II. Paradigms of communication

After the introduction into Sustainability as issue field, research area and field of practice and just before we talk further about the potential of communicating of, about CSR and for sustainability in part III, this chapter is about how (much) sustainable development as narrative of the future challenges existing approaches to communication.

We will clarify the basic paradigms to look at our society and the role of communication from a social science perspective, and we will try to get to a definition of ‘communication’ and, particularly, ‘strategic communication’.

The lady…

Are you a communication professional, I asked the lady with the flower-dress and the big smile on her face? Well, she replied, aren’t we all communication experts? We communicate intentionally to convince our kids to make good choices and we create our own narratives that help us to harmonize dissonances that occur as soon as we book flights or buy an avocado. True that, I said. But then communication sees to go deeper than just a sender sending a message to a receiver. True that, the lady answered. It depends on your basic idea and understanding of communication, the paradigm behind it.

Communication in its origin means to share, and thus, the act of sharing meanings from one person, group or entity to another through the use of mutually understood symbols, associations or social representations, wrapped in semiotic rules and signs. The transfer of information and/or a certain message sits at the core of most of the definitions of communication. Processes labelled as encoding and decoding as well as interpretation and related sense- and meaning-making processes go beyond this core definition. They are included in a wider and rather critical understanding of communication.

Thus, before we start to better understand the two paradigms, we have to remind ourselves of the core idea of the book: that communication plays a key role in building an understanding of sustainability as principle of restoration and transformation and that at the same time sustainability is used (and sometimes abused) as meta-narrative by corporations or political institutions. But only with the understanding of the two paradigms of communication, the four dimensions of Sustainability Communication – about, of and for and last but not least: sustainable communication – can be developed and theoretically substantiated and supported.

Thus, this chapter:

  • offers you a quick introduction to the main paradigms of communication (pragmatism/functionalism and social constructivism/critical perspectives) (II.1.),
  • tells you about how one of the paradigms (functionalism/pragmatism) dominates strategic and therefore corporate communication – and about how corporate communication stimulates public awareness regarding organizational responsibility and sustainability (II.2.).
  • This chapter also offers some insights into the status quo of research in the areas of CSR Communication (II.3.) and Sustainability Communication (II.4.).


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CSR Communication and Cultures of Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by The University of Queensland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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