Coordinated Management of Meaning

[West & Turner, 2000, Ch. 6; Woods, 1997, Ch. 6; Griffin, 2000, Ch. 5] – Updated 9/12/00

John R. Baldwin / COM 111 / Illinois State University


Communication Quarterly: Laws/Rules/Systems Debate:       

Already in the late 1970s, many scholars in communication were proposing alternatives to the scientific paradigm which had grown so strong in the discipline through the 1960s and 1970s. In the Winter issue of Communication Quarterly, several authors debated the best approach to see reality and knowledge. Cushman (1977) outlines the three approaches, suggesting that rules have two components--the internal, intrapersonal part ("an inner part or intention rooted in previous experience," p. 35) and a behavioral part. He describes rules theorists as taking a teleological view of human nature--that is, that humans have "intentions and perceived courses of actions" that are aimed at accomplishing goals (p. 36).

Cushman (1977) outlined a seven degrees or levels of how much these rules "determine" our behavior or are simply followed voluntarily. For example, is a rule simply a regularly occurring behavior or a regularity? Do rules guide us internally or are we aware of them, and so on.

Some of the earliest rules theorists, beyond the scope of our course, include linguists such as Noam Chomsky, J. Austin, and John Searle. Searle wrote on speech acts, noting that a given utterance might have different levels of meaning. It might have, for example, a content meaning but also an intended meaning. For example, I could say, "Class starts at 1:00." The statement has a verbal content meaning, but it might also be saying, "Be here on time." Susan Shimanoff, (1980) one of the most prolific writers on rules in the Communication discipline, discussed rules at length, including methods for discovering the rules of an organization or group of people and the role of rules in everyday communication. She opposed some rules theorists who saw rules as internal, feeling, instead, that rules should refer to "a followable prescription that indicates what behavior is obligated, preferred, or prohibited in certain contexts" (in Woods, 1997, p. 57).

Already, one can see the seeds of two debates regarding rules theories in general. The only reason we need to know these for COM 111 is because they help Wood's (1997) critique of rules theories make more sense: [But these critiques may not be pertinent to students using the West & Turner text!]

1. Debate over definition (are rules behavior only, or do they include cognitive scripts?)

2. Debate over the relationship between rules and action (e.g., rule-governed or rule-following).

Enter CMM

Barnett Pearce and Vernon Cronen proposed Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) in 1980, and have revised it several times. According to West and Turner (2000) they believed in the social-constructed nature of social reality, as expounded by symbolic interactionism. However, they thought that SI was simply too vague to be useful. It did not explain how people in their daily interactions draw from socially created meaning to interpret their worlds.

The Core:

A central statement of the theory appears in West and Turner (2000): "For our purposes, Coordinated Management of Meaning generally refers to how individuals establish rules for creating and interpreting meaning and how those rules are enmeshed in a conversation where meaning is constantly being coordinated" (p. 88).  W&T summarize three main assumptions of the theory, which guide their outline of the chapter.

v Human beings live in communication.

v Human beings co-create a social reality

v Information transactions depend on personal and interpersonal meaning

For the sake of class notes, be able to define:

Personal meaning

Interpersonal meaning

What is the relationship between these two?


Organizing Meaning

At this point, I will diverge a bit from West and Turner, reorganizing their material in line with other summaries I have read. According to CMM, the main way to explain how we organize meaning (the key focus of CMM analyses) lies in the notions of text and context. By text, they mean any behavior that can have meaning. We will use this to refer to verbal or nonverbal behaviors or to actions. Wood (1997) refers to this as the content of communication. When we perceive a content behavior (text), we give it meaning. But how do we assign meaning?

I. A. Richards (Meaning of Meaning—a theory we don't cover in the Fall, 2000 semester) would suggest that each person has a set of experiences with a word from which to assign meaning. For Pearce and Cronen, however, meaning is derived from socially derived expectations for certain situations, relationships, and so on. That is, they use context differently than Richards. It refers to the "frame of reference for interpreting an action," with one's responses to an action likely to differ from one context to another (Littlejohn, 1999, p. 187). What is required in one context might be only suggested in another context or prohibited in a third. You might be required to shake the hand of a new acquaintance in a business situation (the interview); it

For simplicity sake, I will structure this discussion of CMM in three blocks. The order is my own and combines coverage from both Wood and Griffin texts. I violate the expected rule of presenting things in the same order as our author because I have strategic goals. Those goals lead me to not follow the rules of this situation. J

1.  Rules

Explain and give examples of the following two types of rules: [Class Notes]



Thought Exercise: In class, we talked about the normative and regulative rules of the classroom. Think of another situation or phenomenon that has rules (a relationship, a location, an activity). Your focus should not be on the formal rules (e.g., "You must have both feet on the ground to throw the soccer ball in") but on the unstated rules (e.g., "Don’t stand too close--or to far--from the man next to you in the restroom"). List the rules, separating the normative from the definitional.

  •  How do the rules of a situation change?
  • What do rules have to do with CMM?
  • How might the notion of C & R rules explain misunderstanding?
  • How is this alike and different from, say, Meaning of Meaning? [note: pragmatic versus semantic!]

Notice that you might have chosen rules for a specific type of speaking (telling a story); for a context of speaking (ordering a meal at a restaurant; worshiping in a public assembly); for a relationship (what makes an outing a "date"?); or for a culture (how and when is it appropriate to drink alcohol in American culture?).

  • How might the rules for the situation you have chosen vary if multiple contexts are at play? For example, if you wrote the rules for telling a joke, are the rules different for, say, men or women? Are the rules different if you tell a joke to your buddy or to your priest or pastor? Would rules for telling the joke--at work--to your supervisor--change from, say, America to a different culture?

Points: [Note: Here and below, don't memorize these points as a "list"--they are merely my attempt to guide your understanding of the theory as a whole]

1.         Rules are learned in social groups, are created socially. They are not "universal rules of meaning" or "doing"

2.         "When constitutive and regulative rules are coordinated, interaction tends to run smoothly and comfortably. That’s because the individuals agree on what various communications mean and on how to sequence their activities. But when individuals operate according to different constitutive and regulative rules, friction and misunderstandings often result." (Wood, 1997, p. 169).

3.         Hence, CMM is about: ____________________________

2.  "Propositions" of Theory

Griffin (2000) does not rightly list the propositions of the theory. It is my (jrb) suspicion that these change from version to version, as the present version differs substantially from those listed by other summarizers of the theory, yet seems solidly based on Pearce's writings. The following sets of "propositions" are not to learn for an exam verbatim—but to let you know where, exactly this theory is coming from.

Griffin's Summary:

Ø The experience of persons-in-conversation is the primary social process of life.

Ø The way people communicate is often more important than the content of what they say

Ø The actions of persons-in-conversation are reflexively reproduced as the dialogue continues (Serpentine Model)


Extra, Extra!!!

Cronen's Summary: In my own (jrb) attempt to understand CMM, I pulled out a chapter I had read for the theory and used in another class. In this chapter, the authors (Cronen, Chen, & Pearce, 1988) are using CMM to explain cultural differences in communication and how differences in culture might lead to difficulties in intercultural communication. The chapter lists some propositions, or statements about what the theory assumes to be true. I have reworded some and highlighted words or phrases that I see connecting with our text. 


1.  The smallest unit of analysis for researchers is "persons communicating"—"communication is part of the natural condition" (p. 72)

2.  "Communicating persons are physical beings that endure in real space-time" (p. 72). That is, communicating takes place in real, lived contexts and circumstances that must be considered.

3.  "All human communication is both idiosyncratic and social" (p. 72). Thus, we must look both to individual meaning and to social meaning as we try to understand communication.

4.  There is a reflexive relationship between communication and structure. That is, communication creates meanings and values, which influence communication, which modifies meanings and values, which. . .  Further, one's communication in a process influences the other who communicates with and influences the first.

5.  People make judgments about what works "under particular historical and social conditions" (p. 74). The communication researcher, then, should try to understand those judgments in that time, but not seek general laws to predict judgments across all contexts.

6.  "Human communication is inherently imperfect" (p. 74). For a variety of reasons (the authors list seven), communicators face barriers in their communication. Two such barriers are "mutual understanding" (p. 75) and "the ends [goals] humans pursue" (p. 76).

7. "Moral orders emerge as aspects of communication" (p. 76). Different cultures develop, through communication, different "ideas about what one must do, can do, may not do, and what is outside one's responsibility" (pp. 76-77).

8.  "Communication is the process by which the dual modes of liberation may be materialized" (p. 77). These include the liberation of incipient ideas into full-fledged, developed "structure" (moral orders, values, etc.) and "the possibility of moving beyond problem-ridden aspects of structure to a new point of view" (p. 77).

9.  "Diversity is essential to elaboration and transformation through communication" (p. 78). Specifically, "CMM stresses the crucial importance of preserving diversity" so that "different forms of practice may enrich each other" (p. 78).

3.  Coordination of Meaning in Contexts

Now, back to our regularly scheduled Webpage!

While humans continually co-create both their relationships and their social worlds through communication, CMM theorists feel that communication is fraught with misunderstanding at different levels. One might say that miscommunication is sometimes related to different meanings, and sometimes it is related to different goals. Thus, the authors introduce the notions of coherence (of meaning) and coordination (of goals) into their explanation of (mis)understanding.


Various authors list six different "levels" at which misunderstanding might lie. However, the first level, a particular verbal utterance or nonverbal gesture, is the text which one seeks to understand (see above). Many call this the content of the communication (W&T, p. 92). In addition to the actual words or components of the communication, the text can be categorized by the function it performs (speech act). For example, I can ask a student, "Would you please close the blinds?"  or I could burp after a meal. The words or the expulsion of gas are "texts." The first would be, in terms of speech acts, a question. The second might be simply an involuntary response, though in some cultures I might belch intentionally in the act (NV act?) of complimenting the cook.

A simplified version of the hierarchy of contexts includes only four contexts. Further, they are all treated of equal importance. In some writings (e.g., Cronen, Chen & Pearce, 1988), these contexts exist one inside the other—that is, what happens at one level must be understood in terms of the other contexts surrounding it, as if in concentric circles. If I ask someone to close the shades (speech act), we can only understand that question in the context of my relationship with the person (other faculty member or student? prior positive or negative relationship)? But even the relationship can only be understood in the context of the culture (are some requests permissible in one culture, but rude in another?)

For this class, you need to know the text and the four contexts, as listed by West and Turner, 2000.




Speech Act





Cultural Patterns

Important notes:

1. We interpret a given communicative event (V/NV) in terms of each level of context

2. The levels are not objective, but subjective—our interpretations, perceptions of each level.

3. There are rules for each level of context.

4. Trouble arises when people manage a communicative event differently [We likely follow the bias which states that we just assume others have the same rules and meanings at each level as we do!]


Much of the time, we feel little conflict between the various contexts. All fits together well in what P&C call charmed loops. As noted in the debriefing questions for the exercise above, and from our class discussions, sometimes one gets caught in a double-bind--a situation where the rules one is supposed to follow conflict. P&C call these strange loops. According to Littlejohn (1999), these occur when "the rules of interpretation change from one point in the loop to another, causing a paradox, or strange loop, in which each contexts disconfirms the other" (p. 188). Their example is when people are in a relationship that they value, yet exchange serious insults. Another example might be when the rules of one context (e.g., being a "friend" means going out to parties with my buddies) contradicts the rules of another context (my perception of my autobiography is that I choose not to drink for spiritual reasons). Wood gives one example of the strange loop, the destructive pattern. She defines strange loops as "internal conversations in which individuals become trapped in destructive patterns of thinking. Meanings at different levels in the hierarchy interact to sustain a repetitive cycle of behavior from which an individual seems unable to escape" (p. 170). Solution?: Redefinition of some element, such as act, episode, relationship.

 Thought Exercise: Think of a time when you felt "rule conflict" (jrb's term for strange loops) within your own mind. At which contexts did the rules occur? [Ex: Friendship, Episode] What were the rules you perceived for each context? [ex: Relationship: Friendship requires loyalty (p.s., a constitutive rule, in this case!); Episode: Taking a test--one should not cheat when taking a test (a regulative rule!). What was the conflict? [Ex: My friend cheated on a test. I felt I should either confront him or report it, but felt if I did, I would not be loyal.]

How did you feel in the strange loop? Was this a one-time loop, or a "destructive pattern" in your life? How did you get out of the loop? If you have not yet gotten out of it, what strategies might you use now to escape the loop?


BIG NOTE: The rest of this discussion gets at the underlying "critical" element of CMM. This notion is clearly reflected in the Cronen, Chen, and Pearce's 1988 axioms listed above. However, our discussion will touch on it only briefly. Thus, read it (Fall, 2000 students!), but don't try to learn it. It is just to let you see the "purposes" of the theory. Specifically, this section answers why should we try to help people negotiate meanings.

Ø  COORDINATION:  The stories we live

Different people and cultures have different notions of what is good, evil, and so on (moral orders, in the words of Cronen et al., 1988). They call these logics of meaning and action. The moral orders, or logics, exert a certain force on the actors. In terms of rules, each level of context contains its own set of regulative and constitutive rules. Communicators may choose to follow or not follow these rules, but the higher order contexts exert more of a "logical force" on the communicator.

Wood (1997) defines logical force as "the felt obligation to act" (p. 169). Force: "degree to which we feel we must act or cannot act in particular ways. Logical: there is a "logic" of meanings, existing in hierarchy. LF "concerns the extent to which we feel certain actions are logical, appropriate, or required in specific situations" (p. 170). For example, the higher the level of context, the less likely we will be to violate that rule, according to the theorists. She lists some influences on the logical force of a rule that are beyond the scope of our coverage here.

Ø  MYSTERY:  The stories not yet told

This section of the theory speaks, perhaps, to the value-driven goal of the theory—that people will lead better lives in ways we do not know and cannot yet predict. The propositions in the box above of liberation (#8) and diversity (#9) seem to apply to this notion. Specifically, the authors (especially Pearce) seem to be suggesting that cosmopolitanism—or seeing the world through eyes which respect and use aspects of knowledge from diverse groups (jrb's definition) can lead to a more egalitarian world where people are able to develop and express their ideas and change problematic aspects of their "moral structures."

Certainly, this could apply to mediation contexts, but it is much broader in that in that it speaks to a "new" way of communicating which brings a sort of "growth" to communicators-as-persons. Some elements listed in Griffin (2000)—and perhaps the strategies for more successful communication offered by this theory, are:

Ø Competence

Ø Safety

Ø Artistry

 Thought Exercise: Recall a recent conflict you had with someone special to you. In what ways was your conversation marked by elements of competence, artistry, or safety? What might you do to further develop these characteristics in your own communication? Do you feel that, by incorporating these characteristics in your communication, you "liberated" the other person to express her or himself, or "liberated" young ideas to develop between you into something grander and more important? If so, how? If not, why not? (This may lead to a positive or negative evaluation of this part of the theory!)

Experiential Learning Vehicle(s): Coordinated Management of Meaning

Flipping Through the Hierarchies of Context (CMM)

Baldwin, COM 111, Fall, 1999

 Objective: Through this exercise, students should be able (a) to learn and apply the different levels of context of Cronen & Pearce’s Coordinated Management of Meaning; (b) to discuss constitutive and regulative rules at each contextual level; (c) to recognize the social-constructedness of rules at each level; (d) to realize the potential for intersubjective (between partner) conflict at different levels and the need to coordinate meaning; (e) to describe CMM as a theoretical tool to resolve miscommunication.

Materials: None.

Process: Instructor first walks through an example of what she or he is looking for at each level (see example below). Students break into groups. Instructor gives students a content behavior (text) and has students provide different interpretations based on the levels of context. The specific example is actually a NV behavior, which gives the instructor the chance to show the theory’s utility in discussing things like touches, winks, sighs, tone of voice, as well as verbal behaviors or actions.

Instructions: In your groups [if students are already in groups], you will follow the class example in interpreting a text in its various contexts. Your goal is to show how, depending on different perceptual definitions of context, two people can have different meanings for a behavior/text. You will analyze possible alternatives for each level of flipping someone off.


Text and Context

Example 1

Example 2

1. Text/Content

That dress sure looks nice on you.

I’m alone now.

2. Speech Act [note: some authors argue that there are a limited number of possible speech acts]


pick-up line

sarcasm, joke








3. Episode

teacher/student interaction

starting a date

salesperson offering assistance


sharing secrets on the phone

negotiating a rendez-vous

discussing failed relationships

discussing work

4. Relationship



romantic partners




interested partners


5. Autobiography

polite? helpful? interested?

introverted? socially acceptable?

6. Culture

SH laws/expectations, politeness norms

individualism? directness versus indirectness

 Discussion questions:

  • How is CMM’s notion of context different or alike that of Richards (Meaning of Meaning)? Do you find it more or less helpful?
  • Can you see in this example some time when you have had a disagreement with someone? What was the disagreement? How might you explain it through this more complicated model? How does the model show disagreement between people at a single level? between levels?
  • In your daily interactions, do you stop to consider
  • Let’s look at each level. What might be some of the constitutive and regulative rules for some of the items you have mentioned? [Note that there will actually be constitutive and regulative rules negotiated between levels. For example, there are rules for how friends engage in joking behavior as opposed to parents/children].
  • To what degree are you aware of the rules you follow? Are there times when you are more or less aware of the rules, where you make a more or less conscious effort to follow them? Do you see yourself as primarily rule-governed or rule-following?
  • When you are following the rules (and not thinking about them), do you have a tendency to assume others will be like you in terms of some perception of the text at one of the levels (for example, do you just assume others will also see it as a joke, or have the same autobiographical context as you do)? If so, how might that get in the way of communication?
  • What solutions do you see? [none offered in our text]
  • Do you ever find conflicts within yourself over a particular text? (e.g., lying to protect friends).


Note: Which of the evaluations are aimed specifically at CMM? Which at rules theory in general? [Watch for this confusion in Wood!]

Unclear meaning of rule (Shimanoff vs. C & P)

Too ambiguous: What accounts for creativity, invention, innovation, violations?

Too broad in scope: response: purpose is an exapansive view of human action

Some sources on rules approaches: 

  • Cushman, D. P. (1977). The rules perspective as a theoretical basis for the study of human communication. Communication Quarterly, 25, 30-45.
  • Cronen, V., Chen, V., & Pearce, B. (1988). Coordinated management of meaning: A critical theory. In Y. Y. Kim & W. Gudykunst (Eds.), Theories in intercultural communication (pp. 66-98). Newbury Park: Sage.
  • Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
  • Pearce, B., & Cronen, V. (1980). Communication, action, and meaning: The creation of social realities. New York: Praeger.
  • Searle, J. (1969). Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shimanoff, S. B. (1980). Communication rules: Theory and research. Beverly Hills: Sage.

John R. Baldwin / COM 111 / Schedule