On the Ecology of Communications

Ann Stow
3 min readJun 15, 2021

…. & why reductionism isn’t working

Context is Crown Prince

I’ll make no apologies for this being a rather more academic musing, bear with it, I think there’s something in this. 

I’ve been pondering about communication. It’s everywhere, isn’t it? It’s even there when it isn’t… From individuals through organisations, Governments and society; whether it is face to face, on-line, phone, print, art, music, interpretive dance…

what we say, do, don’t say, or don’t do,

all communicate something to someone.

Communication is often thought about in terms of technology, or people, and occasionally both, but rarely considers context. Context is key.

Thinking about this I have found Altheide’s concept of the ‘ecology of communications’ particularly fascinating and useful, as it draws together the social, discursive and technological elements of communication, crucially considering the mutually influential bonds between them. This may not be new in Theory; but it is quite new in practice, it shouldn’t be, but it is.

This is powerful thinking, developing “a holistic approach to understanding the dynamic interrelationships between social dimensions, discourse and communications technology in both physical and digital environments” (italics in original). Communicative ecological theory considers the ‘communicative system’ of interactions; accounting for IT, communications formats and social activities, while considering the population’s social, political and physical environment which define their own experience.

This thinking links with the Sociological theory of Symbolic Interactionism, which considers the development of shared meaning in context, this also accounts for the use and relevance of symbols and their relevance to sense making. There is also resonance with Moscovici’s notion of Social Representations, from 1961, which expresses the dissemination of ideas through talk and text as how society comes to think about things. The language and lexicon we settle with on a topic sets the tone for the societal response, historical record keeping & opinion. What’s changed? Dissemination got broader and quicker. We’re looking back 60 years, at theories which translate into today’s environment.

Of course, there is increasingly a technological contribution to social activities and interaction processes, which also impacts on language and lexicon used on different platforms, between organisations and groups — ask any parent of teenage children, right? This language can be used to exclude or create belonging, old groups falter & new groups emerge, creating their own cultural and ethical framework and social norms within their group and environmental context.

It is interesting that this can provide us with an insight of how social norms develop, how groups cohere and fissure and how technology in context facilitates evolutionary practice. This occurs at a pace that has become the norm. Thinking about how this dynamically evolves can provide an insight into rapidly emerging social groups, escalating conflict, and could help to develop dynamic interventions. So, this way of thinking about, observing and understanding communication can provide both social, organisational, governmental and international insights. Providing knowledge about the ecology of communication, and insight into the dynamic interrelationships within the communicative system.

Systems thinkers also investigate at the level of dynamic interrelationships, rather than static patterns. far more accurate and interesting as an interpretation of a situation / challenge and helps make better decisions, because you’re looking across the different angles. But it’s messy.

I believe the messiness gives this approach its power; it makes people think beyond quantification. Our fixation with numbers, percentages, more or less, has driven a business, governmental and societal environment which has lost sight of the nuance. Reality. Messiness.

This messiness has value. From a social psychological perspective developing an understanding of the dynamic interrelationships has implications for driving conversations, changing identities, building affiliations and identifying / preventing / stimulating fracture in individuals, groups and social networks. It can be used to inform, to persuade, to dissuade, to influence. This can be a positive or negative influence, depending on the context (and the user). Those who pay attention to the nuance, to the detail & the inter-dependencies, have an advantage.

Be reductionist at your peril.

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Ann Stow

Passionate about making organisations more human - one conversation at a time.