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Communication as paradox and paradox as communication: An interparadigmatic proposal of coexisting cultural epistemologies.

Abstract: In light of the dominant position of Eurocentrism in the field of (intercultural) communication, we argue for a broader and more generative perspective for understanding diverse voices and ways of knowing cross-culturally. One particular gap that benefits scholarly attention is an ontological and epistemological struggle in addressing the incommensurability between divergent ways of knowing. Building on both Western and Eastern understandings of paradox, we propose an alternative theoretical approach that conceptualizes communication as paradox and paradox as communication. We map out the foundation of the theory with three interrelated arguments. First, symbolic interaction constitutes paradoxical loops. Second, human communication, social relationships, and context-bound meaning making demonstrate a paradoxical regress of the meta-level discourses. Third, the relationship between paradox and communication is reflexive. We further argue that treating communication as paradox can create opportunities for embracing both--if not interconnecting--dominant and non-dominant ways of knowing, living and being.

[Gang Luo, Ohio; Yea-Wen Chen. Communication as Paradox and Paradox as Communication: An Interparadigmatic Proposal of Coexisting Cultural Epistemologies. China Media Research 2017; 13(3): 71-82]. 8

Keywords: paradox, communication as paradox, interparadigmatic relationships, intercultural communication


Tensions between and among different approaches to the study of intercultural communication have persisted since the late 1990s if not earlier (Martin & Nakayama, 1999, 2010). While Kim (2002) shares her lament that the discipline of human communication lacks a truly universal theory, Asante (1983) observes that the field of intercultural communication may never blossom if we fail to establish an equal footing for approaching theoretical voices from diverse cultural traditions. Given this background, we propose in this essay that human communication is inherently paradoxical. By treating paradox as a theoretical construct rather than a social phenomenon or an observational object, we offer a metatheoretical perspective that approaches and recognizes diverse ways of knowing cross-culturally as co-existing.

As pioneered and led by Asante, a number of scholars have attempted to challenge Eurocentrism in order to honor diverse cultural voices. Following Asante's (1983) call for shifting away from Eurocentric thinking, Miike (2003) proposes a metatheoretical direction that advocates and emphasizes Asiacentricity. In essence, Asiacentricity positions Asian values, aesthetics, and ideals at the core of inquiry and approaches communication phenomena "from the standpoints of Asians as subjects rather than objects" (p. 251). As a framework, Asiacentricity exposes issues of dominance and inequality in its very own field and calls serious attention to a need for epistemological alternatives in intercultural communication theorization and research. Even though Asiacentricity features a strong voice of resistance against Eurocentricism, it, however, does not facilitate further thinking outside, or beyond, the power struggles among various ways of speaking and knowing from different cultural traditions.

As this special issue invites scholars to consider a philosophical integration of/between Eastern and Western paradigms, we began this project with contemplating on the meaning of an integrative, or an integrated, communication paradigm. The idea of integration sounds theoretically rich and offers a promising direction. However, Martin and Nakayama (1999) have warned about the "incommensurablity" of different paradigms in terms of the differing ontological and epistemological assumptions that undergird each paradigm (e.g., social science, interpretivism, and critical theorizing). The issue of incommesurability between and across paradigms prompts questions about how paradigms could be integrated coherently and what a cross-paradigm integration might look like. In addition, although as an alternative approach, integration could be heuristically valuable, there may be difficulties in theorizing how different ways of knowing relate to each other when accounting for power differentials and complex cultural systems that govern social interactions. Following Popper's (1970) advice, when we realize that we are trapped in the cage of Eurocentrism, how can we break out? To what extent are ideas such as Afrocentricity and Asiacentricity functioning as alternatives to actually decenter Eurocentric thinking? If we go with an integration approach, how do we identify a theoretical framework that is appropriate for integrating incommensurate paradigms? Departing from Martin and Nakayama's (1999, 2010) dialectical perspective that emphasizes "interdependent and complementary aspects of the seeming opposites" in approaching intercultural communication (Martin & Nakayama, 1999, p. 14), we argue that paradox as a theoretical construct offers a new direction, a roomier alternative, and more generative possibilities.

At its core, the overarching perspective we rely on to theorize a paradoxical perspective of communication is in itself interdisciplinary and rooted in diverse cultural traditions. Even as we reject reductionism, essentialism and overgeneralization, we agree with Chen and Starosta (2003) that a degree of generalization and abstraction within a certain cultural context in theorizing may be not only necessary but also inevitable. In addition, if we view the tensions between macro-micro layers, general knowledge-individual experience, and specificity-generality as dialectical relationships, these seemingly opposing concepts are emergent, ongoing, and incomplete. They are relative to each other and one cannot exist without being defined by the other (Rawlins, 1983). They may very well transform and merge into each other depending on the context (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996).

Departing from previous approaches, our conceptualization of "communication as paradox" in this essay rests on several key assumptions. First, we assume a reflexive relationship between communication and paradox in that they shape and are shaped by each other. That is, paradoxes are not merely a specific type of relational phenomena situated in social processes, but they produce and are also the products of communicative practices. In addition, we argue that communicative processes and social interactions are themselves paradoxical in nature. As communication, paradox is the fabric of social reality and the very essence of human existence carries a paradoxical construct. Within this construct, rationality and irrationality, reason and affection, chaos and order co-exist and are equally valued. Second, viewing communication as paradox shifts attention away from the Western thought rooted in the enlightenment tradition that heavily privileges objectivity, reasoning, rationality, and empirical and mathematical realism. It views paradox as an oddity, a deviant from sound logic, and the failure of a scholarly inquiry. On the contrary, we argue that paradoxes expose the flaws in the logic system; reveal the intrinsically paradoxical nature of interaction; defy the limits of human understanding; and push us to break out from the cage of the dominant Western ways of knowing. In an Eastern yin-yang relational sense, which suggests the transformative dependence and convergence of the dialectics, if irrationality gives rise to and defines rationality, then it is not only that communication generates paradox, but also, paradox creates communication. Third, we assume that an interpretation of communication as paradox offers a roomier perspective to understand inter/cultural communication in that it opens up new doors for exploring the relationship between diverse epistemological processes. For instance, our view of paradox challenges the arbitrary separation of so-called Eastern and Western ways of knowing. We approach Eastern and Western traditions as mirroring, resembling, and embedded in each other as if they were in a tango dance. Similar to Cyr (2002) who treats Eastern and Western values as complementary rather than different in her integrated approach to organizational leadership in a global age, we extend and hold that paradox as a theoretical construct could potentially blur the lines between paradigmatic categories rooted in divergent cultural traditions, including Eurocentric paradigms and non-Eurocentric paradigms.

In the next sections, we will first review relevant literature on Asiacentricity, integration, and dialectics followed by the theorization of the paradoxical approach to communication. We will demonstrate how this roomier perspective encourages a more productive and generative co-existence of both epistemic divergences and convergences.

Asiacentricity, Integration, and Dialectics

Since its inception, intercultural communication scholars have strived to acknowledge and address divergent ways of speaking, knowing, and living that are grounded in different cultural traditions. Despite good efforts and intentions, non-Western epistemologies struggle to gain more equitable footing while Western philosophical and theoretical paradigms continue to dominate the field (e.g., Miike, 2003). In light of the power differentials in theorizing intercultural communication, scholars such as Asante (1983) and Miike (2003, 2006) strongly call for the decentering of Eurocentrism and advocate for Afrocentricity and Asiacentricity, while other scholars propose a more integrated approach. Furthermore, Martin and Nakayama's (1999) proposal of a dialectical approach to the study of intercultural communication represents another trajectory, which has enjoyed popularity and guided productive intercultural inquiries. However, the increasing instabilities around the world call for intercultural communication scholars to extend our thinking to better address, if not reconcile, unequal and falsely dichotomous relations between the East and the West.

In our essay, we approach "the East" and "the West" symbolically as opposing yet complementing centers rooted in different ways of speaking, knowing, and living. More importantly, the West symbolizes the privileged and dominant epistemologies and the East represents the lesser known and underprivileged epistemologies, including the Afrocentric and Asiacentric paradigm, and others. Grounded in our own cultural positioning as Chinese and Taiwanese scholars in the U.S. academia, we have made a deliberate decision to discuss the Eastern/underprivileged epistemologies through Asiacentricity. We do not mean to suggest that Asiacentricity is the only underprivileged epistemology; rather, this is one that we are more familiar with as it informs our thinking and lived experiences.


Miike (2003) observes that "A large number of social scientific researchers in cross-cultural communication today rely exclusively on U.S.-derived, English-language theoretical concepts and constructs" (p. 245). He further defines the systematic and structural theories and research methods of Western origin over other epistemological approaches as Eurocentrism. This Western gaze to the study of intercultural communication brings several challenges and disadvantages. First, cultural incommensurability makes it difficult to theorize culturally unique concepts such as relational intuition, relational fate, and relational letting go (Miike, 2003; Ting-Toomy, 1989). Second, Western-based theorizing may be unsuitable to studying non-Western communities that are culturally distinct from Western communities (Ho, 1998). Third, studying intercultural communication from a dominant, privileged, and white male point of view reinforces cultural biases and may lead to a variety of epistemological misunderstandings (Chen & Starosta, 2003; Covarrubias, 2007; Miike, 2007). These shortcomings in the Western scholarship have prompted several intercultural communication scholars to contend that the Asian world(s), for example, should be seen through Asian eyes, with Asian thinking, speaking in Asian languages, and believing in Asian religions and philosophies (e.g., Chen & Starosta, 2003; Miike, 2003).

Even though Asiacentricity presents a timely and a necessary critique of Western epistemological domination and hegemony, as well as a heightened awareness gained by looking outside the Western domain of knowing (Asante & Miike, 2013), we argue that it does not focus on addressing the interparadigmatic relationship between Western and Eastern ways of thinking and knowing for a number of reasons. First, the relationship between Asiacentricity and Eurocentrism essentially follows a similar struggle of power and resistance. Fundamentally, Asia-Afrocentricity scholarship is a critique of and a response to the dominance of Eurocentrism in almost all areas of intercultural communication studies (Asante & Miike, 2013). The necessity of decentering Eurocentrism and repositioning a marginalized cultural perspective at the center assumes that there is only one--or can only be one--center within a certain domain; as a result, Eurocentricity, Afrocentricity, and Asiacentricity shall all have their separate territories respectively.

Second, in its criticism and resistance against Eurocentrism, Asiacentricity may overlook the power struggles and differentials within, across, and in-between Asian groups and communities. If the concept of "Asian(s)" is not homogeneous (Miike, 2003), then which Asian values and whose ideals are being privileged, advocated, and positioned at the center? And from which standpoint do centric scholars determine an "Asian" perspective? It seems that the Asian perspective could be quite elusive to define. Take the notion of harmony for example. It is a respectable traditional Chinese value if we assume its Chinese cultural origin. However, we also need to consider the possibility that throughout Chinese history, it has been used by the ruling class as a ruse to pacify marginalized groups and suppress social grievances and unrests. Ironically, however, Chinese history shows that the rise and fall of each feudal dynasty and even the communist party coming to power are marked by the uprising of peasants, social unrests and heightened violence. If the traditional Chinese values, such as Confucianism, are strategically promoted, advocated, and privileged by certain dominant cultural groups in the culturally Chinese societies (e.g., China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan), then we may ask what other non-dominant, or non-Chinese, Asian epistemic values are not being taken into consideration, and what consequences might this generate with respect to theorizing the relationship between two domains of knowing?

Third and similarly, Western thinking is hardly singular, monolithic, and homogeneous. Different schools of thoughts and methods grounded in diverse philosophical roots coexist vying for the dominant position. Paradigm shifts occur when the ruling epistemology is challenged and dethroned, and when roomier and more resilient theoretical perspectives capable of accounting for more diverse human experiences and social phenomena take the central positions. A few examples include the crisis of positivism, the crisis of representation, the interpretive turn and the critical turn taking place in Western intellectual history. It is in the same vein that Asiacentric thinking questions the authority of Eurocentrism in the field of intercultural communication. Again, the question that motivates our theorizing is how non-dominant and divergent ways of knowing could gain an equal--or equitable--footing without reproducing the same power struggles in the field of intercultural communication.

Integrating Paradigms

Martin and Nakayama (1999) view the integration of different ways of knowing grounded in culturally divergent paradigms as another approach to understanding and reconsidering intercultural theorization. They summarize three specific integrative methods with insightful critique of each approach: liberal pluralism, interparadigmatic borrowing, and multiparadigmatic collaboration. They contend that liberal pluralism does not actively address the interparadigmatic relationships among paradigms while interparadigmatic borrowing still fundamentally privileges the original paradigm. Multiparadigmatic collaboration advocates collaborative research that does not privilege any particular paradigm and encourages contribution from each to the same research question. However, Martin and Nakayama (1999) caution "against unproductive synthetic (integrative) and additive (pluralistic, supplementary) approaches" (p. 12), which is consistent with our argument that increased complexity of integration produces additional hurdles and constraints. In revisiting intercultural communication and dialectics, Martin and Nakayama (2010) affirm that a growing trend of interparadigmatic borrowing is limited mostly to the integration of critical and interpretive perspectives. They conclude that transparadigmatic integrations remain challenging and rare.

Based on Martin and Nakayama's (1999, 2010) description, we see that an integration approach to intercultural communication is premised on two assumptions. First, it is beneficial to the study and practice of communication in a cross-cultural context (Kim, 2002). Second, it generally assumes an equality between different ways of knowing and ignores the power structure of knowledge distribution. Extending Martin and Nakayama's concerns, we argue that it would be necessary and beneficial to think through specific difficulties with respect to integrating Eastern and Western paradigms. Such questioning will lay the foundation for our theorization of communication as paradox at an interparadigmatic level.

First, the arbitrary dichotomy between West and East is questionable at best (Said, 1978) and it tends to reproduce the unequal power structure of cultural imperialism and essentialism. Also, the meaning of the concept integration is not clearly defined in the literature: What is integration? In what context does the integration occur and to what end? Is it a process or a structure? What is the relationship between the elements that are integrating before, during and after the integration? Is it an assimilation? Or a simple parallel juxtaposition of the two paradigms? Is it a combination or collection of the two? Or is it a kind of synthesis originated from the dialectic of the East and the West in the Hegelian sense? Or the outcome of the integration is other than the sum of the two along the tradition of Gestalt psychology?

Second, the integration approach seems to prefer the "both/and" perspective as opposed to the attitude of "either/or," which is a constructive proposal in the theorization of the coexisting relationships between ways of knowing from different cultural sources. However, "both/and" and "either/or" seem to form another binary separation; and when the focus moves away from "either/or" and privileges "both/and," we essentially contrast the option of "either/or" against the option of "both/and," therefore, the "both/and" option becomes a new "either/or" preference in a larger, second-order dialectic construct (Bateson, 1972). Along this line of logic, in the larger dialectic formation, the new "both/and" would have to include both "either/or," and "both/and," instead of only "both/and." Therefore, "both/and" may not be a final state because when it moves to another duality, inclusion is somehow transformed to division. Furthermore, the second-order dialectic, or the dialectic of dialectics demonstrates that there may be more options beyond the first-order "either/or" separation and "both/and" integration: one additional option is the inclusion of both "either/or" and "both/and". Moreover, "neither/nor" could be another option.

Third and more important, when it comes to integrating incommensurate paradigms, such approaches lack theoretical clarity to assume and declare that integration would be beneficial. As Mansell (2012) points out, when additional information being integrated into the existing system of knowledge, paradoxically, the outcome could be detrimental because the increased complexity may possibly render the system less efficient. The word "beneficial" is also worth a closer examination from the critical perspective--being beneficial to whom, by what standards and in what social domain the judgment is made? What if it is not? In addition, integration may need to take the current power distribution into consideration when the Western paradigms are dominant and the Eastern ways of knowing are marginalized in the field of communication studies. The effort of integration would be futile or defeat its own purposes if the power inequality remains or even becomes strengthened during the process.

The Dialectical Approach to Intercultural Communication

In addition to the three integrative methods, Martin and Nakayama (1999) introduce a dialectical approach to study social interactions in an intercultural context. Conflicting and contradictory elements within intercultural communication are not viewed as isolated but as coexisting, interconnected and intersecting phenomena. Martin and Nakayama (1999) propose the following dialectics: cultural-individual, personal/social-contextual, differences-similarities, static-dynamic, present-future/history-past and privilege-disadvantage.

The dialectical approach in intercultural communication was a change in perspective beyond the functional, interpretive and critical paradigm with regard to how communication between and among cultural communities can be further understood. However, the interparadigmatic relationships that the approach addresses are still limited within different Western perspectives and it does not provide a guiding view on how the relationship between cross-cultural paradigms may be conceptualized. Outside the dialectical approach proposed by Martin and Nakayama, scholarly work on paradoxes in the field of intercultural communication has not been prolific. In their decade later review of the dialectical perspective on intercultural communication, Martin and Nakayama (2010) state that "few researchers have taken up the challenge to use a dialectic approach as a transparadigmatic way to conduct research" (p. 69). While the dialectic perspective affirms and brings to light the complexities involved in the study of intercultural communication, the fact that it calls for but has not led to increased cross-paradigm scholarly collaborations underscores a gap that has not been filled.

The review of the aforementioned sources underscores both a necessity and conceptual challenges in reimagining the relation between incommensurate and culturally distinctive paradigms. Asiacentricity may privilege differences over similarities when comparing and contrasting dominant ways of knowing rooted in Eastern and Western traditions, while the integration approach faces a philosophical difficulty in clarifying its own epistemological and methodological position. The dialectical approach evidences a continuing need to promote and encourage transparadigmatic integrations to understand and capture the increasing complexities of culture and communication. One direction that we think has not been unpacked and/or explored is: How might different, if not incommensurate, ways of knowing be interconnected? To what extent are similar epistemological ideas already present in different cultural traditions? We argue that little to no attention has been paid to these inquiries might be because these epistemological ideas are less dominant in their respective cultural traditions. For example, it is well recognized that the Eastern, particularly the Chinese ways of knowing emphasize relational contexts instead of social order maintained by law. However, historically, back in the period of the Warring States, according to Shiji, or the Records of the Grand Historian (Sima, 2011), the scholars of the legalism school believed that only laws and discipline can preserve the continuation of the civilization and the prosperity of the society. In addition, Edgar Allan Poe's poem, A Dream within A Dream greatly reminisces the Chinese philosopher Zhuang Zhou's tale of the Butterfly (Herman, 1996). Contemporary theorization of communicative dialectics emphasizes the transformation, interdependence and interconnection (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996; Baxter, 2011; Rawlins, 2009) between the two opposing tendencies, which are also key principles in the Chinese yin-yang worldview. At its core, yin-yang theory describes dynamic interplays of two seemingly opposing but interdependent forces in the universe. We will take up yin-yang theorization later in this essay. This review propels and directs us to examine "paradox" further as a potential metatheoretical framework accommodating diverse epistemological ideas.

Paradoxes, Communication, and Cultural Epistemologies

To help contextualize our proposal of communication as paradox, we next review historical and current literature on paradox in both Western and Eastern traditions, as well as the exploration of paradoxes regarded as communication phenomena by scholars in the field of communication studies. Then, we highlight how our paradoxical perspective departs significantly from the existing theorization.

"Paradoxes" in the Western Epistemology

Although there are variations, in the dominant Western epistemology, a paradox is generally understood as a set of individually plausible but jointly contradictory propositions following consistent deductions (Sorensen, 2003; Watzlawick, Beavin & Jackson, 1967). The significant value of paradox in epistemology has long been established in Western philosophy, logic and mathematics, to the point that the history of the paradox reflects the history of philosophy. In ancient Greece, Zeno of Elea proposed the Zeno's paradox in support of Parmenides' monism that became one of undisputed ontological foundations of Western science (Sorensen, 2003).

In the world of logic and mathematics, encountering a paradox yields serious consequences--"the entire structure of axioms, theorems, etc. involved in generating that paradox is thereby negated and reduced to nothing" (Bateson, 1972, p. 281). Therefore, philosophers and mathematicians alike work tirelessly attempting to dissolve the absurdity of the contradiction. Even the world of logic significantly differs from the world of phenomena, the positivistic view stressing the negativity of paradoxes and the modernistic mentality of "overcoming" and "resolving" paradoxes have persistently influenced how scholars in other fields understand and study paradoxes. However, the traditional view of attempting to resolve paradoxes may be what Bateson (1972, p. 485) calls an epistemological error.

The liar's paradox was used by Kurt Godel to demonstrate his Incomplete Theorem, which has dramatically changed understandings of paradoxes. The Incomplete Theorem proposes and proves that any rule-based formal system cannot prove, disprove and resolve itself (Watzlawick et al., 1967). The significance of Godel's theorem is not limited only to the field of mathematics. It extrapolates that any social phenomenon, as long as it is considered a rule-based formal system such as language and logic, is also fundamentally paradoxical. Furthermore, paradoxes derived from correct premises and consistent reasoning are ultimately unresolvable. Godel's crucial contribution to logic has heavily influenced cybernetic scholars in their studies of communication and control in mechanical, automated electronic and social systems (e.g., Wiener, 2007).

Although scholars may not unanimously agree, dialectics can be viewed as a specific type of paradox (Putnam, Fairhurst & Banghart, 2016). Putnam and colleagues (2016) define dialectics as interdependent opposites aligned with forces that engage in an ongoing dynamic interplay as the poles implicate each other. The contemporary meaning of dialectics originated from Hegelian conceptualization emphasizes the method and logic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis (Fritzman, 2014). Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogism embodies the dynamics of dialectics and has influenced communication scholars in various fields. More importantly, paradoxes are broader and more encompassing than dialectics and deserve due attentions from communication scholars studying complex phenomena such as intercultural communication.

"Paradoxes" in the Eastern Epistemology

Chen and Starosta (2003) propose that Eastern cultural paradigms share narratives of paradoxes. Rather similar to what Godel's Incomplete Theorem reveals, key Eastern thinking on paradoxes presents the uncertain and nondeterministic nature of the reality situated in a relational context. For example, Hinduism emphasizes multiculturalism acknowledging all possibilities at once and all these possibilities are interconnected (Chen & Starosta, 2003). This is also demonstrated in the ancient Chinese tale, The Old Man Who Lost His Horse that describes a series of twists and turns that connect misfortunes with fortunes and vice versa from losing his horse to sparing his son from the battlefield. One occurrence could carry contradictory outcomes at once depending on the context, and taking the seemingly positive option may lead to a completely opposite result (Chen, 2011).

Two canonical texts of Taoism, Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi provide excellent description of the yin-yang theorization of reality emphasizing four core ontological and epistemological beliefs. Reality as seen through the lens of yin-yang can be summarized in the following way. First, the reality takes a fundamentally paradoxical formation because the coexistence of contradictory elements is consistent, permanent, and universal. Second, the only permanent categories are those that are temporary and relative. Third, logic can be relational and non-causal. Fourth, personal experiences are guided by the concept of Wu Wei (not doing)--life is teleological yet purposeful without any specific purposes.

Paradoxes and Communication Studies

The cybernetic tradition. Cybernetics represent a key body of work on paradoxes in communication studies. Even though paradoxes have been consistently studied in the disciplines of philosophy, logic, mathematics, and more recently, management, theoretical studies of paradoxes from the cybernetic tradition are particularly conducive to the study of human communication. Building upon Bateson's (1972) theory regarding levels of learning, Watzlawick and colleagues (1967) proposed that paradoxes could be viewed as "reflexive loops" on different levels of abstraction. According to this line of thinking, a typical paradox of self-reflexivity acknowledged by scholars across disciplines usually takes the form of a finite, single loop on the second-order abstraction (Cronen, Johnson & Lannamann, 1982; Watzlawick et al., 1967). Self-reflexive paradoxes easily satisfy the theory of logical types proposed by Whitehead and Russell (Russell, 1956), dealing with the paradox that a class is also a member in and of itself. Some of the examples include the language formations such as the stereotype of stereotypes and the theory of theories; and the concept of self-perception expressing "this is how I see myself." The contradiction of this statement is if I is indeed myself, then how could I and myself belong to different classes unless I is not myself? Another illuminating type of paradoxical loops presents a theoretically infinite regress moving up the levels of abstraction infinitely. There are two sub-types in this category: (a) a meta-level self-regress and (b) an interpersonal level of perceptual regress. The meta-level self-regress includes examples such as the philosophy about philosophy about philosophy, and communication about communication about communication. The regress is theoretically infinite. The interpersonal level of perceptual regress can be seen in this excellent example provided by Watzlawick et al. (1967): "this is how I am seeing you seeing me seeing you seeing me" (p. 90). It is worth noting that this may not be just a series of simple reciprocal perceptional actions, because any subsequent action of "seeing" has to take all the previous perceptions from both parties into consideration.

Paradoxes and organizational communication.

Outside the dialectical approach proposed by Martin and Nakayama (1999), scholarly work on paradoxes in the study of intercultural communication is limited. On the other hand, scholars in the field of organizational communication have studied paradoxes extensively. They have long moved away from the negative view of paradoxes and recognized that the paradoxical situations in an organization are opportunities for development and growth (Beveridge & Kadura, 2016; Jameson, 2004; Mease, 2015; Putnam et al., 2016; Stohl & Cheney, 2001). In particular, Putnam and colleagues (2016) argue that paradoxes are the new normal in organizations. Considering the two primary logical and methodological approaches for studying paradoxes in the field of organizational communication, it is clear that the view of paradoxes we propose subsequently carries fundamental differences from other efforts in this field.

Organizational communication scholars have studied paradoxes both deductively and inductively. When taking the deductive approach, they tend to actively identify paradoxes as specific communicative phenomena based on logical and theoretical principles, depending on the premise of rationality to locate irrationality. In addition, scholars regard paradoxes as part of the organizational conflicts that need to be actively managed (Jameson, 2004; Harter & Krone, 2001) with specifically designed strategies (Lewis, 2000; Stohl & Cheney, 2001). On the other hand, when taking the inductive approach, Putnam and colleagues (2016) propose a constitutive view shifting the focuses from actors' cognition and large-scale systems to social interaction processes and communicative practices.

In this essay, we propose a reflexive view suggesting paradoxes are not merely a specific type of relational phenomena situated in social processes; they also constitute the sources of their own existence because communicative processes and social interactions are themselves paradoxical in nature.

Proposing Communication as Paradox

To pave the way for our theorizing of communication as paradox, we first articulate our view of paradox as an interparadigmatic perspective that occurs at the opening crux where various and multiple paradigmatic perspectives meet. Then, we map our theorization of communication as paradox as an interparadigmatic perspective with three interrelated parts: (a) symbolic interaction as constituting paradoxical loops; (b) a paradoxical regress of the meta-level discourses of human communication, social relationships, and context-bound meaning making; and (c) a reciprocal relationship between paradox and communication.

Paradox as an Interparadigmatic Perspective

Employing a selection of current Western as well as non-Western research on paradoxes, we theorize communication as paradox. We hold that this theorization furthers broader, more fluid and self-reflexive understandings of the nature of communication, paradoxes as well as their relationships. In addition, we argue that the paradoxical view could be particularly meaningful in the field of intercultural communication. Compared to centric paradigms, intercultural dialectics and the integration approach, it provides the possibility of establishing a roomier philosophical and theoretical framework to understand the interparadigmatic relationship between Eurocentric and non-Eurocentric paradigms (see Table 1. Philosophical Comparisons of Interparadigmatic Approaches). We intend to emphasize the following implications of paradox as an interparadigmatic perspective. First, this approach shifts the dominant view of paradoxes as epistemological deviants and logical absurdities. The paradoxical perspective crystalizes the realization that paradoxes constitute the building blocks of social reality and present one of the intrinsic characteristics of human interactions and social relationships.

Second, since we come to realize that symbolic systems are paradoxical in construct and symbolic interactions enact a paradoxical process, the understanding of communication as paradox helps us explain and make sense of why paradoxical situations seem to be a constant occurring of our increasingly complicated and at times contradictory social lives.

Third, we recognize that diverse ways of knowing coexist unequally in the field of intercultural communication with Eurocentric paradigms dominating the scene of theorization and research practice. In the meantime, other voices struggle to break out of the Eurocentric monopoly while striving for the interparadigmatic attention. We provide a diagram (see Figure 1. Interparadigmatic Relationships and Metatheoretical Perspectives) to visualize the relational complexity with respect to the positions of various approaches in the field of (intercultural) communication. Consequently, considering that dominant, Eurocentric paradigms tend to privilege linear and rational thinking while non-Eurocentric ways of knowing may apply non-linear and irrational approaches to discursive interaction and social relationships, we argue that communication as paradox presents an interparadigmatic liminality or an in-between space that fundamentally recognizes the coexistence of linearity and nonlinearity, as well as rationality and irrationality, hence, a theoretically roomier perspective compared to current interparadigmatic theorizations.


Fourth, a paradoxical approach could also offer the inclusiveness acknowledging the epistemological possibilities of "either/or," "both/and," "neither/nor," "somewhat," all of the above, or none of the above; hence, opens the door to blurring boundaries and breaking categories within and between diverse ways of knowing rooted in different cultural traditions.

Communication as Symbolic Interaction Constituting Paradoxical Loops

In this essay, we approach communication as a meaning-making process referencing, accessing, or using any predefined symbolic system(s). Thus, communication is always and already symbolic, interactive, and incomplete; more importantly, the meaning-making process is accomplished through symbolic interaction.

Hall (1959) suggests that, even though the mutual understanding of communication seems self-evident, it is not human nature but learned behavior that is situated in social and culture norms. Extending Godel's Incomplete Theorem stating that any formal system capable of generating rules is logically incomplete (Watzlawick et al., 1967), we argue that it is possible the symbolic systems used during the process of human communication tend to be fundamentally paradoxical. It is worth noting that these symbolic systems are only predefined to a degree while the meaning-making process is emergent, ongoing, as well as being redefined and negotiated (Anderson, 1996). The meaning-making process of human communication could be essentially accomplished through the process of symbolic interaction that is not only incomplete but constituted by paradoxical loops. Based on Mead's (1934) symbolic interactionism and Bakhtin's (1981) dialogism, we observe that symbolic interaction may contain two interconnected processes: first, the interaction between "I" and "me" and second, the response to responses. In symbolic interactionism, the concept of "me" represents the attitude of the generalized other while "I" represents the response to "me." Mead (1934) also holds that the "I-me" interaction is realized through the enactment of self-consciousness which is originated in the process of social interaction. We believe this social interaction process could be best described by Bakhtin's (1981) notion of response to responses, which is partial and easily falls into paradoxical loops.

Extending the cybernetic tradition, we argue that the basic paradoxical form of symbolic interaction can also be viewed as double consciousness characterized by the combination of self-consciousness and consciousness of consciousness (perception of perceptions and response to responses). According to cybernetic scholars' categorization of paradoxes (Bateson, 1972; Watzlawick et al., 1967), we identify three types of loops: self-reflexivity, the meta-level self-regress, and levels of interpersonal regress. Hence, self-consciousness can be viewed as a second-order self-reflexivity. In its basic form, self-consciousness constitutes a single reflexive loop. Moreover, we argue that the theoretically infinite back-and-forth of response to responses demonstrates a paradoxical loop in the form of levels of interpersonal regress because the subsequent responses made by either interlocutor tend to take all previous responses as well as any anticipated responses into their decision-making (Bakhtin, 1981). Therefore, it is possible that any subsequent response moves up to a higher level of abstraction. The paradoxical regress of relational interaction has long been portrayed by the Eastern philosophical thinking of communication which according to the yin-yang formation, proposes the interaction as the transforming process of the universe that does not proceed onward in a linear fashion, but revolves in an endless nonlinear cycle (Chen & Starosta, 2003).

A Paradoxical Regress of the Meta-Level Discourses

Pearce (1989) holds that in order to study communication, we have to engage in communication; therefore, we communicate to communicate or communicate via communicating. Thus, communication becomes both the subject and the object of study. From the perspective of semiotics, the meaning of the original sign may refer to the meaning of another sign, then another and another (Anderson, 1996). The theoretically infinite self-regress of meaning-making then has the tendency of forming a giant web of significance of significance echoing what Hall (1959) calls the symbolization of symbolization that may reveal another inherently paradoxical characteristic of communication.

Similarly, if symbolic meaning-making constructs social relationships and produces contexts for interpreting other meanings (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Pearce, 2007), then the self-regress formation of meaning-making may be able to generate self-regress loops of relationships and contexts with different levels of abstraction, forming the relationship of relationships and the context of contexts. We ought to be aware of, however, that the word "self-regress" is not an accurate description of the process since the same concept may not bear the same meaning at various levels. Therefore, "communication," "relationship" and "context" at a higher level imply a set of rules that are more general than the rules generated by the same concept at a lower level (Watzlawick et al., 1967). In addition, according to Godel's Incomplete Theorem, the incompleteness of a lower system can only be dissolved by recourse to the rules at a higher level. However, even if the paradoxical situations at a lower level might be resolved in this manner, since the regress is infinite, it could be seen that there are always paradoxes left unresolved; therefore, the totality of the regress, including communication, social relationships and context-bound meaning making expressed by social discourses may possibly remain paradoxical.

A Reflexive Relationship between Paradox and Communication

Distinct from current Western linear view of paradoxes being either inductive or deductive, based on the principle of yin-yang formation, transformation and unification (Laozi, 2007), we would contend that communication practices and their paradoxical manifestations tend to exhibit reflexivity--they are mutually generative, inclusive and yet mutually exclusive and restrictive simultaneously. Considering human communication may be inherently paradoxical, the relationship between communication practices (language, discourse, and social interaction) and paradoxical situations may resemble the Persian poet Rumi's (2005) analogy of an ocean and a drop a water--a paradox is not only a drop in an ocean, at the same time, it is an entire ocean in a drop.

Similar to the yin-yang theorization from the East that recognizes relational interdependency and interconnectedness, Western paradigm shifts resulting from postmodern and poststructuralist thinking also emphasize reflexivity among, across, and in-between social phenomena. For example, the theory of social construction describes the situation that the subject and the object may be reversed and transformed so that "this object is society... made by men, inhabited by men, and in turn, making man" (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, p. 189). Additionally, Foucault (1991) also expresses a reflexive and productive conceptualization of power and resistance where power produces and is produced by resistance.

The postmodern reflexivity may not be viewed merely as a simple circular transposition recurring endlessly. As the yin-yang transformation and convergence indicate, each cycle of movement brings new changes to both dialectical elements. Thus, the processes possibly constitute and are constituted by a form of infinite loops with increasing levels of abstraction. Therefore, the reflexive relationship between communication practices and paradoxes could render both elements increasingly complex and abstract, considering convoluted symbolic interactions give rise to intricate paradoxes and these paradoxes subsequently bring forth more entangled communicative responses and the cycle continues on.


In this essay, we seek to theorize a roomier perspective that can better incorporate--if not reconcile--Eastern and Western ways of speaking, knowing, and living, especially in the field of intercultural communication. To do so, we consider different cultural epistemologies of communication and approaches to integrating different paradigms, which point us to embrace paradox as a theoretical construct. In essence, extending the understanding that human communication is inherently paradoxical, we argue that the ways in which we understand, approach, and theorize communication--being simultaneously the subject and the object of study--are infinitely paradoxical as well. Even though the concept of communication as paradox was hinted by cybernetic scholars, little work has been done to fully articulate, conceptualize and theorize this notion and particularly a reflexive relationship between communicative practices and paradoxes. Our theorization leads us to call upon the communicator to respond to symbolic interactions that are always and already incomplete and contradictory. We argue that a coexistence of diverse metatheoretical perspectives is most generative when communicators, especially in intercultural interactions, respond with self-reflexivity, double consciousness, and repositioning of different cultural epistemologies. We urge (intercultural) communication scholars to take seriously the generative, in-between space where opposing cultural, theoretical, or paradigmatic ideas meet. In general, it has been undertheorized that how the meeting of familiar and unfamiliar ideas can open up a more commodious space for even newer ideas without an assumed or imposed hierarchy (Bhabha, 1994).

There are two limitations embedded in our proposal. First, we recognize that our own theoretical perspective in conceptualizing paradox is rooted more in the Western tradition than in the non-Western epistemologies because both of us have been trained and become communication scholars in the U.S. universities. Second, because of the authors' shared Eastern Asian/Chinese cultural traditions, we have applied the yin-yang theory more than the other non-Western ways of knowing. In light of these limitations, we suggest that future theorization of paradoxes incorporates more non-Western and non-East Asian approaches. In addition, we recognize that paradoxes can be theorized in a variety of different ways and some specific paradoxical formations also deserve our attention, such as dialectics. However, it is simply beyond the scope of this essay to examine them all except for what is directly relevant to our interparadigmatic discussion. Moreover, we see that translating the theoretical insights of paradoxes to communication practices and applying the paradoxical perspective to forming heuristic methods have much potential to be explored further.


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Gang Luo, Ohio University, USA;

Yea-Wen Chen, San Diego State University, USA

Correspondence to:

Gang Luo

Ohio University

School of Communication Studies 400 Schoonover Center 20 E. Union Street Athens, Ohio 45701


Yea-Wen Chen

San Diego State University School of Communication 5500 Campanile Drive San Diego, CA 92182-4560

Table 1. Philosophical Comparisons of Interparadigmatic Approaches

                   Ontological Assumption

Asiacentricity/    Western ways of knowing dominate
Afrocentricity     subjective realities

The Dialectical    Dialectical tensions characterize
Approach           subjective realities

Integration        Multicultural realities; may be
                   oblivious to the inequality between
                   different cultural traditions

A Paradoxical      Socially constructed realities;
Approach           communication and social
                   relationships are inherently

                   Epistemological Assumption

Asiacentricity/    Resisting Western
Afrocentricity     imperialism and critiquing
                   power and resistance
The Dialectical    Promoting and privileging
Approach           both/and orientations
Integration        Rejecting either/or,
                   preferring the both/and
A Paradoxical      Self-reflexivity; Infinite
Approach           regress with different levels
                   of abstraction; the yin-yang
                   formation; either/or;
                   both/and; neither/nor;
                   somewhat; all of the above
                   or none of the above

                   Methodological Assumption

Asiacentricity/    Native views should be used to study the
Afrocentricity     native cultural phenomena

The Dialectical    Identifying and managing dialectical
Approach           tensions and conflicts
Integration        Fluid and unclear

A Paradoxical      Reflexive, transformative, convergent,
Approach           non-linear, and paradoxical
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Author:Luo, Gang; Chen, Yea-Wen
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Date:Jul 1, 2017
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