37 How We Develop Communication Theories

At this point, you may be wonder where communication theories come from. Because we cannot completely rely on our personal theories for our communication, people like your professors develop communication theories by starting with their own personal interests, observations, and questions about communication (Miller & Nicholson). Those of us who study communication are in a continual process of forming, testing, and reforming theories of communication (Littlejohn & Foss) so that we have a better understanding of our communicative practices. There are three essential steps involved in developing Communication theories: 1) Ask important questions, 2) look for answers by observing communicative behavior, and 3) form answers and theories as a result of your observations (Littlejohn & Foss).

Asking important questions is the first step in the process of discovering how communication functions in our world. Tannen’s work grew out of her desire to find out answers to questions about why men and women “can’t seem to communicate,” a commonly held theory by many. As a result of her line of questioning, she has spent a career asking questions and finding answers. Likewise, John Gottman has spent his career researching how married couples can be relationally successful. Both of their findings, and the theories the have developed, often contradict common beliefs about how men and women communicate, as well as long-term romantic relationships.

However, simply asking questions is not enough. It is important that we find meaningful answers to our questions in order to continue to improve our communication. In the field of Communication, answers to our questions have the potential to help us communicate better with one another, as well as provide positive social change. If you’ve ever questioned why something is the way it is, perhaps you’re on your way to discovering the next big theory by finding meaningful answers to your questions.

When we find answers to our questions, we are able to form theories about our communication. Answering our questions helps us develop more sophisticated ways of understanding the communication around us – theories! You may have a theory about how to make friends. You use this theory to guide your behavior, then ask questions to find out if your theory works. The more times you prove that it works, the stronger your theory becomes about making friends. But, how do we know if a theory is good, or not?

Developing Good Theories

Take a moment to compare Newton’s theory of gravity to communication theories. Simply put, Newton theorized that there is a force that draws objects to the earth. We base our physical behaviors on this theory, regardless of how well we understand its complexities. For example, if you hold a pen above a desk and let go, you know that it will fall and hit the desk every time you drop it. In contrast, communication theories change and develop over time (Infante, Rancer & Womack; Kaplan; Kuhn). For example, you might theorize that smiling at someone should produce a smile back. You speculate that this should happen most of the time, but it probably would not surprise you if it does not happen every time. Contrast this to gravity. If you dropped a pen, and it floated, you would likely be very surprised, if not a little bit worried about the state of the world.

Communication Theory Now

The Environmental Paradigm Shift

Not long ago those concerned about environmental issues were considered minority or fringe groups and, as a result, many of their concerns were dismissed. Yet today environmental concerns have so infiltrated the mainstream that it is now “trendy” to be an environmentalist. Thanks to scientists asking difficult theoretical and practical questions about consumption of scarce resources, awareness about air and water quality, food safety, and global warming has become part of global public discourse and “environmentalism has caught on everywhere.” According to Jackson, “There’s been a paradigm shift in society away from thinking of the Earth as an unending source of resources to instead looking at it as a wider living ecosystem that we are slowly killing. The shift is evident in everything from popular movies to eco-friendly products. From international political treaties regarding environmental policies to waste management strategies within small communities (Jackson).” In fact, evidence has contributed so significantly to theories around global warming that NASA now reports that 97% of climate scientists believe that “climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.”

If communication theories are not 100% consistent, like theories in the physical sciences, why are they useful? This question has initiated a great deal of debate among those who study communication. While there is no definitive answer to this question, there are a number of criteria we use to evaluate the value of communication theories. According to Littlejohn and Foss, scope, parsimony, heuristic value, openness, appropriateness, and validity are starting places for evaluating whether or not a theory is good.

  • Scope refers to how broad or narrow a theory is (Infante, Rancer & Womack; Shaw & Costanzo). Theories that cover various domains are considered good theories, but if a theory is too broad it may not account for specific instances that are important for understanding how we communicate. If it is too narrow, we may not be able to understand communication in general terms. Narrow theories work well if the range of events they cover can be applied to a large number of situations. It is easier to understand some theories when we are given examples or can see being played out.
  • Parsimony refers to the idea that, all things being equal, the simplest solution takes precedence over a more complicated one. Thus, a theory is valuable when it is able to explain, in basic terms, complex communicative situations. If the theory cannot be explained in simple terms it is not demonstrating parsimony.
  • Heuristic Value means that a theory prompts other theorists to engage in further study and theorizing about a given problem. The Greeks used the term heurisko, meaning “I find” to refer to an idea, which stimulates additional thinking and discovery. This is an important criterion that facilitates intellectual growth, development, and problem solving. For most Communication theories, it would be quite easy to track their development as more people weighed in on the discussion.
  • Openness is the quality that a theory allows for, and recognizes, multiple options and perspectives. In essence, a good theory acknowledges that it is “tentative, contextual, and qualified” (Littlejohn & Foss, 30) and is open to refinement. The openness of a theory should allow a person to examine its multiple options and perspectives in order to personally determine if the theory holds up or not.
  • Appropriateness refers to the fit between the underlying theoretical assumptions and the research question. Theories must be consistent with the assumptions, goals, and data of the research in question. Let’s say you want to understand the relationship between playing violent video games and actual violence. One of your assumptions about human nature might be that people are active, rather, than passive agents, meaning we don’t just copy what we see in the media. Given this, examining this issue from a theoretical perspective that suggests people emulate whatever they see in the media would not be appropriate for explaining phenomenon.
  • Validity refers to the worth and practical nature of a theory. The question should be asked, “is a theory representative of reality?” There are three qualities of validity — value, fit, and generalizability. Is a theory valuable for the culture at large? Does it fit with the relationship between the explanations offered by the theory and the actual data? Finally, is it generalizable to a population beyond the sample size? In our example of the relationship between violent video games and actual violence, let’s say we studied 100 boys and 100 girls, ages 12-15, from a small rural area in California. Could we then generalize or apply our theories to everyone who plays video games?
Graphic. Scope: how broad or narrow a theory is. Parsimony: All things being equal, the simplest solution takes precedence over more complicated one. Heuristic value: A theory prompts other theorists to engage in further study and theorizing about a given problem. Openness: The quality that a theory allows for, and recognizes, multiple options and perspectives. Appropriateness: The fit between the underlying theoretical assumptions and the research question. Validity: The worth and practical nature of a theory.

The above criteria serve as a starting point for generating and evaluating theories. As we move into the next section on specific theoretical paradigms, you will see how some of these criteria work. Let’s now turn to look at ways to more easily conceptualize the broad range of communication theories that exist.

Theoretical Paradigms

One way to simplify the understanding of complex theories is to categorize multiple theories into broader categories, or paradigms. A paradigm is a collection of concepts, values, assumptions, and practices that constitute a way of viewing reality for a community that shares them, especially an intellectual community. According to Kuhn, intellectual revolutions occur when people abandon previously held paradigms for new ones. For example, when Pythagoras in the 6th century B.C. argued the earth was a sphere, rather than flat, he presented a paradigm shift.

In the field of communication there are numerous ways to categorize and understand theoretical paradigms. No single way is more valuable than another, nor is any paradigm complete or better in its coverage of Communication. Instead, paradigms are a way for us to organize a great number of ideas into categories. For our purposes, we’ve divided communication theories into five paradigms that we call the Empirical Laws, Human Rules, Rhetorical, Systems, and Critical Paradigms.


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