Communication Forms and Communicative Practices

New Perspectives on Communication Forms, Affordances and What Users Make of Them

by Alexander Brock (Volume editor) Peter Schildhauer (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 210 Pages


This volume reflects the discussion that emerged around the controversial concepts «communication form», «communicative practice», «medium» and «genre». It provides a comprehensive overview of the history and current state-of-affairs of these concepts, and combines theoretical contributions from various perspectives with thorough empirical studies of current communication forms, media, and practices. The contributions deal with fields ranging from public signage in cities, video games and self-tracking to historical accounts of changing communicative potentials and practices concerning the «National Geographic Magazine» and the personal blog. Due to its interdisciplinary character, the volume points out various new directions for future research.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Table of Contents
  • Theoretical and Methodological Considerations
  • Communication Form: A Concept Revisited (Alexander Brock / Peter Schildhauer)
  • Media Linguistics and Media Studies – Communication Forms and Their Infrastructures (Matthias Meiler)
  • From the Space/Place-issue to Mediatization: On the Potential of the Concept of Communication Forms (Christine Domke)
  • Communication Forms and Communicative Practices
  • “pentakill inc” – A Case Study of Shortening Processes in Ludolects (Frederic Zähres)
  • “Looks like you wiped us” – Communication in MMORPGs: A Hybrid with New Challenges and Motivations (Birgit Swoboda)
  • „Der Gläserne Mensch“ 2.0? Self-Tracking and the Quantified Self Movement as New Communicative Practices (Ina Batzke)
  • Communication Forms and Their Use from a Diachronic Perspective
  • Changing Potentials and their Use: The Case of Blogs (Peter Schildhauer)
  • Changing Potentials and Their Use: The Case of Popular Science Journalism (Jana Pflaeging)

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Theoretical and Methodological Considerations

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Alexander Brock & Peter Schildhauer

Communication Form: A Concept Revisited

Abstract The article starts with a short review of the history and conceptualisation of the terms medium, genre and communication form. For the last of these concepts, two main readings are identified: a) communication form as (grouping of) genre(s), and b) communication form as a constellation of communicative potentials. Mainly based on reading b), we then develop a definition of communication form as human-made clusters of technical and communicative constellations with communicative potentials, which are commonly restricted by conventions. This definition is exemplified with the constellations of using pencil and paper for written communication, Twitter communication and public speechmaking.

1. Introduction

Digital tools of communication are pervasive in our everyday lives. We use smart phones for writing e-mails and text messages, tweeting, reading newspapers, and, of course, making phone calls. Indeed, today’s adolescents will hardly remember a time when phones were primarily used for calling people. To them – the digital natives (Prensky 2001) –, it is natural to use digital tools for a wide range of communicative practices.

These developments stirred linguistics as a discipline as well: From the mid-1990ies onwards, research began to focus on language use in various digital environments such as chat, websites, e-mail, and others (see Heyd 2009: 245 for a summary). From researching and comparing language use in various digital environments it was only a small step to asking more generally about how the tools we use for communicating influence communicative practices (and vice versa). This was when linguistics (re)discovered the mediality of language (Holly & Püschel 2007: 148; see also Domke 2013: 102) – and opened a Pandora’s Box containing various concepts such as medium, genre, communicative practice, communication form and others.

All of these terms divide the academic field in various ways. All of them are also polysemous. Additionally, there are several overlaps among them. Even though a new sub-discipline media linguistics has established itself in German Applied Linguistics, some of its main proponents still debate the scope of the central term medium in an attempt to clarify the subject-matter of the discipline (see Luginbühl 2015). Besides the term medium, the trias medium – communication form – genre has become the centre both of debate and media linguistic analysis. ← 13 | 14 →

This article attempts to do two things: In a first step, we revisit what has been said about these concepts in order to point out possibly problematic aspects and outline our points of departure for the second step, in which we propose a consistent model that assigns an appropriate place to every element of the trias and sharpens the concepts for media linguistic analysis.1 Our model rests heavily on previous definitions and discussions, so that our contribution mainly lies in selecting those elements of existing conceptualisations which we consider best suited for an adequate description of technical, medial and situational factors of communication, particularly in the light of recent developments of the New Media.

2. Medium

As long as 30 years ago, Posner (1986) lamented the abundance of different senses of the term medium. As a first step, he suggested to keep apart the following readings of the term (Posner 1986: 293–296).2

Table 1: Media Concepts Following Posner (1986, translation and examples AB/PS)

Reading Examples Definition
biological voice body organs contributing to the production, distribution and reception of signs
physical acoustic media: substances (solid, fluid, gas) that are able to transmit acoustic waves chemical elements and their forms of existence as needed to establish a connection between organs of production and reception
technological print media, digital media tools and material for the transmission of signs
sociological theatre, opera, publishing houses social institutions organising biological, physical, and technical means of sign transmission
culture-related popular music, news, reports, narratives purposeful messages in re-occurring forms, close to genre
code-related phoneme systems, various writing systems (syllabic vs. alphabetic, etc.) sign systems and their inherent rules ← 14 | 15 →

Traditionally, media linguists have adopted a technological understanding of medium. Holly (1997: 69–70), for instance, defines media as specific material tools with which signs can be amplified, produced, stored and / or transmitted.3 Pen and paper fall under this definition as well as the printing press and the computer. Bittner (2003: 289–290) is an example for a rather widespread view4 of the relationship between media, understood in a technological way, and communication forms: He states that media are characterised by the sign systems employed as well as the modes of interaction for which they allow. On this basis, then, communication forms establish themselves which use these possibilities in various ways. The computer as a medium, for instance, can process binary code and therefore all kinds of digital data. In terms of interaction modes, it allows for mono-, bi- and multi-directionality, both synchronous and asynchronous. Communication forms established in this medium are, for instance, chat and e-mail (Bittner 2003: 290–291).

Even though the human voice and ears are also tools for communication, Posner’s biological media are usually not regarded as media by other authors (Luginbühl 2015: 12). Dürscheid (2005: 14), for instance, argues that media allow for distance communication and, therefore, explicitly states that face-to-face communication does not need a medium. Holly (1997: 65–68) similarly sketches a model of media history whose first stage is the development of tools that amplify signs produced by the body, or ease their reception (such as stages and glasses).

Recently, Luginbühl (2015) has argued against a technological conceptualisation of the medium. He points out that “the concept of the medium has various interconnected aspects that are relevant for media linguistics” (Luginbühl 2015: 15). Besides the technical aspect traditionally focused on, Luginbühl stresses

(1) a semiotic aspect of media because the choice of media as tools always influences what sign systems can be used and how they are processed; media leave their traces in the texts which they are applied to produce (Krämer 2008).

(2) a pragmatic aspect dealing with the way media and the potentials they offer are typically used in a certain social group – and how these uses in turn influence the media themselves. ← 15 | 16 →

Thereby, Luginbühl fuses the technological, culture-related and code-related readings of the term medium pointed out in Table 1.

Alongside the conceptualisations mentioned so far, whose main interest is the role of media in the communication process, a sociological reading has long been present, at least implicitly. When we talk about the mass media (e.g. Burger & Luginbühl 2014), we often denote a certain social sphere, an institution, in which actors follow a common set of social patterns, norms and rules. Thus, Kammer (2013) defines the media as

Recently, this sociological reading has gained ground in media linguistic studies which investigate processes of mediatization as the “proliferation of media communication in all areas of social life” (Androutsopoulos 2014: 10).

As this article attempts to gain the highest possible degree of terminological clarity, we will use the technological reading of the term medium in the chapters to follow, and leave the broader conceptualisations aside for the moment.

3. Genre

The term genre “has made remarkable ascent in linguistic theories in the past 20 years” (Heyd 2008: 191). To begin with,6 we would like to consider a reading that has established itself in recent English publications.7 This reading roughly corresponds to the German term Textsorte as “groups of text, which, to a varying extent, share features on a number of heterogeneous dimensions” (Schildhauer 2016: 24).8 These dimensions have been defined in various ways (see Schildhauer ← 16 | 17 → 2016: 30–38 for a summary); essentially, genres seem to incorporate aspects of multimodal structure (e.g., language and image use), communicative situation (typical participant frameworks, communicative sphere and others), and function.

Since Miller’s influential article “Genre as Social Action”, genres have been seen as categories of everyday life that also acquire certain labels in a specific community. For instance, members of the academia differentiate genres such as call for papers, conference panel proposal, and abstract, which are rather unfamiliar to members of other social spheres. Therefore, genres have also been defined as “intersubjective mental pattern[s] of knowledge” (Brock 2013: 62) that constitute cognitive devices which ease both text production and reception (see, e.g., Karlgren 2011; Lomborg 2014: 3; Santini et al. 2011: 4).

This aspect, genres as schemata for text production, is usually excluded from the German concept of Textsorte, which refers to groupings of texts and their co-occuring features only (e.g., by Heinemann 2000b: 518–519; Sandig 2006: 488; Luginbühl 2014: 31). The schema aspect has been captured by the term Textmuster, to which we will henceforth refer as genre pattern(s).9 While Schildhauer (2014: 21–22) argues that the distinction between Textsorte (genre) and Textmuster (genre pattern) is not entirely necessary for media linguistic analysis, we would like to keep the distinction here, for reasons to be outlined in Section 5 below.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (March)
Medium Communicative Potential Genre Convention Language History
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 210 pp., 26 b/w ill., 1 coloured ill., 15 tables

Biographical notes

Alexander Brock (Volume editor) Peter Schildhauer (Volume editor)

Alexander Brock is a Professor for Linguistics at the English Department of Halle University. His research interests include text linguistics, pragmatics, humour studies and media linguistics. Peter Schildhauer gained his PhD with a study on the history of personal blogs and works as a Lecturer in English Linguistics/TEFL at Bielefeld University.


Title: Communication Forms and Communicative Practices