Klaus Krippendorff
Annenberg School for Communication Library Archives

Oral History of Klaus Krippendorff (1932-2022)

Oral History interviews with Klaus Krippendorff, recorded in 2016 and 2017

Klaus Krippendorff (1932–2022) was a distinguished communication scholar, who spent his career at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. He made notable contributions to a range of disparate fields, including the methodology of content analysis, information theory, cybernetics, discourse analysis, and design.

Over his decades of teaching at Annenberg, Krippendorff taught a series of long-running graduate seminars, notably Content Analysis, Models of Communication, Semantics of Communication, and Language and Social Constructions of Realities.

When he died in 2022 at the age of 90, Krippendorff was the longest-tenured faculty member in the School’s history.

Klaus Krippendorff was interviewed by Jefferson Pooley on December 20, 2016, and January 18, February 22, April 12, and May 17, 2017, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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Session One (December 20, 2016)

The interview focuses on Krippendorff’s childhood through to his decision to leave for the United States in 1961. His parents’ familiarity with the U.S., including affiliations with a German-American exchange program, is discussed, alongside his father’s occupational background as an academic engineer. Special attention is paid to Krippendorff’s childhood years in Halberstadt, including the city’s history and character. The interview discusses Krippendorff’s remembrances of the Nazi era, including the treatment of Jews in Halberstadt, up through the end of World War II. The Allied bombing of Halberstadt in April 1945, which hit Krippendorff’s house, is recounted in great detail, including his family’s re-establishment in the nearby village of Schwanebeck in the Russian zone of control. He describes his father’s improvised machine-repair business, subsequent imprisonment by Russian authorities, release, and emigration to West Germany (near Düsseldorf). The interview traces the plan for the rest of the family, including Krippendorff, to escape what had become East Germany, after completing a three-year engineering apprenticeship in 1949. The escape itself is described in great detail, followed by an account of Krippendorff’s matriculation to Hanover’s state engineering school. After recounting a stint as an engineering consultant in Düsseldorf, he describes his decision to apply to the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm alongside his involvement in the informal youth association Wandervogel. His experience at Ulm with students and influential professors (including Max Bense, Horst Rittel, and Bruce Archer) is discussed, along with the school’s faculty politics. Krippendorff’s practical diploma project, a motor-grader, and especially his thesis, on the sign and symbol characteristics of objects, is described in light of his subsequent intellectual trajectory.

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Session Two (January 18, 2017)

The session focuses on the 1960s, beginning with Krippendorff’s move to the United States in 1961 on a Ford Foundation International Fellowship and Fulbright travel grant. He recounts his brief stint with the psychology department at Princeton University, leaving at the suggestion of Princeton psychologist Hadley Cantril. On Cantril’s suggestion, Krippendorff traveled to meet with George Miller (MIT), Jerome Bruner (Harvard), Anatol Rappoport (Michigan), and George Gerbner (Illinois). He recounts his encounters, including an important visit to Michigan State University, where he was recruited to join its communication doctoral program. Krippendorff describes how, visiting Illinois, he visited with both Heinz von Foerster, Ross Ashby, Dallas Smythe, and Gerbner, and decided to join the Institute for Communications Research doctoral program. Krippendorff recounts his experience with Illinois faculty, especially Ashby’s teaching around systems, information theory, and cybernetics, as well as his appointment at the young Annenberg School of Communications (ASC) at the University of Pennsylvania alongside Gerbner, the School’s new dean, in 1964. Krippendorff’s dissertation project on content analysis, along with a major conference he organized on the topic in 1967 at Annenberg, are detailed. His early participation in, and experiences with, Gerbner’s Cultural Indicators project are recounted. Krippendorff also touches on his memories of the Annenberg School as it transformed from a media arts orientation to a scholarly focus. He discusses some of his late 1960s and early 1970s engagement with information theory and cybernetics in published papers.

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Session Three (February 22, 2017)

The session begins with Krippendorff’s recollections about the Annenberg School of Communications (ASC) in the late 1960s and 1970s. He touches on ASC student discontent in 1973, the resulting unrest, and George Gerbner’s renewed tenure as dean. The history of Krippendorff’s engagement with content analysis is a major theme, including his conceptual and epistemological ideas. He recounts the backstory to his dissertation on the topic, his ongoing work through the 1970s, Krippendorff’s Alpha, and his Sage-published Content Analysis book (1980). Krippendorff describes his involvement, beginning in the late 1960s, with the International Communication Association, including his 1984–1985 presidency. He returns to the influence of Ross Ashby on his thinking about, and work on, information theory in the 1970s. The session concludes with Krippendorff describing his early courses at the ASC.

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Session Four (April 12, 2017)

The session focuses on Krippendorff’s lifelong engagement with cybernetics, beginning with his exposure to ideas at Ulm through to his 1980s turn to second-order, social constructionist cybernetics. He revisits his graduate school encounters with Rosh Ashby, and his ongoing importance for his (Krippendorff’s) thought. His involvement in cybernetics-related conferences and scholarly societies, like the American Society for Cybernetics and the Society for General Systems Research, are recounted. Considerable attention is paid to Krippendorff’s organization of a 1974 Annenberg School of Communications conference, on Communication and Control in Social Processes, and the 1979 book that emerged from the conference. Krippendorff traces his constructionist turn to Margaret Mead’s paper at the 1967 Gaithersburg American Society for Cybernetics gathering, though he explains that his full engagement with what he called the cybernetics of cybernetics occurred in the early 1980s. His Annenberg teaching on cybernetics-related themes is discussed. Krippendorff describes the cybernetics implications for communication theory and ethics, through to publications appearing in the late 2000s.

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Session Five (May 17, 2017)

The session centers on Krippendorff’s engagement with design and design analysis. After briefly revisiting Krippendorff’s experiences at Ulm, the session turns to his revival of interest in design issues in the early to mid-1980s. Particular attention is paid to Krippendorff’s collaboration with Reinhardt Butter on product semantics, including the backstory behind early publications and the idea’s reception among designers and others. His Annenberg School teaching on semantics and the social construction of reality is discussed. He recounts his 1986–1987 sabbatical at the Ohio State University, where he also worked with a design consulting firm, beginning his engagement with Phillips Eindhoven. He recounts how his interest in design led to his first serious engagement with discourse, in particular his 1998 keynote at the Society for Science of Design Studies. He discusses the overlap, and resonances, between his cybernetics work from the period and the product semantics idea. The background to the 2006 book The Semantic Turn is also discussed, including the influence of the later thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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Krippendorff’s Modified Transcript

This modified transcript was significantly edited by Klaus Krippendorff.

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