Process (Impact) and Content

Note: I may change the title of this paper, because the term "Process" is already used in too many ways, notably in Stenhouse's "Process model of the curriculum" (1975) (That model fits in some measure with my point, but is not the same thing.)

  • Putting your foot in it.
  • It's the thought that counts
  • Sending a message
  • "Don't get me wrong, but..."
  • Telling "white lies"
  • Talleyrand is alleged to have asked, on hearing of the death of the Turkish ambassador, "What did he mean by that?" 
  • "In love, assurances are practically an announcement of their opposite." (attributed to Elias Canetti)

The common feature of all these examples is their attention to issues of Process rather than Content. This is a tricky issue to unpick explicitly, but an important distinction for making sense of all kinds of complex situations, from politics to mental health, group relations to family arguments. 

Content and Process are two different frames of reference which may be brought to bear on the same situation, and often highlight quite different aspects of it. 

Content is the common-sense angle. It is about taking something at "face value". A statement means what it says and nothing else. It follows the rules of logic: a statement may be true or false (or perhaps meaningless), but it is assumed to be uttered in a vacuum. 

Process is about the impact of a statement or action on a situation. To think in Process terms is to look, like Talleyrand, behind the "presenting" stimulus for a meaning in wider terms. 

See Austin's entry on the excellent Philosophy Pages siteIf you are interested in philosophy, you may be aware of J L Austin's (1962) typology of "speech acts": "perlocutionary" and "illocutionary" acts operate within the Process frame, although the current discussion is not confined to verbal communication

Similarly, in counselling theory, Heron (1990) categorises his six possible forms of intervention with reference to the intention of the practitioner to influence the course of the conversation.

Features of Process

The fact that a communication, a gesture in two senses, an utterance, an action, has been made is more "basic" than the information it conveys. Animal communication is almost Content-free. It may fall into broad categories, such as mating calls or alarm calls or threats, but with some exceptions such as the dances of bees, its substantive Content is simply about "me" and perhaps “you”, perhaps "our relationship", but not “it” (Bateson, 1966).  Although there is some evidence that primates are capable of deception in their relationships (Dunbar, 1996), animal communication is neither true nor false. Truth values are features only of substantive (Content) communication.

It is possible to have Process communication devoid of Content: obvious examples are body language and paralinguistic communication, laughs, smiles, coughs, and sobs. These are not necessarily intentional, and although they are generally interpreted in relation to Content, their effect may be to amplify or negate the Content. Thus Process "frames" the Content. See Goffman (1975) for normal and intriguing examples and Bateson (1969) for pathological ones.

It is probably not possible to have Content without Process, which rather gives the lie to Habermas' "ideal speech act" (1988).

Incidentally, this may suggest why truth is not a terribly important criterion when assessing gossip! "Small talk" is more technically known as "phatic communion", a term coined by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1923)Dunbar (1996) argues that gossip, or more broadly “small talk” as the linguistic extension of grooming behaviour among primates, lies at the root of the development of language. The characteristic of such small talk is that “it's not what you say, it’s the fact that you say it”. Talking is used as a means of cementing relations between people, and as long as it is broadly legitimate, in the sense of conforming to cultural standards or group norms, its substantive Content matters little. Transactional Analysis refers to the Process dimension of small talk as "strokes".

Next time you are in a spontaneous informal conversation in a small group, note how topics are raised and dropped very casually: the person who insists on pursuing an issue when it has served its purpose is regarded as a bore or socially inept. The interplay between this Process function of talk and its Content can be fascinating, as it is negotiated in slightly more formal groups, and as the privilege of determining the direction of the conversation becomes the marker for status within the group. Here, too, Content is often subordinated to Process.


If this does not make much sense, think about that archetypal Process phenomenon—trust. Do not just read this—do the thinking!

Get the picture?

Process and Content in Teaching and Learning

For teachers, the common-sense reading of this distinction is between what we teach (Content) and how we teach (Process or pedagogy). Process issues tend to assume greater importance in teaching which is concerned to develop attitudes and change behaviour. We tend to concentrate on teacher-managed Process (i.e. how “well” the session went), unless something has gone wrong, and the class has for example been disruptive.

See also this paper on tutoring.Just what is learned is a matter of Content, but helping it to happen is a matter of managing the Process.

In teaching and learning, as in other communicative activities, Process is more basic than Content. Indeed, without a minimally satisfactory Process, Content never gets a look in. That Process, however, has to be tuned so that it helps rather than hinders learning. Not all pleasant, socially acceptable Process is conducive to learning—I, like many other teachers, have received evaluation sheets which say effectively, “I enjoyed the course, but I didn’t really learn anything.” Some "fun" exercises have no more significance for learning than party games (which is what they are, really).

Part of the key to understanding Process is to grasp the distinction between Symptomatic and Substantive frames. In the former, the meaning of a communication—in this case, perhaps, a comment by a teacher—is bestowed principally by the receiver, on the basis of what that communication represents to her. If the class group has norms toally at variance with those of the teacher, for example, as may be the case when the students are alienated or disaffected, a word of praise from the teacher may undermine a student's credibility with his peers, but a rebuke may enhance it.

In the latter, substantive, frame, the communication is received on the terms intended by the sender—the teacher or another student—and taken at face value. Successful transmission of Content relies heavily, although not exclusively, on recipients acquiring and using the substantive frame. The acquisition of  the substantive frame is itself a Process issue. Transmission of Content is necessary, but not sufficient, for learning to take place: that depends on a suitable fit being established between Content and Process. 


AUSTIN J L (1962) How to do Things with Words Oxford; Oxford University Press

BATESON G (1966) "Problems in Cetacean and other Mammalian Communication" reprinted in Steps to an Ecology of Mind London; Paladin, 1973 pp334-348

BATESON G (1969) "Double Bind" reprinted in Steps to an Ecology of Mind London; Paladin, 1973 pp 242-249

DUNBAR R (1996) Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language London; Faber and Faber

GOFFMAN E (1970) "Expression Games; an analysis of doubts at play" in Strategic Interaction Oxford; Basil Blackwell

GOFFMAN E (1975) Frame Analysis: an essay on the organization of experience Harmondsworth; Penguin

HABERMAS, J (1988).  Theory and Practice.  Trans. by John Viertel.  Cambridge; Polity Press.

HERON J (1990) Helping the Client London; Sage

MALINOWSKI B (1923) 'The problem of meaning in primitive languages'. Supplement to C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards (eds.) The meaning of meaning: A study of the influence of language upon thought and the science of symbolism (pp. 451-510). London; Routledge & Kegan Paul

STENHOUSE L (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, London; Heinemann

WATZLAWICK P, BAVELAS J B, JACKSON D D (1967) Pragmatics of Human Communication New York; W W Norton

See also the paper on the Hidden Curriculum on this site

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Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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