Coordinated management of meaning

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In the social sciences, coordinated management of meaning (CMM) provides understanding of how individuals create, coordinate and manage meanings in their process of communication. Generally, it 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".[1]

People live in a world where there is constant communication. In communicating with others, people assign meanings in their messages based on past conversational experiences from previous social realities. Through communication, an underlying process takes place in which individuals negotiate a common or conflicted meanings of the world around them, thereby creating a new social reality. CMM advocates that meanings can be managed in a productive way so as to improve the state of interactions by coordinating and managing the meaning-making process.

CMM relies on three interdependent elements: coordination, management and meaning. These elements help to explain how social realities are created through conversation.

History and orientation[edit]

The theory of CMM was developed in the mid-1970s by W. Barnett Pearce (1943–2011) and Vernon E. Cronen. Communication Action and Meaning was devoted to CMM, is thorough explication of CMM, which Pearce and Cronen introduced to the common scholarly vernacular of the discipline. Their scholarly collaboration at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst offered a major contribution to the philosophy of communication as story-centered, applicable, and ever attentive to the importance of human meaning.[2]

The cluster of ideas in which CMM emerged has moved from the periphery toward greater acceptance and CMM has continued to evolve along a trajectory from an interpretive social science to one with a critical edge and then to what its founders call a "practical theory".

Aware that the intellectual footing for communication theory had shifted, the first phase of the CMM project involved developing concepts that met the twin criteria of (1) adequately expressing the richness of human communication and (2) guiding empirical investigation. Pearce describes the creation of CMM through the following story:[3]

...I think that I am the first person ever to use the awkward phrase "coordinated management of meaning". Of course, tones of voice are often more informative than the verbal content of what is said, and struggle and frustration were expressed in the tones of voice in which "CMM" was first said. For years, I had been trying to bring together what I was learning from social science research, rhetorical studies, philosophy, theology, and, in my father's term, the "School of Hard Knocks". I felt that most of the models of communication that I knew were useful but that all were limited and limiting in some important ways, and that I had to invent something that was better. Communication is about meaning,... but not just in a passive sense of perceiving messages. Rather, we live in lives filled with meanings and one of our life challenges is to manage those meanings so that we can make our social worlds coherent and live within them with honor and respect. But this process of managing our meanings is never done in isolation. We are always and necessarily coordinating the way we manage our meanings with other people. So, I concluded, communication is about the coordinated management of meaning.

— W. Barnett Pearce

CMM is one of an increasing number of theories that see communication as "performative" (doing things, not just talking "about" them) and "constitutive" (the material substance of the social world, not just a means of transmitting information within it). In CMM-speak, "taking the communication perspective" means looking at communication rather than through it, and seeing communication as the means by which we make the objects and events of our social worlds.

The "communication perspective" entails a shift in focus from theory to praxis.[4] CMM concepts and models are best understood as providing tools for naming aspects of performance. To date, CMM has found greater acceptance among practitioners than among scholars. Taking the communication perspective confers something like "communication literacy"—the ability to inscribe and read the complex process of communication in real time. Among other things, CMM's concepts and models guide practitioners in helping clients become aware of the patterns of communication which make up aspects of the social world. They want to change and help both clients and practitioners identify openings or "bifurcation points" in everyday lives. Many CMM practitioners have an explicit commitment not only to describe and understand, but to improve the conditions in which they and those around them live. They believe that the best way of making better social worlds is to improve the patterns of communication which generates them.[5]


It has been said that "CMM theory is a kind of multi-tool (like a Swiss Army knife) that is useful in any situation".[6] It is not a single theory, but rather a collection of ideas to understand how humans interact during communication. According to CMM, individuals construct their own social realities while engaged in conversation. To put it simply, communicators apply rules in order to understand what is going on during their social interaction. Based on the situation, different rules are applied in order to produce "better" patterns of communication.[7]

CMM theory is a fairly complex study focusing on both the complexity in the micro-social processes and the aspects of daily interaction.[8] Overall, it is concerned with how we coordinate and establish meaning during interactions. The theory can be complicated to teach and/or present to others, but it is best understood when it is broken down into the basics. The theory consists of three key concepts, which are further broken down into several different building blocks.

The fundamental building blocks of CMM theory focus specifically on the flow of communication between people. The three different concepts experienced either consciously or unconsciously, are coordination, management and meaning.


Coordination refers to "the degree to which persons perceive that their actions have fitted together into some mutually intelligible sequence or pattern of actions".[9] It exists "when two people attempt to make sense out of the sequencing of messages in their conversation".[1] That is, if people in the interaction can recognize what their partners are talking about, then we say the conversation come to a coordination. Scientists believes that people's desire for coordination in interaction arises from the subjectivity of meaning, which means the same message may have different meanings to different people. In order to avoid this pitfall in communication, people work together to share meanings.[10] Research shows that sense making is the foundation of coordination. By tokens within the information connected by means of channel can the logic relationship emerges, then it contributes to the sense making.[11] Sense making helps people to establish common understanding then further develops coordination between people.[12]

The concept of coordination has to do with the fact that our actions do not stand alone with regard to communication. The words or actions that we use during a conversation come together to produce patterns. These patterns, also known as stories lived, influence the behavior used during each interaction as a way to collaborate. Pearce and Cronen are quick to point out that coordination does not imply a commitment to coordinate "smoothly", but rather the concept is meant to provide the basis for being mindful of the other side of the story.[13]

There are three possible outcome of coordination:

  1. People in the interaction achieve coordination.
  2. People in the interaction failed to achieve coordination.
  3. People in the interaction achieve some degree of coordination.

If the interaction fail to achieve coordination or achieve partially coordination, the possible solution is to move the level of meaning to another level.


Our interactions are guided and defined by rules. "Interactants must understand the social reality and then incorporate rules as they decide how to act in a given situation."[1] From the use of rules, individuals manage and coordinate meanings in the conversation. "Once rules are established in a dialogue, interactants will have a sufficiently common symbolic framework for communication."[14] For instance, it would be ambiguous if a friend says "I hate you". Does the friend really hate whomever he/she is speaking to or he/she is just expressing his/her feelings at the moment? Rules will help clarify and explain this kind of meanings.

  • Constitutive rules: refer to "how behavior should be interpreted within a given context".[1] It tells us what the given behavior means and linking belief to one another and behaviors to beliefs.[15] In the example above, "I hate you" in some contexts counts as an expression of slight dissatisfaction.
  • Regulative rules: refer to "some sequence of action that an individual undertakes, and they communicate what happens next in a conversation."[1] They are also referred as "cognitive reorganizations of constitutive rules".[15] In other words, it means the behavior that is requested in certain situation. Regulative rules link the meanings in the interaction with the consequences they result to. Our body reaction can reflect on the contents of interaction.[16]
  • "Unwanted repetitive patterns": It refers to "the sequential and recurring conflictual episodes that are considered unwanted by the individuals in the conflict."[1] This phenomenon happens because "two people with particular rule systems follow a structure that obligates them to perform specific behaviors."[1] Several reasons count for unwanted repetitive patterns. First, sometimes people can't find other options than being in conflict. Second, people may feel comfortable in the conflict situation because they have experience on what others will behave in this kind of situation. Third, people may be tired of finding resolution on the conflict situation.
  • "Not everything within communication can be explained", which is called Mystery. It is the recognition that "the world and our experience of it is more than any of the particular stories that make it coherent or any of the activities in which we engage".[7] Mystery has to do with the sense of awe or wonder when communication leads to a surprising outcome. Put more simply, it is the feeling (anything from attraction to hate) one experiences when engaged in conversation that cannot be linked to the situation as a whole.

CMM theory sees each conversation as a complex interconnected series of events in which each individual affects and is affected by the other. Although the primary emphasis of CMM theory has to do with the concept of first person communication, known as a participatory view, once the concepts are understood they are more readily visible during other interactions. Furthermore, this knowledge can be applied to similar situations which will in turn lead to more effective communication.


Coordinated management of meaning states that people "organize meaning in a hierarchical manner." Theorists on CMM was in agreement on two points regarding hierarchical meaning. "First, the hierarchical of meaning defines the context in which regulative and constitutive rules are to be understood. Second, these contexts are arranged in a hierarchical af abstractness, such that higher levels of the hierarchy help to define – and may subsume – lower level."[17] It can interpreted to each of the contexts in the "hierarchical can be understood by looking at the other contexts, and each contexts is always contextualizing other contexts."[18]

There are six levels of meaning (listed from lower level to higher level): content, speech act, episodes, relationship, life scripts, and cultural patterns.


The content or message according to CMM theory relates to the raw data and information spoken aloud during communication.To put it simply, content is the words used to communicate. The content is essentially the basic building blocks of any language; however, it is important to note that the content by itself is not sufficient to establish the meaning of the communication.[19]

Speech act[edit]

Another integral part of the CMM theory includes the speech act. "Speech acts communicate the intention of the speaker and indicate how a particular communication should be taken."[1] The simplest explanation of a speech act is "actions that you perform by speaking. They include compliments, insults, promises, threats, assertions, and questions".[20] CMM theory draws upon the speech act theory, which further breaks down speech acts into separate categories of sounds or utterances. Though the speech act theory is much more detailed, it is important to have an understanding of both illocutionary and perlocutionary utterances.

  • An illocutionary utterance is speech that intends to make contact with a receiver.
  • A perlocutionary utterance includes speech that intends to alter the behavior of the receiver.

There are many different utterances or speech acts including questions, answers, commands, promises and statements. Having knowledge of each of these plays a large part in an individual being able to participate in a communications exchange.


An episode is a situation created by persons in a conversation. The same content can take on different meaning when the situation is different. For example, a phrase used among close family or friends may take on an entirely different meaning in a job interview. In the interactions, people may punctuate differently on a same episode. This will result to people deal with the differences on their punctuations on subsequent episodes. Especially when people situated the bi-cultural or multi-cultural situation has identified a number of specific acts which occurred in an equivalent situation in the other culture, would have totally disrupted the episode.[21]


Relationship is the higher level of the meaning, where "relational boundaries in that parameters are established for attitudes and behaviors."[1] This building block is fairly easy to understand as it is the dynamic of what connects two (or more) individuals during an exchange of information. Examples of a relationship could be defined as a parent/child, teacher/student, strangers, etc. Communication between strangers would likely be different from conversations amongst family members.

Life scripts[edit]

Life scripts can be understood as the patterns of episodes. On this level, "every individual's history of relationships and interactions will influence rules and interaction patterns."[17] Life scripts are similar to the autobiography of individuals. It comprises the person's exceptions for variety communicative events.[22] Several CMM texts describe this building block as a "script for who we are" as the role an individual plays in the movie of life. For example, an individual may believe they are funny, and therefore may act according to that perspective while engaged in different conversations.

Cultural patterns[edit]

The concept of culture in CMM theory relates to a set of rules for acting and speaking which govern what we understand to be normal in a given episode. There are different rules for social interaction depending on the culture. To some extent, during communication individuals act in accordance with their cultural values. While we often don't even realize that culture impacts communication during day to day interactions, people must learn to be compatible with individuals from different cultures in order to have effective communication.

Models and applications[edit]

Pearce is adamant that CMM is not just an interpretive theory but is meant to be a practical theory as well.[23][24] There is extensive literature involving the use of CMM to address family violence, intra-community relations, workplace conflict and many other social issues.[25][26][27] A research employs CMM to understand the "perceived acts of discrimination manifested within the context of everyday interactions."[28] By applying CMM into research, the researchers are able to explicate the rules of meaning-making that majority and minority groups followed in understanding the discrimination act. Another application example was done in 1994 when CMM was initially recognized by people. It believes that the framework of CMM provides an understanding of "the structure and process of consumer decision making by placing those decisions within the context of a family's social reality".[29]

Along this line, CMM theorists have used or developed several analysis models to help understand and improve communication. The models addressed here are the hierarchy model, the serpentine model, charmed and strange loops. Examples for the first model have been adapted from ones Pearce uses in one of his writings where he analyzes the courtroom conversation between Ramzi Yousef, the individual convicted of bombing the World Trade Center in 1994, and Kevin T. Duffy, the federal judge who presided over his trial. In Yousef's statement before sentencing, he criticizes the US for its hypocrisy; he accuses the US of being the premier terrorist, and reasserts his pride in his fight against the US. At the sentencing, Duffy accuses Yousef of being a virus, evil, perverting the principles of Islam, and interested only in death. Neither individual really talks to the other, but rather at them.[30]

Hierarchy model[edit]

The hierarchy model is the hierarchy of organized meanings as illustrated in the § Meaning section. The hierarchy model is a tool for an individual to explore the perspectives of their conversational partners while also enabling them to take a more thorough look at their own personal perspective. The elements at the top of each list form the overall context in which each story takes place and have an influence on the elements below them. The levels of meaning from lowest to highest are: content, speech act, episodes, relationship, life scripts, and cultural patterns.

Stephen W. Littlejohn and Karen A. Foss in their book Theories of Human Communication (tenth edition)[31] describe a type of logical force called contextual force. Contextual force causes a person to follow a form of logic that leads one to believe that an action or interpretation is a direct result of, and is appropriate to, the context. For example, "How else could I have reacted?" or "Naturally I acted that way, it was appropriate to the situation," leads to the mentality of "I did what I had to do." Secondly, in CMM contexts are extremely important and they are not static and unchanging. For example, a relationship that is longstanding can contextualize the episode of an ugly argument as something unpleasant, but unavoidable. The couple will most likely worth though this ugly argument because of their relationship contextualizing the episode. However, an episode of an ugly argument can contextualize a relationship if a couple is on their first date. Therefore the argument is more likely to contextualize the relationship is over or not worth pursuing. What contextualizes what in the hierarchy of organized meanings overlaps and is interlinked in a complicated hierarchy of meanings which can shift at any moment.

Serpentine model[edit]

The CMM theorists take the hierarchy model a step further by reinforcing the importance of interaction and adding the aspect of time. Pearce stresses that communication cannot be done alone and that furthermore this usually occurs before or after another's actions. Therefore, understanding past events and their impact on individuals is essential to improving communication. This new model is called the serpentine model and visually demonstrates how communication is a back and forth interaction between participants rather than just a simple transmission of information.[32]

Charmed and strange loop[edit]

The embedded contexts illustrated in the hierarchy model represent a stable hierarchy. It suggests that higher levels subsume lower levels. Meanwhile, sometimes "lower levels can reflect back and affect the meaning of higher levels."[1] This process is termed "loop". CMM believes that there is a stronger "contextual effect", which works from higher levels to the lower levels, and a weaker "implicative effect", which works the other way.[33] When loops are consistent with the hierarchy, it is identified as a "charmed loop". In this kind of interaction, each person's perceptions and actions help to reinforce the other's perceptions and actions.[34]

When the lower levels are inconsistent with the higher levels, it is called a "strange loop". Essentially, "a 'strange' loop is a repetitive interactional pattern that alternates between contradictory meanings".[35] For example, the alcoholic identifies that he is an alcoholic and then quits drinking. Since he has quit drinking, he convinces himself that he is not really an alcoholic and so he starts drinking again, which makes him an alcoholic. He alternates between contradictory perceptions of being an alcoholic and not being an alcoholic. The charmed and strange loop model also has its applications. In a research regarding the social construction of male college student logical forces, the charmed and strange loop model was utilized in studying male college students' narratives in describing their memorable sexual experiences.

Less commonly, there is a third variation called "subversive" loop. Texts and contexts within a subversive loop are mutually invalidating and can prevent coherence and coordination. It may result in intentionally outrageous behavior, efforts to act in uninterruptible ways, or refusal to recognize the possibility that the outsider can understand the situation of the insider.[36]


CMM theory is regarding as kind of multi-tool by providing a framework to structure different themes. In this regard, there are lots of qualitative study using CMM to illustrate its utility for framing their findings. Because people interpret messages and know the rules or guide which can follow and have actions constitute appropriate responses. Now, its focus on cultural influence to get insights into how individuals negotiate complex messages occurring at different levels of meaning.[37] Since CMM attempts to explain the process by group member to make sense out of the regular path of messages and carried out into a group conversation. So according to CMM, individual perspective with group approach conversation need to combine and create a better meaning-building.[38]

  • Qualitative experiment framework tool
  • Online chat room user experience by applying CMM theory, conduct a textual analysis
  • Data analysis tool though on how people use complex, multilevel systems of reference to derive meaning and guide behaviors[39]

Theory criticism[edit]

In order to provide criticism of the CMM theory, it is important to establish a baseline for what accounts for a "good" study. Many scholars use different criteria for determining what makes a theory relevant, but they most often surround the following six concepts.[40]

  1. Theories should be evaluated on their ability to produce hypotheses that are consistent with relevant evidence. CMM theory falls short under the criteria of rule 1 as it does not set out to provide measureable hypotheses that can be compared to any other situation. While CMM tries to outline the cause and effect relationship of communication, it fails to create consistencies as the theory dictates that each situation is different.
  2. General theories are preferred to less general theories. From the perspective of this rule, CMM theory is very general; however it is also very vague. The theory has difficulty focusing on exactly what is important in each interaction thereby not allowing those who study the theory to understand what is considered critical in a communicative interaction.
  3. Theories that produce several hypotheses are preferred to those that produce few. From this perspective, CMM theory fails as it neglects to have even a single hypothesis that is testable.
  4. It is more beneficial to evaluate research programs rather than individual theories. As CMM theory focuses on levels of contact between two (or more) persons engaged in communication, these findings from CMM research contribute beyond mere observation[41] it is unsuccessful as a way to evaluate anything other than individual interactions.
  5. The overall implications of a theory mean that those with several are preferred over those with few. CMM theory focuses on how we create our social environments in the present, however it fails to predict how the theory can affect future events.
  6. Simplicity is considered a virtue. In accordance with this rule, CMM theory falls short. CMM is an extremely broad theory with many different terms, views and loopholes which makes a multifaceted study of communication even more complex

CMM has been criticized for too broad in its scope and highly abstract in its nature. "Poole wrote 'It is difficult ... to paint with broad strokes and at the same time give difficult areas the attention they deserve'.".[17] In 1987, Brenders also stated that "in its broad - stroked approach to human interaction, CMM has missed many of the linguistic, international, and theoretical nuances necessary for an understanding of communicative meaning"[42] It is also criticized for its conceptual apparatus as "incomplete with regard to a full examination of the material layering of practices"[43]

From a humanistic perspective, CMM theory is seen as valuable as it seeks to provide a way to clarify communication for better interaction and understanding. Its utility lies in "how people achieve meaning, their potential recurring conflicts, and the influence of the self on the communication process is admirable."[1] It promotes reform by encouraging individuals to explain particular viewpoints in order to reach understanding.

The final point can be seen as both a criticism and positive critique. Pearce and Cronen are constantly building upon the CMM theory which was originally outlined in the 1970s. By constant corrections and revisions, the theorists are working toward improving the examination of communication interactions; however, with each new update, minor course corrections alter the terms and meanings which increase the complexity of the overall theory.

CMM has guided research in an array of context and disciplines.[23][44]

Related communication theories[edit]


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