasions as the Kennedy–Nixon debates in the 1960 presidential campaign.

However, it would be a mistake to make any simple comparative statement about the relative political effectiveness of the mass media versus face-to-face organization. They serve different functions and for maximum effectiveness they must be linked together. That is a principle that skillful political organizers have generally understood. In What Is to Be Done? Lenin developed the notion of a disciplined party of professional revolutionists, but in the same pamphlet he also strongly advocated the establishment of an all-Russian newspaper to serve as a “collective organizer.” Even today in the Soviet Union, the several million oral agitators are serviced by a special magazine, Bloknot agitator a (”The Agitator’s Notebook”).

Indeed, the growth of political parties and the growth of the press went hand in hand in most countries of the world until recent decades. One of the difficulties of establishing effective party systems in some of the newly emerging nations is that the newer mass media, particularly radio, cannot meet the needs of the small partisan group as well as the revolutionary newspaper put out in a small print shop.

A number of major social science studies have dealt with the relationship of word-of-mouth communication to the mass media. It has been fairly well established in a variety of cultures that whereas the mass media serve effectively to diffuse information, people seldom act on that information without confirming their impulse by checking with an opinion leader with whom they are in face-to-face contact (Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955; Rogers 1962; Pool 1963). In India, for example, villages in which people listened to agricultural broadcasts in groups and then discussed them were compared with similar villages that received the same broadcasts but had no organized listening groups. In both sets of villages learning of the information was comparable, but only where there were organized listening groups with face-to-face discussion was there any significant amount of adoption of the new practices that were learned (Mathur & Neurath 1959). The implications for the complementarity of the mass media and political organization are clear.

Ithiel de Sola Pool

[Directly related are the entriesPropaganda; Psychological warfare. Other relevant material may be found inAttitudes; Communication, mass; Persuasion; Public opinion; Public relations.]


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The international system can be conceived in the terms of reference of a very large and complicated communication network. The prime argument for viewing international relations in this way is that the communication approach reveals aspects of the subject that hitherto have been neglected; and, therefore, it promises to advance knowledge of international behavior.

A simple communication system consists merely of a message, a sender of the message, a channel through which the message can travel, and a receiver of the message. There are, however, some further requirements if this simple structure is to be made to work. The system must be in contact with an environment changeful enough to give the sender the occasion for transmitting a message; the sender must have the ability to scan and select from the variety of things produced by a changeful environment; and both sender and receiver need to have somewhat comparable capabilities to engage in encoding and decoding the messages that are sent and received. From the standpoint of the interested social scientist, a means for observing is an essential part of the system (Cherry 1957, p. 89).

Beyond these requirements, a communication system can be elaborated almost endlessly by the incorporation of additional components. For example, the system may be equipped in some way to discover if the messages sent were received as intended. Filtering and condensing parts can be added to diffuse the transmissions to many receivers and to gather the messages from many senders to a single receiver. Provision may be made for storing the records of past communications and for retrieving them when they are again needed. Multiple channels may be used or a single channel can be arranged to carry several different streams of messages. In brief, the opportunities to enlarge and elaborate a simple communication structure usually appear to be limitless.


It may be thought that to characterize a part or the whole of social phenomena such as the relations among nations is merely to carry over an analogy to social science from the realms of mechanics and electronics. This is not the case, however; because relations among nations are carried along on a flood of words, both written and spoken. Further, many international events that are more physical than the acts of speaking and writing are symbolic in their purposes and effects and fall, therefore, into the category of communication. The communication aspects of international relations may be appreciated more fully by the consideration of a comprehensive definition of international communication and of the topics that fit within that definition.

Let us define international communication as including both the structure and the content of the stream of social messages transmitted over time and across national boundaries. Diplomatic exchanges and negotiations between national governments come easily within the definition. No conflict between states could be carried on without a flow of information bearing ideas, feelings, and intentions between the antagonists. To make a proposal, to issue a warning, or to deliver a protest in international politics is to commit a communicative act. The essential purpose of moving a fleet to a troubled area or of sending the head of state abroad on a good-will tour is generally to relay some specific information to other peoples and countries. The traditional functions of diplomacy are to gather and evaluate information from abroad and to carry on conversations and negotiations with foreign governments. Unquestionably, international communication is pervasive in the practices of international politics. It extends well beyond official relations of governments, however. Smith has illustrated eloquently what else is encompassed in international communication. He includes the following:

… the relatively disinterested activities of international newsgathering agencies; the creation of impressions abroad by tourists and other migrants; the probably massive but generally unplanned impact of books, art works, and movies distributed in foreign countries; the international contacts of students, educators, scientists and technical assistance experts; the negotiations and correspondence of international business interests; the activities of international missionaries and religious movements; the work of international pressure groups, such as trade unions, chambers of commerce, and political parties; international philanthropic activities, like the Ford Foundation’s “private Point Four” program in India; the “propaganda of the deed” implicit even in the unpublicized activities of leaders and collectivities, as perceived by various audiences; and a great many other processes by which information and persuasion are consciously or unconsciously disseminated across national and cultural boundaries. (Smith 1956, pp. 183–184)

Recent research

The foregoing illustrates the types of subjects that come within the scope of international communication or that can be considered in a communication context. Next we shall consider the question of what has been added in recent years to the store of knowledge of international affairs through research on communication. It is difficult, for several reasons, to offer a compact survey of the research accomplishment. No effective theory of communication in international relations has emerged to organize and simplify the facts and to locate the various constituting segments of the subject. Researchers from several disciplines, including political science, psychology, sociology, education, anthropology, and journalism, have engaged in relevant work; but the different interests and perspectives of these fields complicate the task of summarization. Nor are the theoretical foundations of international relations sufficiently stable to offer a satisfactory organizing framework. What seems most reasonable under the circumstances is to discuss, from more than a single vantage point, some of the scholarly literature on international communication. It is best to view the subject according to several sets of organizing categories. The situation is somewhat puzzling because large expanses of the subject have been investigated very little but, at the same time, the volume of the literature has become very large. In a survey covering the period 1943–1955, Smith and Smith (Bureau … 1956) identified over 2,500 articles, books, and reports of substantial character on international communication.

Senders, channels, and receivers

The simple communication system structure that was described at the beginning of this article has been used frequently to guide reporting on the areas of communication research. Thus, one may think in terms of studies of senders, messages, channels, and receivers. The senders, or communicators, of international messages have been studied less frequently than the receivers, i.e., the audiences or “targets,” of communication. Cohen’s (1957) analysis of John Foster Dulles’ activities in the negotiating of the Japanese peace treaty is an outstanding example of the study of international communicators. The conceptual scheme of Snyder et al. (1962) for foreign-policy decision-making analysis stresses the importance of the communication elements that influence decision-making groups in the formulation of policy. The Snyder and Paige (1958) study of the 1950 U.S. decision on Korea provides numerous data for understanding the actions of international communicators. Nevertheless, only a sketchy knowledge exists of how communicators scan, select, and encode information from the international environment for the transmission of messages to others. About the same situation exists in the area of channel studies.

The channels of international communication are complex systems in their own right and are highly specialized for the particular functions they serve. Most of the research that has been done has centered on two topics: (a) the flow of world news through the mass media and (b) the growth of national communications in transitional and modernizing societies. UNESCO has sponsored studies of how different parts of the world are served by the news agencies, the press, and other mass circulation media. Schramm (1959) and Kayser (1953) have provided some materials for studying the content of the news in the press of different countries, and Pool et al. (1952) have shown the role played in international relations by certain “prestige” newspapers. Analyses have been made to determine how much international and foreign news appears in newspapers, and a beginning has been made in studying the relay stages and selection processes in the transmission of world news from the point of occurrence of a significant international event to the newspaper on the breakfast table. It is clear that the public channels of international communication are highly selective so that some message flows are let through the system while others are turned back through choices made by “gatekeepers” located at various points in the transmission chain (Carter 1958).

Some of the most important work of recent years has centered on studies of the growth patterns of communication networks in countries changing from traditional social forms to modern national organization. The spread of the mass media and the changes in the habits of social communication have been considered an indicator of national development and also a vital ingredient that must combine with other social, economic, and psycho-logical elements if national development is to continue (Lerner 1958; Conference on Communication … 1963). The pioneering work that brought attention to the forms and the structures of social communication and their importance in the building of political communities was that of Karl Deutsch (1953).

As one might anticipate, the effects of communication on audiences have interested researchers perhaps more than any subject in the field. The result is that a great mass of information is available about public opinion on many international issues, about popular views on war and peace, and about attitudes and images concerning foreign peoples and foreign governments. The specific results of educational efforts in world affairs, of propaganda campaigns, and of different kinds of people-to-people communications have been reported in large numbers. Several volumes of the series of studies “Citizen Participation in International Relations” (Hero 1959a; 1959b; 1960a; 1960b) assemble much of the data about American audiences and foreign affairs.

The expansion to world-wide dimensions of survey research on public opinion has made increasingly apparent the possibilities of carrying on periodic cross-national samplings of opinion on international matters and of charting long-term trends of opinion change. Indeed, valuable cross-national comparative studies have already been reported, for example, those of Buchanan and Cantril (1953), Gillespie and Allport (1955), Almond (1954), and Free (1959). As yet no approach has been sufficiently developed to bring together the data of thousands of surveys of opinion on foreign affairs that have been collected over the years in dozens of countries. Pool (1961) has urged that these idle resources be put to use and has suggested some methods for establishing systematic and quantitative criteria for assembling this knowledge.

Some general conclusions concerning audiences and international relations can be set forth on the basis of the research that has been done on public and international affairs. There is overwhelming testimony to the low state of factual knowledge about foreign affairs in mass publics in all countries and to the lack of understanding in national populations of the meanings of even very important international events. The early insight (Lasswell 1935; Lasswell et al. 1952) that in all nations foreign affairs enlist the attention, knowledge, skills, and participation of small elites has, in general, been supported by the results of audience research. A modification of elite theory has been made, however, in recognition of the fact that national populations are organized in large numbers of special publics and special interest groupings. Thus, the concept of a single small elite group largely in charge of foreign relations has been widened somewhat to encompass numbers of special publics and their “opinion influentials.”

In recent years, the outstanding hypothesis advanced to explain both the apparent insensitivity of mass publics and the role of leaders and influentials in the communication process is the concept of the “two-step flow” (Katz & Lazarsfeld 1955; Katz 1957). This hypothesis states that the effects of communication from the mass media take place among relatively few people but that among those affected are persons who convey opinions and ideas to others by direct and personal conversation. The first step of the communication flow is via the mass media, and the second step operates through face-to-face communicating and personal influence. The failures of many vigorous world affairs programs to educate the general public (for an example, see the study of Star & Hughes 1950) may be related to the slighting of the second step of communication.

Communication and foreign policy

In locating additional research on international communication, it is advantageous to make reference to the categories now commonly employed in describing the general field of international relations. When the study of international relations is divided into two parts, one concerned with the making of foreign policy and the other with the interactions and organization of the international political system, it will be found that some communication studies occupy both sectors. The framework of Snyder et al. (1962), which was mentioned previously, is a major guide to the study of the making of foreign policy, and it calls for careful attention to the processes of communication within national societies. Rosenau (1961) has made a significant contribution in his conceptualization of the foreign-policy process as a system of mutual influence involving the government, the influentials, and the attentive publics, carried forward by means of a circular flow of communication. Data supporting this conceptual scheme have been published by Rosenau (1963). The place of the press in the making of foreign policy has been discussed frequently but studied rarely. An analysis of the press and foreign policy by Cohen (1963) has partially corrected the situation. Almond’s study (1950) still stands as the best general treatment of public opinion and its relationship to U.S. foreign policy.

A novel approach to the communication aspects of the exchanges and interactions between nations in the international system has been developed by North and his associates (1963). By devising a program of content analysis for a large computer, the North group has been producing measures of the kinds of perceptions and the amount of emotion being carried, during crises, in the statements and messages of national decision makers. The practices of diplomacy, otherwise, have received little attention from the communication research standpoint. Proceedings of international conferences offer rich materials for content analysis, but little work has been done in this direction. Spanier and Nogee (1962) have interpreted recent disarmament negotiations from the propaganda angle, however.

Governments are interested in persuasive communication as one of the instruments of foreign policy. Many studies have been done under government auspices to evaluate information programs and propaganda campaigns conducted abroad. Wartime needs to counter enemy propaganda and to explore all avenues of propaganda and psychological warfare were instrumental in stimulating propaganda analysis. Surveys of these wartime accomplishments and of the progress of the art and science of propaganda are readily available (Lerner 1951; George 1959; Holt & van de Velde I960; Daugherty & Janowitz 1958).

Psychological factors

Two clusters of theory and research that are contributing increasingly to current knowledge of international communication have their sources in psychology and anthropology. These contributions may be related conveniently to the phenomena of the encoding and decoding of messages, referred to early in this discussion. When psychological and cultural considerations are taken into account in the study of international relations, they enrich the understanding of foreign policy and international politics; but they also tend to complicate matters and sometimes to confuse them. The introduction of “the human dimension in international relations” (Klineberg 1964) presents some problems in integrating new knowledge with old. It is the communication approach that appears to offer the best connecting link between psychocultural and political knowledge.

Political scientists have ordered their knowledge of international relations principally around the concept of power. Further, they have identified decision making as the most vital of the problems involved in the use of power. As the foregoing has indicated, communication research has concentrated on the study of the structures and processes of message exchange. At first sight, the political perspective and the communication perspective appear to belong to entirely different realms. This is not the case, however. Communication includes not only the study of psychological and cultural variables in information processes; it also includes branches of theory and research concerned with persuasion and influence and with the making of decisions under conditions of uncertainty. The latter concerns lie very close to the political scientists’ preoccupations with power and political decision making. Thus, the possibility of connecting these two areas of interest and communication theory is of real significance. The following discussion is a sketch suggesting how the possible convergence of perspectives can be developed.

Conventional teachings of international politics hold that the participants in international affairs are guided in their talk and actions by the universal language of power politics. International actors may make errors and fall into misunderstandings, but these are the mistakes in the use of the calculus of power. The basic model of international politics is a distillation of centuries of historical experience, and it portrays a relatively small number of national states interacting as units according to national interests and under circumstances determined by the distribution of power among the units. This inherited model cannot be cast aside lightly, yet it has little room for the ideas and data of the human dimension that psychologists and anthropologists have cultivated. Factors of public opinion, the influence of personality variables, the differences in national character, the consequences of sheer ignorance about the world, and the dynamic interplay of conflicting beliefs and values among nations are squeezed into the model only with great difficulty. Thus, the accommodation of the human dimension would appear to require either the abandonment of the traditional model in favor of a new one or its expansion to encompass the additional interests. Let us see, tentatively, how the model might be enlarged.

Men act according to the information they have. As has been said many times, they act according to their perceptions of what is so. If the question of the differences in the availability of information is put aside, there remains the matter of what an individual does with the information that comes to him. Psychological theory and research have done much toward explaining the processing of information within human beings. Some messages reach the individual and are internalized because they are taken as significant or salient. Others may be noted casually, and still others are turned away and not internalized. The generalization is that men possess processing equipment to handle the receiving, selecting, categorizing, and storing of reports received about the world. This total resource has been called the “image” (Boulding 1956) or cognitive structure.

Two facts about the image are to be noted especially. Individuals act to keep a reasonably well-organized view of the world. The psychological theories of how this balance is maintained have been summarized conveniently by Maccoby and Maccoby (1961). One’s cognitive organization must be understood as the product of personal experience, but its structure is also the reflection of upbringing and social training—the outcome of living in a particular cultural milieu. Osgood (1958) and Miller, Galanter, and Pribram (1960), among others, have extended the knowledge of the many intricacies in the workings of the image in human beings. How much of the individual’s communication processing capability is shared among all men and how wide its variations are because of different upbringing and cultural conditioning are questions of interest to the students of international behavior. The answers are by no means clear at the present time. Cultural anthropologists have a strong opinion on the subject, however.

Cultural factors

The stock in trade of anthropology is the culture concept. The interrelated wholeness of a culture has been much emphasized (Benedict 1934). When most anthropologists think about international relations, their foremost thought is that international interactions involve people who carry different and distinctive cultural traits and patterns. It is small wonder that vigorous complaints have arisen from the anthropological quarter against the political analyses of international relations that disregard or slight the cultural factor. On the other hand, strong doubts have been expressed on the creditability of anthropologically oriented interpretations of American, German, Japanese, Russian, and other national cultures (Benedict 1946; Mead 1951; Hennessy 1962). Criticisms and countercriticisms notwithstanding, cross-cultural studies have been made on subjects more specific than whole national cultures. Investigations have been carried on of the experiences of foreign study (Selltiz et al. 1963); of modern acculturative situations (Lord 1958; Scotch 1961); and of specific linguistic, emotional, and gestural misperceptions and misunderstandings (LaBarre 1947; Haring 1951). Even some training on psychocultural situations has been introduced in education for foreign service. Hall (1959) has made available many fascinating examples of cultural influences on international communication and, in addition, has developed a conceptual scheme for studying cross-cultural phenomena. Enough is now known about the cultural factor that a place for it must be provided in a general model of international relations.

In the perspective of communication research, the actions of individuals and the influences of cultures have multifarious effects on the fidelity of the transmission of messages through the international system. What effects occur in the encoding and decoding of international information at the level of the individual? What happens in the processing as messages pass through one culture and enter another? These are, perhaps, the fundamental questions for which specific answers are needed from research on international communication. The human dimension of international relations finds its place as the coding process in a communication system. It remains now merely to indicate how else the concept of the international system as an elaborate communication network may enlarge conventional views of international politics.

Communication and international politics

The governments of sovereign states exert power to serve their national interests. This is the conventional statement. The relationships that arise from the pursuit of national interests have many properties and attributes. They may be extensive or slight, friendly or hostile, attentive or indifferent, peaceful or violent, stable or changing, and so on. However these different states of relationships are distinguished, they are recognized by the makers of foreign policy only from information that can be gathered about occurrences and events taking place in international relations. It follows that the central foreign-policy problem of a government is to decide, on the basis of the information at hand about the international environment, what to do either in making a demand on another government or in responding to a demand made by another government (Sprout & Sprout 1962, pp. 141–177).

The task of making decisions in foreign relations is never easy for at least three fundamental reasons: (1) there is never enough information to undergird a decision with complete certainty; (2) the outcome of the decision depends on the responding action of other governments; and (3) the outcome of one decision may impose the difficulty of making further decisions that were not anticipated at first. In brief, the source of danger is the uncertainty in the situation. To reduce uncertainty is to diminish the surprise factor in international relations. The better a decision maker becomes in deciding what to do—without being surprised by the result—the better are his chances of being able to advance the interests of his state.

Information theory (Cherry 1957; Pierce 1961; Garner 1962) was devised precisely for the systematic choosing of courses of action in the face of uncertainty. In order to use information theory, one needs to have stable sources of action (or of messages), an understanding of what could happen, and a reasonably extensive record of what has already happened. Foreign policy and international politics furnish data to these specifications. The data of international relations should prove to be amenable to analysis according to information theory.

All that must be done, then, to enlarge the conventional model of international relations is to regard national states as complex organizations that process incoming information through networks of communication and transmit abroad their reactions in the form of demands and responses. The national states are communication sources, and their demand and response actions generate the messages flowing between states. The units of international relations are the thousands of discrete messages that are exchanged. Only these few reconceptualizations are needed to modify the traditional model of power politics in international relations and to reorient understanding to the terms of reference of communication systems.

It becomes the task of the study of international relations in the communication perspective to trace the flows of communication; to determine the structure and content of these flows through the international system; to measure the intensity, volume, and variety in the messages; and to discover the methods best suited for using information, thus reducing uncertainty, in the making of decisions. The theory of power is translated into the theory of communicative influence (Dahl 1957; Singer 1963). Here are the ingredients for an expanded model of international relations. By bringing international communication into the mainstream of international studies, the researchers of international relations will advance the knowledge of their field and increase the possibilities of prediction and control in the international system.

Charles A. Mcclelland

[See alsoForeign policy; International politics; International relations.]


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