4 Key Principles | Osgood-Schramm Model of Communication (2019)

the principles of the osgood-schramm model of communication

The Osgood-Schramm model of communication is a communication theory. It explains how we communicate with one another, mainly though speech, writing and discourse. It emphasizes four key principles:

  1. That communication is circular, not linear. The listener can both receive and send messages (in most instances).
  2. That communication is usually equal and reciprocal
  3. That there is a lot of interpretation involved when receiving a message
  4. That all communication requires three steps: encoding, decoding and interpreting a message.

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Definition of the Osgood-Schramm Model of Communication

Definition: The Osgood-Schramm model is a circular model of communication that shows how communication happens in two directions. We tend to both receive and send messages when communicating with others. It proposes three steps for communicating: encoding, decoding and interpreting.

How does the Circular Model Work?

diagram of schramm's model of communication

Principle 1: Circular Communication

The image above shows how the Osgood-Schramm model works. It involves circular communication between two people. Each person is both a sender and a receiver. They are therefore able to communicate to one another, rather than only in one direction.

This circular feature of the model is very different from other liner models of the time like the Shannon-Weaver model or Lasswell’s model of communication.

When critiquing linear or ‘transmission’ models such as the Shannon-Weaver model, Schramm argued:

“In fact it is misleading to think of the communication process as starting somewhere and ending somewhere. It is really endless. We are really switchboard centers handling and re-routing the great endless current of information.” (Schramm, 1955)

Principle 2: Communication involves Interpretation

Schramm was insistent that communication is not simply the passing of a packet of information from a sender to a receiver. Instead, he saw that messages must be interpreted in order for them to be understood.

In the process of interpretation, however, a lot of meaning can be lost. We call the lost or misinterpretation of information “semantic noise” caused by “semantic barriers”. Semantic barriers are specifically the values, beliefs and background knowledge that impact how someone sends and how someone receives messages.

As two-way communication keeps on going in its circular pattern, the semantic noise is ideally reduced because the two communicators can come to shared meaning and give one another further clarification on what they actually mean.

Note: Some people call semantic noise a weakness of this model. However, this model simply shows that semantic noise is possible – so it’s not a weakness. If anything, it’s good that the authors have shown us what it is and how it works.

Principle 3: Communication requires Encoding, Decoding and Interpreting

You can see in the image above that each actor in the communication sequence has three roles: encoding, decoding and interpreting.

Here’s how each step works:

  • Encoding: When we want to send a message, we need to think about how to craft it to get our message across clearly. We need to think of the right words to say and in what order we should send our messages to communicate our ideas to the message receiver.
  • Decoding: When we receive a message, we need to decode it. A message may be packaged as text, image, advertisement, speech, etc. When receiving a message, we need to use our reading skills, listening skills, etc. to decode the message so it makes sense to us. Sometimes someone may ‘mishear’ or ‘misread’ a message (perhaps if it were mumbled or written by someone who is not a native speaker), which will interfere with their interpretation.
  • Interpreting: Now that we understand the medium of communication, we can go about interpreting the message. What does it mean to you? One person may interpret the message in a totally different way to someone else. Or, they may not understand it the same way as the encoder, meaning they have ‘misinterpreted’ the text.

Once someone has decoded and interpreted a message, they can then go about encoding their own message to send back to the original sender. They would in turn go about decoding and interpreting. The cycle continues!

Principle 4: Equal and Reciprocal Communication

Because both members of the communication have the capacity to encode, decode and interpret, this model views the two members of the conversation as equal participants. This model therefore works very well to understand a face-to-face conversation or text message exchange, for example, where both members of the conversation will have a back-and-forth discussion.

This equal communication model is very different to many others, which see communication as a one-way street where people take the role of either ‘sender’ or ‘receiver’. By contrast, Schramm’s model sees the participants as both sender and receiver of messages.

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What are the Pros and Cons of the Osgood-Schramm Model?

Benefits / Strengths in the Osgood-Schramm Model

  • Shows how feedback can work: This model works well for explaining cyclical feedback. Other models see communication as being a one-way street, which fail to account for feedback and dialogue. In this model, the speaker can get feedback about their language, jokes, choice of words, etc. so they can try to communicate more and more clearly as the cycle continues.
  • Recognizes that communication is complex: By accounting for encoding, decoding and interpretation, this model shows how sometimes we can mishear and misinterpret information.
  • Sees us as active communicators: While other models see people receiving information as passive recipients, this one shows how we’re active in interpreting information we receive.

Disadvantages / Weaknesses in the Osgood-Schramm Model

  • Doesn’t recognize that communication can be unequal: There are many circumstance where communication may involve one authority figure talking and one (or many) listeners trying to interpret the message. In such instances, communication is much less equal than in Schramm’s model. Therefore, this model doesn’t tend to work in situations where power balances exist. In fact, this model does a poor job overall of understanding how power functions in communication.
  • Doesn’t work for mass communication: This is another time communication is unequal. One person communicating to many looks very different to the circular one-to-one model proposed in the Osgood-Schramm approach (for a more appropriate approach for mass media, try the Westley-Mclean model or Lasswell’s model of Communication).

When was this Ciruclar Model Developed?

Wilbur Schramm developed the model in 1954 – quite some time ago! He built the model as a response to (and indeed as a rejection of) Shannon and Weaver’s one-way transmissionist model.

Great Quotes for your Essay

Okay, I know what my readers want. You want someone to explain concepts to you clearly. Then you want quotes and academic citations that you can use in your own essay! Well, you’ve got it:

(P.S. Watch my video below or read here for tips on on how to use quotes in an essay effectively)

  • “The Osgood-Schramm model reminds us that the communication of information is never a simple one-dimensional process whereby the message is encoded, transmitted and decoded as intended.” (McCabe, 2009, p. 27)
  • This model “…showed that the receiver as well as the sender is engaged in a continuous and active act of communication.” (Theaker, 2004, p. 22)
  • “The emergence of this approach meant a clear break with the traditional linear / one-way picture of communication.” (Mcquail & Windhall, 2015, p. 20)
  • “The model is especially useful in describing interpersonal communication but is less suitable for cases without, or with little, feedback.” (Mcquail & Windhall, 2015, p. 20)
  • “The circular nature of the model shows that individuals change roles as they decode the message and by the process of interpretation then recode the message to pass on to another individual.” (McCabe, 2009, p. 27)
  • “A possible point of criticism of this model would lie in the argument that the model conveys a feeling of equality in communication. Very often communication is, on the contrary, fairly unbalanced as far as communication resources, power, and time given to communicate are concerned.” (Mcquail & Windhall, 2015, p. 20)

Tip: You can use the Google Books Previews function to view each of these authors’ explanations of the model. E.g. view Mcquail and Windhall’s book preview here.

Cite these Sources for your Essay

Remember that scholarly sources should be cited when writing an essay. Use the following APA style citations. If you need to change it to another style, get advice on our page on how to reference in an essay.

McCabe, S. (2009). Marketing Communications in Tourism and Hospitality: Concepts, Strategies and Cases. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Mcquail, D. & Windhall, S. (2015). Communication Models for the Study of Mass Communications. London: Routledge.

Schramm, W. (1955). How communication works. In: Schramm, W. (Ed.). Process and Effects of Mass Communication. Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Theaker, A. (2004). The Public Relations Handbook. (2nd Ed.) Oxfordshire: Routledge.

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Chris Drew, PhD (aka The Helpful Professor)

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