Semantic Environments

Media theorist Neil Postman (1931-2003) said communication happens in semantic environments. This is a useful concept for us to understand how people collaborate meaningfully. Let’s look at what these environments are and how they work.

Many of us think communication is something that happens like a game of table tennis: One person says something, another person listens, processes what has been said, formulates a response in their mind, and then utters the response. This restarts the process: the other person listens, processes, formulates, responds. Back and forth, over and over again.

Instead of being like table tennis, Postman says, communication is something that happens to us, much like growth happens to a plant when it’s exposed to an environment that includes sunlight, water, and nutrients. You can think of those things as the plant’s physical environment, which makes its growth possible.

Communication, too, requires an environment that has particular features. They include the social relations between the actors that participate in the communication, their goals in the interaction, and the particular vocabulary they use in that situation. Postman calls this set of conditions the semantic environment the conversation happens within.

Think of the differences between science and religion. We participate in either to pursue different goals (furthering understanding in the case of science, spiritual development in the case of religion), using different social constructs (the priesthood/layperson hierarchy in the case of religion, the peer review process in the case of science), and specialized vocabulary (the language of prayer and scripture in the case of religion, the narrow taxonomy of the area of scientific inquiry we’re dealing with). Science and religion are two areas of human interaction which create and employ different semantic environments.

For us to understand what’s going on in any situation – for the communication to make sense — we must abide by the norms of the semantic environment we’re acting within. Attempting to use a religious approach and language while performing scientific research would result in bad science (and vice-versa.) The semantic environment of science allows us to use language to effectively pursue the goals of science by constraining us to a particular context. Our agreement to abide by these constraints is what makes it possible for meaningful communication to happen in this context, and for science to happen at all.

Semantic environments can have sub-environments, with vocabularies, goals, and social structures of their own. For example, in the Catholic Church — which is a particular semantic environment — has a sub-environment called the confessionary, in which the faithful meet in private with a priest to confess their sins to a priest. That is the goal of the interaction.

The effectiveness of the speech act that happens in this context requires particular conditions. For example, it must be done in private. It also assumes an unequal power relationship between the priest and the confessor. (Among other things, the priest wears particular clothes to emphasize the difference in his status from the lay person’s.)

The act of confession also requires the use of specialized language. For example, the priest may say, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The verb absolve has a particular technical meaning in this context that has import to both parties in the communication. So do the words sin, Father, Son, and Spirit.

Both people participating in the environment must agree on all three things — goals, social structures, and technical language — for the speech act to be meaningful. Think of how much less effective confession would be if it were being conducted with microphones in front of a crowd, or if the priest was dressed in skateboarding shorts, or if instead of “I absolve you from your sins” he would say something like, “We’re cool, man. Get outta here.”

That’s not to say it’s not possible to confess your sins in such a different context. In fact, other religions have different mechanisms to accomplish similar goals. However, those mechanisms would not be meaningful to a Catholic practitioner. The confessionary creates a particular context that enables a meaningful interaction between Catholics. This context is not just physical: it includes intangible elements which must be learned if the people who participate in the interaction are to derive meaning from it.

As you go about your day, think about your interactions with others. Look at your communications through this lens. How much meaning is riding on shared vocabulary? How did you discover the rules that constrain your scope of action? Are hierarchical roles between you implicit or explicit? Are there aspects of the semantic environment that are ambiguous or somehow being compromised? As designers of information environments, it behooves us to understand how people transmit meaning. The semantic environment framework can help us do so.