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The Communications Circuit and The Gift Economy

Rod Munday | Tuesday May 05, 2009

Categories: Other Topics, Social Networking, Communications

Writing about transnational migration, Roger Rouse (1991) proposed a useful framework for understanding the role that communication plays in the maintenance of a social network. Rouse likens the sending and receiving of messages to a communications circuit. In the past, families and communities who were geographically separated have kept in touch by letter or by phone or by post. Each time two people communicate a circuit is opened and the circuit remains open for a long time after the conversation has finished, both as a trace of that communication event and as a sign that the people are still close enough to be ‘in touch.’ The actual information sent plays a relatively small part in this transaction. The main function of a postcard or a phone call is just to say hello so that the bonds of closeness between two parties can be maintained (quoted in Lange 2007).

According to Rouse, the communication circuit is switched on by the mere act of contacting another person. This emphasis of contact over the sending and receiving of information draws upon one of the meanings of word communication discussed by Raymond Williams  (1976, 65), which is to ‘commune’ or share feelings. The Russian linguist Roman Jakoson terms this aspect, phatic communication.

The phatic function is to keep the channels of communication open; it is
to maintain the relationship between addresser and addressee: it is to
confirm that communication is taking place. It is thus orientated towards
the contact factor (Fisk 1990, 36)

In the section on offline social networking, I mentioned that one of the problems of studying social networks is that the links connecting people in a social network are invisible. Rouse’s communication circuit is one way in which these links can be visualised. In online social networks they are even more visible since much of the functionality of online social networks allows a user to see their network in the form of friends...


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