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Metacommunication [-kəmyo̅o̅′nikā′shən] (Etymology: Gk, meta + L, communicare, to inform), also spelled meta-communication, is a special form of communication that indicates how verbal information should be interpreted. It concerns stimuli surrounding the verbal communication that also have meaning, and which may or may not be congruent, supportive or contradictory of that verbal communication. The word was brought to prominence and perhaps coined by Gregory Bateson.

Human communication, in addition to verbal communication, involves nonverbal communication, kinesic and paralinguistic elements which can be seen as metacommunicative signals i.e. messages about messages. These indicate how the verbal communication should be understood and interpreted. Meaning does not depend only on literal verbal meaning, but is codetermined in a critical way by the intensity and inflection of the voice, facial expression, accompanying gestures, secondary signals sent to bystanders ,etc. The same verbal message framed by different metacommunication can mean something entirely different, including its opposite.[1]

In Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry, Gregory Bateson defines metacommunication as "all exchanged cues and propositions about (a) codification and (b) relationship between the communicators"(Ruesch and Bateson, 1951, p. 209)


While metacommunication is generally viewed as originated by Gregory Bateson, Frits Staal, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and South & Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, considered that in Indian culture the concept of metalanguage originated early in the context of linguistics and speculations on language; whereas in the West, it originated late in the context of logic.[2][3]

The term Kinesics, employed by Bateson, was first used (in 1952) by Ray Birdwhistell an anthropologist who wished to study how people communicate through posture, gesture, stance, and movement. Part of Birdwhistell's work involved making film of people in social situations and analyzing them to show different levels of communication not clearly seen otherwise. The study was joined by several other anthropologists, including Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson.

From 1952-1962, Bateson directed a research project on communication. This paid particular attention to logical paradoxes including Russell's paradox 1901 and to of Bertrand Russell's, Theory of Types, Russell's solution to it. Bateson and his associates here pioneered the concept of metacommunication - something that means different (often contradictory) things at different levels. Metacommunication is a characteristic feature of complex systems.[4]

Russell's 1902 solution to his paradox [5] comes in large part from the so-called vicious circle principle, that no propositional function can be defined prior to specifying the function's scope of application. In other words, before a function can be defined, one must first specify exactly those objects to which the function will apply (the function's domain). For example, before defining that the predicate “is a prime number,” one first needs to define the collection of objects that might possibly satisfy the predicate, namely the set, N, of natural numbers.[6] It functions as a formal definition of the function of metacommunication in communication.


Ivan Pavlov

In Ivan Pavlov's experiment in which dogs where trained to salivate upon hearing a bell ring. This was accomplished by ringing a bell just prior to feeding the dogs. After repeating this procedure for some time it was found that the dogs would salivate after hearing the bell—without the need for food being presented. They had learned that the ringing of the bell communicated "food is on the way."

Something that is not often discussed in context with this experiment is the fact that the dogs would not salivate unless they were wearing a special harness. When exposed to the bell ringing without wearing the harness, the dogs did not salivate. The dogs only salivated upon hearing the bell while wearing the harness.[7]

The bell ringing was direct communication of information. The context of the communication (the metacommunication) also conveyed information.

See also


  1. "Mind, Nature, and Consciousness: Gregory Bateson and the New Paradigm." Stanislav Grof, M.D.
  2. "The concept of metalanguage and its Indian background" Staal Frits - Journal of Indian Philosophy 3: 315-354 (1975)
  3. "Bibliography on Indian Logic and Ontology" Theory and History of Ontology by Raul Corazzon Retrieved on 2011-11-06
  4. "Bateson on Communication and Metacommunication"
  5. "Bertrand Russell and the Paradoxes of Set Theory" Book Rags synopsis
  6. "Significance of the paradox" Irvine, A. D., "Russell's Paradox", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  7. "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" (Univ. of Chicago Press, Gregory Bateson, G. 2000)

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