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Coordinated Management of Meaning

people construct meaning on the basis of exchanging rules

History and Orientation

Pearce and Cronen (1980) developed the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) theory. According to CMM, two people who are interacting socially, construct the meaning of their conversation. Each of the individuals is also comprised of an interpersonal system which helps explain their actions and reactions.

The CMM theory is related to a number of theories: (e.g.) Speech Act, Symbolic Interaction and Systems Theory.

Core Assumptions and Statements

The theory of CMM says basically that persons-in-conversation construct their own social realities. Pearce and Cronen (1980) believe that CMM is useful in our everyday lives. People within a social situation first want to understand what is going on and apply rules to figure things out. They act on the basis of their understanding, employing rules to decide what kind of action is appropriate.

Pearce and Cronen (1980) use the term ‘making social worlds’ in relation to CMM. People have a vision of what they think is needed, noble and good and also hate and fear certain things. People want to accomplish things in life and they hope to manage things whenever they are in conflict. Coordination is difficult when two people have different views; this is called different logics of meaning and action.

CMM is a rule based theory. Constitutive rules are essentially rules of meaning, used by communicators to interpret or understand an event or message. Regulative rules are essentially rules of action: they determine how to respond or behave.

In our language we pick out some things for our attention and not others. When we pay attention to certain events our language improves in writing and practice. CMM offers three terms as a way of applying the communication perspective to the events and objects of our social worlds: coordination, coherence, and mystery.

Coordination directs our attention to the ways in which our actions come together to produce patterns. These patterns comprise the events and objects of the social world in which we live. Coordination suggests that all events and objects in our social worlds are constructed by interweaved activities of multiple persons.

Coherence directs our attention to the stories that we tell that make our lives meaningful. The construction of meaning is an inherent part of what it means to be human, and the ‘story’ is the primary form of this process. With this in mind, CMM suggests that we tell stories about many things, including our own individual and collective identity and the world around us. There is always a tension between the stories we tell to make the world coherent and stories we live as we coordinate with other people. CMM focuses on a powerful dynamic that accounts for the joys, frustrations, surprises and tragedies of social life.

The term mystery is used to remind us that there is more to life than the mere fact of daily existence. Pearce and Cronen (1980) believe that any attempt to reduce our lives to mere facts is a mistake and will ultimately fail. In other words mystery directs our attention to the fact that the universe is far bigger and subtler than any possible set of stories by which we can make it coherent. It makes sense to ask, of any social pattern, ‘how is it made’ and ‘how might we remake it differently’.

Conceptual Model

Not applicable.

Favorite Methods

Speec-act analysis and interaction-analysis.

Scope and Application

Pearce and Cronen (1980) present the CMM as a practical theory, designed to improve life.


A public dialogue was held about how a Colombian city could achieve safety and prosperity. One participant made a suggestion that would involve the police. Before this person had finished speaking, another interrupted, shouting angrily, “The police? The police are corrupt!” Another shouted, with equal intensity, “No, they are not corrupt!”

This moment can be seen a point of creating social worlds. Our social worlds are created differently depending on what the facilitator does in this instance and how others act. The following statements show the creation of social worlds by the acts of speakers and others: 

‘If the police were not corrupt, what would be different?’

‘I see that confidence in the police is important. Before we continue let’s talk about this’.

Example from Pearce (2001) p 9-10.


Key publications

  • Pearce, W. B., & Cronen, V. (1980). Communication, action, and meaning: The creation of social realities. New York: Praeger.
  • Cronen, V., & Pearce, W. B. (1982). The Coordinated Management of Meaning: A theory of communication. In F. E. X. Dance (Ed.)., Human communication theory, 61-89. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Peace, W.B. (2001). Introduccion a la teoria del Manjeo Coordinado del Significado, Sistemas Familiares (article published in Spanish in Argentina journal) 17: 5-16
  • Pearce, W. Barnett, et al. (1980). "The Structure of Communication Rules and the Form of Conversation: An Experimental Simulation." Western Journal of Speech Communication 44: 20-34.
  • Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc
  • Pearce, W. “Bringing News of Difference: Participation in Systemic Social Constructionist Communication,” Innovations in Group Facilitation: Applications in Natural Settings, 94-116.
  • Trimbur, J. Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition, “Social Construction,” 275-77.
  • Philipsen, G. (1995). “The Coordinated Management of Meaning Theory of Pearce, Cronen, and Associates,” in Watershed Research Traditions in Human Communication Theory, ed. Donald Cushman and Branislav Kovocic (Albany: State University of New York Press): 13-43.

See also: Symbolic Interactionism, Information Theories, Speech Act, System Theory.
See also Language Theories and Linguistics