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A Survey of Scientific Communication Theory

Charles Pavitt

This detailed survey of present-day scientific communication theory rejects the outmoded «levels» organizational scheme in favor of a system based on the underlying model and fundamental explanatory principle each theory presupposes. In doing so it shows the fundamental similarities among all communication-relevant contexts. Most theories included in the book are causal in nature, derived from one of three underlying models: message production, message reception, or interactive. A few theories take on a functional form, sometimes in dialectic or systemic versions. An introductory chapter describes what is meant by scientific explanation, how that concept is instantiated in scientific communication theory, and delineates the three causal models prevalent in these theories. A useful resource for scholars, this book is suitable for graduate and advanced undergraduate courses in communication theory.
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Chapter 10 Functional Theories


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The Concept of Function

The vast majority of scientific communication theories, as summarized in the previous eight chapters, employ causal processes at the foundation of their explanations. There are, in contrast, a small set of communication theories that utilize a fundamentally different form, the functional explanation. A functional explanation for a given phenomenon is concerned with the part the phenomenon performs in the well-being of some system or the achievement of some goal. Consistent with this description is Achinstein’s (1983) distinction between two general conceptions of what counts as a function. In what Achinstein called the good-consequences doctrine, something performs a function in the context of a system if that something performing that function results in some good consequence either for the system or for something associated with the system. Achinstein’s example is the function of the heart, which is to pump blood around the bodies of animals. The heart performing this function has obvious good consequences to the animal. Achinstein contrasts that example with the consequence of the poison ivy reaction, which is to make the skin itch uncomfortably. As no good consequence emerges ← 313 | 314 → from this reaction, it would not be described as performing any discernible function.

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