Westley and Maclean Model of Communication (9 Key Elements)

westley and maclean communication model

The Westley and Maclean model of communication is a framework for understanding how we communicate.

Features of the model include:

  1. It believes the communication process doesn’t start at the message sender. Rather, it starts with environmental factors that influence the sender.
  2. It can account for both interpersonal and mass communication.
  3. It also acknowledges the role of feedback in communication.

Quick Definition

The Westley and Maclean model of communication explains how communication takes. It can explain the communication process for both interpersonal and mass communication. It is best known for its recognition of the influence of environmental factors and subjectivity in communication. Communication is seen to start with environmental factors which influence someone to speak.

The 9 Key Elements of the Model

westley and maclean model of communication diagram

The 9 key elements are listed below:

1. Environment (X)

Communication starts with the environment around the speaker. Some stimulus in the environment will motivate the person to create a message and send it out.

Environmental factors that impact a message could include:

  • How the wider media talks about a topic.
  • The culture or society in which you live.
  • Where you are when you send the message (private space, public space, etc.).

This is one of the key defining features of the Westley & Maclean model. Most other models have the communication process starting with the sender. However, this model believes that the communication process starting with the environment.

Acknowledgement of the presence of the environment in communication helps us to focus on the social and cultural contexts that influence the ways we communicate and the messages we receive.

2. Sensory Experiences (XI)

The speaker experiences something in their environment in some way or another, which motivates them to send their message.

The speaker may receive the initial stimulus by: 

  • Watching television.
  • Hearing something from a friend.
  • Learning about something at work.

The way we experience the environmental stimulus may impact how we send our message (see: “object of orientation of the source” below). If our experience is a positive one, we might create a positive message about our idea. If our sensory experience is negative, it is likely that our message will be critical of the idea.

3. Source (A)

The source is the person who sends the message. A message sender may by a person talking one-to-one with their friend (interpersonal communication). They may also be a newscaster sending a message to millions of people (mass communication). The Westley-Maclean model accounts for both mass and interpersonal communication.

Examples of sources include:

  • Social media influencers, Instagrammers, Bloggers, etc.
  • Teachers sending a message to their students.
  • Newscasters on television or the radio.
  • A single person talking to their friend.
  • Someone who decides to send a text message (A) after experiencing something (XI) in their environment (X).

4. Object of Orientation of the Source (X2)

The object of orientation of the source is the subjective beliefs or experiences of the person sending the message. All of us approach and interpret information with our own cultural or social perspectives. These will impact how we send a message.

Objects of orientation include:

  • A feminist (A), who is concerned with how women are represented in the environment (XI) which impacts how she sends her message.
  • A right-wing newspaper host (A), whose orientation is to critique government interference in our lives (XI).

5. Receiver

The receiver is the person who gets the message.

Examples of the receiver include:

  • A person watching TV receives a message from their television.
  • A person listening to another person in a one-to-one conversation.
  • Someone eavesdropping on another conversation while on a train.

6. Object of Orientation of the Receiver (X3)

The object of orientation of the receiver is the subjective beliefs or experiences of the person receiving the message. The receiver will decode a message using their own personal perspectives.

Examples of objects of orientation of the receiver include:

  • A critical thinker, who is skeptical of the messages they see on TV.
  • A student, who is ‘oriented’ toward believing their teacher because they see the teacher as an authority on the topic.

7. Feedback

The Westley-Maclean model sees feedback loops as important for influencing how messages are sent. This makes this model a circular model (like the Helical Model, Shannon-Weaver and Osgood-Schramm models) rather than a linear model (such as the Lasswell model)

Feedback loops involve having the receiver and gatekeeper (see below) sending messages back to the message sender. This may stimulate the message sender to create a new message that has been refined based on the feedback sent.

8. Gatekeepers

Gatekeepers are more common in mass communication than interpersonal communication. They are the editors of messages before they are passed on to the receiver.

Examples of gatekeepers include:

  • A newspaper editor who makes sure the grammar and spelling are accurate.
  • A television executive who insists stories have a particular political bias.

Some more modern forms of mass communication or ‘new media’ such as blogs and vlogs do not have gatekeepers. This allows information to pass through to the receiver without being filtered.

9. Opinion Leaders

Westley and Maclean believe one key person in the mass communication process is an opinion leader. This person may have an oversized influence as an environmental factor (X) upon the message sender (A).

Examples of opinion leaders include:

  • Politicians who are heads of large political parties.
  • Celebrities who have large followings of fans.
  • Social media influencers.

Explanation of How the Model Works

The Westley and Maclean model of communication believes a communication event begins when an environmental factor stimulates a person to create a message. They may hear or see something that they feel they need to talk about.

Once the environmental factor kicks-off the communication process, the message is formed by the sender. The sender creates a message that is influenced by how they interpret the message (their sensory experience) as well as their own subjective opinions on the matter (their object of orientation).

Once the message is sent, it may pass through a gatekeeper such as an editor before it is approved for sending through to the receiver. The gatekeeper may send the message back to the sender with feedback to ask them to change the message. Gatekeepers are more common within traditional mass communication (such as newspaper editors) than new media such as blogs, which anyone can write!

The receiver will get the message, but must decode it. Their decoding will involve applying their own subjective interpretation of the message (aka the receiver’s object of orientation). The receiver may send feedback to the sender, which could spark another round of communication.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Westley & MacLean Model of Communication

Advantages

  • It believes the communication process doesn’t start at the message sender. Rather, it starts with environmental factors that influence the sender.
  • It acknowledges the role of subjectivity (personal bias) in message encoding and decoding.
  • It acknowledges the role of social and cultural factors in influencing messages.
  • It can account for both interpersonal and mass communication.
  • It also acknowledges the role of feedback in communication.

Disadvantages

  • It places more emphasis on the message sender than message feedback. A more balanced perspective of feedback loops is presented in the Osgood-Schramm model.
  • The ‘gatekeeper’ step may be a little outdated in a time of new media where anyone can create texts that can be communicated via the internet en masse.
  • The model does not account for noise (changes to the message during communication). See the Shannon-Weaver model for a good account of noise in communication
  • The model also does not have much to say about the channel of communication. Again, see Shannon-Weaver model for a better example of discussion of channels of communication.
  • Other models like Dance’s Helical Model do a much better job at representing communication complexity as people develop deeper knowledge about a topic.

Final Thoughts

The biggest strength of the Westley and Maclean communication model is its acknowledgement of environmental factors and subjective interpretations in communication. This enables us to examine how and why a message is shaped the way it is.

However, the model is vague on discussions of noise and feedback which (while acknowledged) is not as clearly put forward as other models such as the Sannon-Weaver model.

References

Lacy, S. (1989). The Westley-MacLean Model Revisited: An Extension of a Conceptual Model for Communication Research.  Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Washington, DC: ERIC.

Manca, L. (2015). A hypothesis about the role of gateopener in the Westley-MacLean model. In: Manca, L. & Kauth, J. (Eds.). Interdisciplinary essays on environment and culture: one planet, one humanity, and the media. (pp. 69 – 82). New York: Lexington Books.

McQuail, D., & Windahl, S. (2015). Communication models for the study of mass communications. London: Routledge.

Westley, B. H., & MacLean, M. S. (1955). A conceptual model for communications research. Educational Technology Research and Development, 3(1), 3-12.

Westley, B. H., & MacLean, M. S. (1957). A conceptual model for communications research. Journalism Quarterly, 34(1), 31-38.

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