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Ritual Model of Communication
The Ritual Model of communication suggests we communicate, not just to pass information, but more importantly, as a way to maintain our communities. The Ritual Model of Communication suggests that connecting with others is "sometimes" more important than what we might connect about. Updated April 2, 2023

Added By: Francis Roberts

February 24, 2020

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Short Video Highlighting Carey’s view of “Ritual Communication.”

Long Video of Carey’s Views on Communication, Harold Innis, and Marshal McLuhan

Ritual Model of Communication

In order to understand something, it is sometimes helpful to make a model of it.

And, just as the model of the solar system evolved from an earth-centered solar system to a sun-centered solar system when we learned new things, so have models of communication evolved as we have learned new things.

Solar System Models

In the Lesson on the “History of Communication Models” I discuss in more detail the different communication models, we have used over the centuries.

In the Lesson on the “Functions of Communication,” I discuss in detail the 3 Functions of Communication:

  • Transactional (getting something done)
  • Relational (building the network)
  • Entertainment (pleasure).

“Transactional” and “Relational” functions are independent. However, they are more effective if they are done in harmony and rhythm.

Since the physical act of a “Transaction” could help build the “Relationship,” and since having the “Relationship” helps improve the “Transaction,” it makes sense to think of the two as “complementary” and “supplimentary.”

The Entertainment function may include a “Relational” and/or a “Transactional” function, but it doesn’t have to. Sometimes we just want to be entertained without any other function interfering with the entertainment.

The “Intent” of Communication

When we communicate we likely have some “Intention” for the communication.

The most often theorized intention of communication is to achieve a goal – Transactional.

When you go out to dinner and you “communicate” with the waiter, your goal is to get food.  You could ask. You could point. You could write. The channel you use to communicate is much less important than communicating what you want for dinner.

Claude Shannon came up with the math behind this Transactional function in his work on the Transmission Model of Communication.

Another important intention of communication is to build “relationships” – Relational.

Shortly after Shannon published his foundational work, we started to look at the new Mass Communication technologies of radio and television, and we started to notice that there is a lot of communication that does not seem intended to achieve some specific task.

Rather we noticed that there is a lot of Communication that serves just one intention to maintain the relationship between the broadcasters and the audience.

We noticed that this kind of communication is often “ritualized.” James Carey labeled this the Ritual Model of Communication.

The Transactional Model of Communication and the Relationship Model of communication exist in the same way that rhythm, tone, and harmonies work together in a band.

The Ritual Model Of Communication

The ritual model of communication is a communications theory proposed by James W. Carey.

A ritual view of communication holds that we communicate not just to pass information, but more importantly, as a way to connect with others in order to maintain our communities.

The Ritual model of communication suggests that connecting with others is as, or more important, than what we might connect about.

The Ritual model of communication conceives communication as a process that enables and enacts societal transformation.

Carey defines the ritual view, particularly in terms of sharing, participation, association, and fellowship.

In addition, Carey acknowledges that commonness, communion, and community, naturally correspond with the ritual view.

In a similar way, the term “ritual” holds religious connotations.

For Carey, this connection to religion helps to emphasize the concept of shared beliefs and “ceremony” that are fundamental to the ritual view.

In contrast to the ritual view, Carey presents what he considers the more commonly recognized “transmission” view of communication.  The @learning Network uses Shannon as the representative of the Transmission Model.



 Carey’s View of the Transmission and Ritual Models of Communication

From James Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1985.

The Transmission Model of Communication

In the transmission model, the dissemination of information constitutes the primary goal.

Carey defines the transmission model in terms of imparting, sending, transmitting, and giving information to others.

In the transmission model information is exchanged to achieve some goal.

In a restaurant, the goal is to get food.

The diner gives the information of what they want to the server, who gives that information to the cook.

When the food is ready the Cook sends a message to the server to deliver the food.

When the diner gets the food and tastes it, the diner then provides feedback to the server if the goal was achieved.

The transmission view emphasizes the conscious role of agents seeking to influence an individual or an audience.

Hence it highlights the power being exercised by those who create the message upon those who receive it.

In the classical formulation of Harold Lasswell, communication was about “who says what to whom through what channels and with what effect.”

In part, the transmission perspective conceives of communication as a linear, causal process, typically from centralized media producers to distributed audiences, and it abstracts this communication from the broader sets of social institutions and cultural traditions.

In contrast, for Carey a ritual view embeds the communication process in the broader sets of cultural traditions and social relations.

It conceives of the communication rite as part of a broad cultural dialogue that largely reiterates preexisting cultural traditions, a not entirely conscious communal process.

Here communication is a more horizontal process within a community, in contrast to the more vertical relationship in the transmission view.

In the ritual perspective, communication binds the community together across time, while in the transmission view, communication serves to increase the power of those in control over an expanded space.

Where Carey seemingly presents these two views as oppositional, he acknowledges that the dichotomy is false, or more accurately, the distinction is an analytical one.

He states, “neither of these counterpoised views of communication necessarily denies what the other affirms”.

Instead, they offer a nuanced perspective of communication that enables a broader understanding of human interaction.


James W. Carey.

The Transmission View

Two alternative conceptions of communication have been alive in American culture since this term entered common discourse in the nineteenth century.

Both definitions derive, as with much in secular culture, from religious origins, though they refer to somewhat different regions of religious experience.

The transmission view of communication is the commonest in our culture–perhaps in all industrial cultures–and dominates contemporary dictionary entries under the term.

It is defined by terms such as “imparting,” “sending,” “transmitting,” or “giving information to others.”

It is formed from a metaphor for geography, transportation, and commerce.

In the nineteenth century but to a lesser extent today, the movement of goods or people and the movement of information were seen as essentially identical processes and both were described by the common noun “communication.”

The center of this idea of communication is the transmission of signals or messages over a distance for the purpose of control.

It is a view of communication that derives from one of the most ancient of human dreams: the desire to increase the speed and effect of messages as they travel in space…

I said this view originated in religion, though the foregoing sentences seem more indebted to politics, economics, and technology.

Nonetheless, the roots of the transmission view of communication, in our culture at least, lie in essentially religious attitudes…Communication was viewed as a process and technology that would sometimes for religious purposes, spread, transmit, and disseminate knowledge, ideas, and information further and faster with the goal of controlling space and people.

The Ritual View

A ritual view 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.

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, the 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.

Subsuming the Transmission View Within the Ritual

Neither 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.

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 times.

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.