According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the term “circulation” has Latin as its etymological root and generally denotes the action of movement in a circle, a continuous repetition of a series of actions or events in the same direction (e.g. the body’s circulatory system), or transmission or passage of anything (e.g. money) from hand to hand (“Etymology: Circulation”). Additionally, the term “circulation” relates closely to its root term “circul” (now circle), which began as a geometric denotation of a perfectly round plane figure (“Etymology: Circul”). Contemporary scholarship utilizing or theorizing “circulation” seems tied to its various denotations; according to the OED, the term evolves to denote a system of the body, monetary exchange, and amount of usage (e.g. whether or not something is “in circulation”).

Disciplines that often use or theorize the term “circulation” include but are not limited to: mass media studies, sociology, medicine and health science, physics, geometry, literature, writing studies, and communication studies. Disciplines most using or theorizing “circulation” seem to be mass media, geological and medical sciences, and rhetoric. Mass media studies and rhetoric usually use and theorize “circulation” as a measure of effects (e.g. comparative readership numbers of modes of advertising or newspaper venues). In geological sciences, “circulation” often seems seen in scholarship on environmental processes and energy sources (e.g. Bravo et al’s (2010) Fire-rainfall Relationships in Argentine Chaco Savannas”). In medical sciences, “circulation” often relates to blood flow or information processing (e.g. Varol et al’s (2010) “Mean Platelet Volume in Patients with Prehypertension and Hypertension”) The major disciplinary differences between various modes of understanding “circulation” conceptually seem to be relative specificity of producer, consumer, and object. Mass media scholars, for instance, often seek direct cause-and-effect measurement (in terms of success or failure) of a producer or object’s relative efforts of persuasion (e.g. a specific advertiser’s influence on newspaper READERSHIP). Rhetorical and sociological scholars, conversely, tend to focus on ways in which publics are incorporated and contrasted into social bodies through various technological modalities (e.g. how class systems come to be reinforced or subverted through different publications).[[#_ftn1|[1]]

Circulation and Mass Media Studies
In mass media studies, “circulation” seems used as a measure of effects. Lacy and Martin (2004), for example, provide a literature review of research on newspaper content, circulation, and advertising. Using economic theory describing product differentiation strategies, the authors (2004) suggest that newspapers can increase reader circulation in three ways: (1) serve more people (2) serve more information needs (3) serve more information tailored to individuals’ information needs (21). Their approach, like many mass media approaches, situates “circulation” as a specific (applied) measurement of success or failure for various media outlets/projects.

Circulation and Marx

Perhaps a bit differently, in his essay defending Karl Marx’s inclusion of media technologies within his communication theory, Christian Fuchs (2010) contends Marx is the founding father of critical media studies (34). He discusses Marx’s sphere of circulation, wherein capital transforms its value form (17). More specific, “circulation” (around a goal of profit and through commodity objects) also occurs within the sphere of production (capitalism) (18). Like Lacy and Martin (2004), Fuchs (2010) also seems interested in “circulation” of specific commodities; yet, he remains committed to how such circulation influences (more macro-level) public political ideology.

Rhetorical Circulation

Catherine Chaput (2010) offers a theoretical model of rhetorical “circulation”—in opposition to Lloyd Bitzer’s seminal “rhetorical situation”—whereby “success derives from a better understanding of differently situated positions and an enhanced ability to engage differently situated people, processes that open dialogue rather than win debates” (19). For Chaput, “circulation” proves a more fluid metaphor for rhetoricians seeking understanding of “an evolving ecological space of signifying and becoming” (21). Similarly, Vilma Hänninen provides a conceptual model of “narrative circulation” that, she argues, “integrates the knowledge and understanding provided by separate research fields of human sciences” (70). Her use of “circulation,” therefore, capitalizes on the term’s ability to denote incorporation of disparate elements into a fluid system.

Supplementing Michael Warner’s theory of circulation, rhetorical scholar Lester Olson (2009) suggests that “re-circulation” of an eighteenth-century print series across “place, time, and meeting” influenced “the eventfulness and timeliness of its contingent meanings and the shifting terrain of its rhetorical usages” (2). For him, “circulation” or “re-circulation,” as a theory, involves not a perfect circle of similar, unified public interpretations (like its geometric denotations) but instead a weighted and imperfect “terrain” (2) upon which various publics come to perceive certain images.

Rhetorical Circulation as a Cultural Process

In “‘Sighting’ the Public: Iconoclasm and Public Sphere Theory,” Cara Finnegan and Jiyeon Kang (2004) assert: “Circulation should be viewed as a ‘cultural process’ through which its own forms of interpretation, evaluation, and cultural principles and instruments are ‘created by interactions between specific types of circulating forms and the interpretive communities built around them’” (p. 393). Simply put, the circulation of certain images in distinct venues (or “forms”) allows audiences greater perceptual understanding of those images. As Finnegan and Kang (2004) summarize: “Perception is the activity by which we create our aesthetic experience” (p. 385), and “publics are themselves on the move, actively making sense of the stream of images, not captive to their power but participating in meaning-making” (pp. 395-6). In Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs, Finnegan expands circulation in her examination of the Farm Security Administration’s propagation of poverty images. She writes: “Overall, then, an account of rhetorical circulation enables not only an understanding of the complexity and multiplicity of ways in which the magazines pictured poverty, but also a deeper appreciation of how and why the photographs circulated at all” (p. 224). Perhaps as a medium between mass media scholarship and rhetorical scholarship, therefore, Finnegan’s (2004) “circulation” proves an apt theoretical means of measuring both quantitative and qualitative effects of ideas across various agents (producers, consumers, and objects).

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Bravo, S., Kunst, C., Grau, R., Arvaóz, E. Fire-rainfall relationships in Argentine Chaco savannas. Journal of Arid Environments, 74(10), 1319-1323.

Chaput, C. (2010). Rhetorical circulation in late capitalism: Neoliberalism and the overdetermination of affective energy. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 43(1), 1-25.

Circulation. (n.d.) In Oxford English Dictionary online. Retrieved from

Circul. (n.d.) In Oxford English Dictionary online. Retrieved from

Finnegan, C.A. (2003). Picturing poverty: Print culture and FSA photographs. Washington and London: Smithsonian Books.

Finnegan, C.A. & Kang, J. (2004). ‘Sighting’ the public: Iconoclasm and public sphere theory. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 90(4), 377-402.

Fuchs, C. (2010). Grounding critical communication studies: An inquiry into the communication theory of Karl Marx. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 34(1), 15-41.

Hänninen, V. (2004). A model of narrative circulation. Narrative Inquiry, 14(1), 69-85.

Lacy, S. & Martin, H.J. (2004). Competition, circulation, and advertising. Newspaper Research Journal, 25(1), 18-39.

Olson, L.C. (2009). Pictorial representations of British America resisting rape: Rhetorical re-circulation of a print series portraying the Boston port bill of 1774. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 12(1), 1-35.

Varol, E., Akcay, S., Icli, A., Yucel, H., Ozkan, E., Erdogan, D., Ozaydin, M. (2010). Mean platelet volume in patients with prehypertension and hypertension. Clinical Hemorheology & Microcirculation, 45(1), 67-72.