Meaning Essay

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The concept of meaning is most commonly associated with humanistic perspectives on the texts of communication and their interpretation by culturally situated audiences. In comparison, information denotes a social scientific conception of the differences that communication makes in later events and contexts.

Three notions of meaning have entered into communication research. First, meaning implies a saturated sense of self: an identity and an orientation toward others. Second, meaning is the outcome of innumerable communicative exchanges, accumulating as tradition. Third, meaning is an emphatically contested terrain – an object of reflexivity. The terminology of ‘meaning production’ suggests that people literally produce meanings and identities for themselves, and, in communication, they jointly accomplish meaningful social realities.

As an analytical object, meaning can be operationalized in four ideal-typical models (Jensen 2012, 11) where the constituents may, or may not, make up a pre-defined inventory and the structure a fixed matrix. This leads to four types: ‘deterministic’, ‘generative’, ‘stochastic’, and ‘indeterministic.’ Communication is rarely an entirely deterministic or indeterministic process. Thus, the two main models of meaning in media and communication research are the stochastic and generative types. The stochastic type is witnessed in the prototypical social scientific survey, experimental, or content-analytical study. Given a predefined range of content or response units, the question is which of these, and in which configurations, are manifest, as measured by an appropriate statistical technique. The generative type is associated with humanistic media studies, typically qualitative analyses of how meanings are generated in and through media texts and audience reception.


  1. Jensen, K. B. (ed.) (2012). A handbook of media and communication research: Qualitative and quantitative methodologies, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
  2. Ogden, C. K. & Richards, I. A. (1989). The meaning of meaning: A study of the influence of language upon thought and of the science of symbolism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

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