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Ritual Model of Communication
The Ritual Model of communication suggests we communicate as a way to maintain our communities, not just to pass information. The thinking suggests that connecting with others is "sometimes" more important than what we might connect about. Updated Dec. 2023

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Francis Roberts

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February 24, 2020

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This lesson on the Ritual Model of Communication describes the thinking from James Carey and applies it to our 21st Century Hyper-Connected Digital World.

Ritual Model of Communication

In order to understand something, it’s sometimes helpful to make a model of it. And it is helpful to understand how the models evolve over time.

The models of the solar system are a great example. They started as earth-centered models. But, as new information are discovered the models evolved to a sun-centered solar system.

Solar System Models


And, just as models of the solar system have evolved based on new understandings, so have communication models.

The Ritual View

A ritual model of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs.

If the archetypal case of communication under a transmission view is the extension of messages across geography for the purpose of control, the archetypal case under a ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality.

The indebtedness of the ritual view of communication to religion is apparent in the name chosen to label it. Moreover, it derives from a view of religion that downplays the role of the sermon, the instruction, and admonition, in order to highlight the role of the prater, the chant, and the ceremony. It sees the original or highest manifestation of communication not in the transmission of intelligent information but in the construction and maintenance of an ordered, meaningful cultural world that can serve as a control and container for human action…..(18-19)

…If one examines a newspaper under a transmission view of communication, one sees the medium as an instrument for disseminating news and knowledge…in larger and larger packages over greater distances. Questions arise as to the effects of this on audiences: news as enlightening or obscuring reality, as changing or hardening attitudes, as breeding credibility or doubt.

A ritual view of communication will focus on a different range of problems in examining a newspaper. It will, for example, view reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed. News reading, and writing, is a ritual act and moreover a dramatic one. What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of the contending forces in the world. Moreover, as readers make their way through the paper, they engage in a continual shift of roles or of dramatic focus.

…Under a ritual view, then, news is not information but drama. It does not describe the world but portrays an arena of dramatic focus and action; it exists solely in historical time; and it invites our participation on the basis of our assuming, often vicariously, social roles within it. (20-21)


The Two Views and a Third: Communication as Symbolic CultureNeither of these counterposed views of communication necessarily denies what the other affirms. A ritual view does not exclude the processes of information transmission or attitude change. It merely contends that one cannot understand these processes aright except insofar as they are cast within an essentially ritualistic view of communication and social order…. …[But from such ideas] one can draw a definition of communication of disarming simplicity yet, I think, of some intellectual power and scope: communication is a symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed…(21-23)

To study communication is to examine the actual social process wherein significant symbolic forms are created, apprehended, and used….Our attempts to construct, maintain, repair, and transform reality are publicly observable activities that occur in historical time. We create, express, and convey our knowledge of and attitudes toward reality through the construction of a variety of symbol systems: art, science, journalism, religion, common sense, and mythology. How do we do this? What are the differences between these forms? What are the historical and comparative variations in them? How do changes in communication technology influence what we can concretely create and apprehend? How do groups in society struggle over the definition of what is real? These are some of the questions, rather too simply put, that communication studies must answer.

Two Views of Communication: Transmission & Ritual(Opens in a new browser tab)

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