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Symbolic Convergence Theory

Symbolic Convergence Theory

by Lee Hopkins on May 31, 2011

in academic research

Part One of a three-part series – originally posted on my PhD blog

I have finally settled on my theory of study and my approach. Eschewing psychological theories, I am going back to communication’s roots by looking at Bormann’s Symbolic Convergence Theory.

Symbolic Convergence Theory

Symbolic Convergence Theory (SCT) is a theory-method complex (Vazquez 1993); much applied research has been conducted with Bormann’s (Bormann 1972, 1982, 1983, 1985) tri-partite structured theory.

In essence, the theory comprises four basic concepts, six dramatic structural concepts and three critical evaluation concepts (see Figure 1). Working on the presumption that individuals and groups converge around symbols by sharing their meaning (at least outwardly) to some extent, SCT analyses the shared group consciousness of a symbol (such as a common experience, an emotion, a code word, a non-verbal sign or an action) and looks to compare that shared consciousness with the reality surrounding it to check for a correlation, noting also that the artistry with which the symbol is communicated (such as a story, a movie, a joke, a non-verbal gesture) plays a part in how the group relates to the symbol.

Bormann's Symbolic Convergence Theory concepts
Figure 1. Symbolic Convergence Theory concepts

Basic Concepts. The starting point for analysis of shared symbolic meaning, Bormann argues, lies at the fantasy theme. It works to present a common experience and shape it into knowledge. An example of a fantasy theme would be ‘the Government doesn’t care about the mentally ill’. Next, the symbolic cue – which may be a word, a phrase, a gesture, a slogan – works to trigger previously shared fantasies and emotions. An example of one symbolic cue is ‘the rich all cheat on their taxes’. As Cragan and Shields (1992) point out, “bumper stickers serve invariably as symbolic cues for larger shared realities.” They act as shorthand cues, stimulating a conceptual return to known values and beliefs.

Next comes the fantasy type, a fantasy theme that has currency across a large number of rhetorical visions (see ‘Structural Concepts’, below). As an example of a fantasy type, consider phrases such as, “the bottom line”, “spin doctor” and “boat people.” Fantasy types provide known reference points for help with understanding and making meaning out of future phenomena. For example, the 9/11 atrocities and subsequent Al Qaida proclamations help categorise and make sense out of travel restrictions, increased airport security and any future terrorist activity. Finally, the saga is the oft-repeated story that surrounds a community or organisation. It might be the story of the company’s founders and the uphill struggles they faced getting the business off the ground; it might be the heroic actions of individuals in the face of devastating natural events such as floods or bushfires. It might equally be the ‘easy-going larrikin’ persona of the ‘true –blue Aussie’. It is a story around which organisational personnel and cultural communities gather and from which they draw a sense of place, identity, strength or continuity.

Structural concepts. A rhetorical vision is a five-component drama that brings people into a common symbolic reality; examples would be ‘Right to Life’, ‘Global Warming’ and ‘President of the Free World’. Rhetorical visions have a life-death cycle of consciousness-creating, raising, sustaining, declining and death (Bormann, Craig & Shields, 1990). Examples of rhetorical visions in various stages of their life-death cycle include ‘Far Right Party’ (in France and other European countries), ‘Global Financial Crisis’ and ‘AIDS epidemic’ (accepting that the African reality is different from our Western experience; see Oster (2007) and Lomborg (2005)).

Five components make a rhetorical vision. Firstly there are the dramatis personae who are the actors on the vision’s stage. Within organisations, for example, managers may be seen as either villains or heroes (or both). Politicians may equally be seen in mixed spotlights. A plotline is the action contained in the rhetorical vision. A ‘conspiring’ plotline might be one where politicians and mining companies negotiate to keep profits with the mining companies and at the same time keep votes with the politicians. A ‘romantic’ plotline might be one where a handsome prince meets and eventually marries a beautiful commoner. Scene defines the location of the action. For example, the wedding of aforesaid prince and commoner takes place in a large cathedral with hundreds of witnesses. A sanctioning agent legitimises the rhetorical vision. It may be a higher authority – God, the High Court, or Parliament – or a code of conduct or honour system, such as an organisation’s code of ethics. Finally, the master analogue is the deep structure within which the rhetorical vision is embedded. Cragan & Shields (1992) hold that there are three master analogue structures: ‘righteous’ (concerns of right and wrong, moral and immoral, just and unjust), ‘social’ (concerns of friendship, trust, caring, familial links and responsibilities), and ‘pragmatic’ (concerns of expediency, effectiveness, efficiency, maximal return on investment).

Critical evaluation concepts. Three elements comprise the critical evaluation component of SCT. For a fantasy theme to spread through a community, a rhetorical vision to move through its life-death cycle, for a saga to exist or a symbolic cue to deliver meaning, there must be a shared group consciousness within the community of focus. Whilst there can be fantasies, if they aren’t shared across the community then they are unlikely to have relevance to SCT analysis. An absence of a rhetorical vision reality link is likely to cause a chaotic rhetorical environment. The link serves as a reality check, enabling the authentic record of events and evidence of the community’s actual experiences to marry with the rhetorical vision. During the early stages of a crisis, for example, communicators can face nightmare situations where rumours spread rapidly without any basis of fact. Finally, Fantasy theme artistry reflects the skill of the story teller to present their scenario in a way that others will come to share and wish to propagate. The number of dollars invested in the presentation of the scenario is no guarantee that the scenario will find a sympathetic ear with its audience; many an expensive advertising campaign has failed to return any of its investment money despite all sorts of pretty pictures, humour or novelty. Equally, numerous examples exist on the internet where copy-cat ‘ugly’, long-form text sales letters, complete with call-out boxes of testimonials and inserted video testimonials, and with bullet-points of benefits, generate hundreds and thousands of dollars in sales for the authors, all based on the power of the author to tell their story in a compelling way that encourages the reader to take action.


Bormann, EG 1972, ‘Fantasy and rhetorical vision: The rhetorical criticism of social reality’, Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 58, pp. 396-407.

Bormann, EG 1982, ‘The Symbolic Convergence Theory of Communication: Applications and implications for teachers and consultants’, Journal of Applied Communication Research, vol. 10, no. 1, Spring82, p. 50.

Bormann, EG 1985, ‘Symbolic convergence theory: A communication formulation’, The Journal of Communication, vol. 35, pp. 128-138.

Bormann, EG 1983, ‘Symbolic convergence: Organizational communication and culture’, in Communication and organizations: An interpretive approach, eds. LL Putnam & ME Pacanowsky, Sage, Beverly Hills, CA, pp. 99-122.

Cragan, JF & Shields, DC 1992, ‘The Use of Symbolic Convergence Theory in Corporate Strategic Planning: A Case Study’, Journal of Applied Communication Research, vol. 20, no. 2, pp. 199-218.

Lomborg, E 2005, Bjorn Lomborg sets global priorities, TED, viewed 3 May 2011, <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/bjorn_lomborg_sets_global_priorities.html.

Oster, E 2007, Emily Oster flips our thinking on AIDS in Africa, TED, viewed 3 May 2011, <http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/emily_oster_flips_our_thinking_on_aids_in_africa.html.

Vazquez, GM 1993, ‘A Homo Narrans Paradigm for Public Relations: Combining Bormann’s Symbolic Convergence Theory and Grunig’s Situational Theory of Publics’, Journal of Public Relations Research, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 201-216.

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