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The philosophical approaches in play in any field appear in the knowledge claims that mark the epistemological contribution of the field. For their part, these knowledge claims arise out of the theories that constitute the subject matter of the field. This research paper, then, takes on the topic of communication theory. A paper on communication theory has three responsibilities: first, to define what theory is; second, to discuss the field of theory; and third, to explore what makes a theory a communication theory.
Theory is a way of thinking about something. It is a set of instructions that tells what and why things are (the way they are); how and why they function (the way they function); and the value it all represents. We find theory in every part of communication studies—in its empirical, critical, and analytical corners. We usually come into contact with theory in some discursive (speech or text) or symbolic (usually mathematical) form. This form may be as short as an equation or the few sentences of a proposition, each attributed to a single author, or may fill a library shelf with the work of several to hundreds of authors who produce a body of like-minded thought.
But for theory to be theory, it has to have certain characteristics and to accomplish certain goals. Theory has to have an object of explanation. It has to contain or connect to a method of analysis. In its objects and methods, it will establish what counts as evidence as well as the warrants that justify the evidence while producing a characteristic explanation. It will have a set of boundaries that will set the scope of its performance and typical application. And it will have a consequence of value.
The point of theory is to explain something, to deepen our understanding of what’s going on around us. The “something” that gets explained or better understood is the focal object or explanatory target of the theory. For example, the explanation provided by expectancy violation theory (Burgoon, 1978) operates in the domain of interpersonal relationships and offers an explanation for understanding what happens within a relationship when spatial or other nonverbal expectations derived from that relationship are violated. The explanatory power of the theory is not very high. It doesn’t tell us very much about relationships, about how expectations are tied to different kinds of relationships, or even about the outcomes of a violation. But it does systematize what may have been just random observations about at whom we smile and nod or from whom we keep our distance. And that is plenty enough.
Method of Analysis
Theory’s explanations operate in the abstract and at some level of generality greater than the individual case. At some point in its development, however, theory has to show its value in understanding some set of specific conditions. The element of the theory that provides this understanding is its method of analysis. The method connects the constructs of the theory with the circumstances of the specific conditions in much the same way that methods of work connect a blueprint to a finished structure.
Every theory will have a preferred methodology or at least a methodology most commonly used. Methods can be classified as metric, interpretive, and analytical, as well as a host of hybrid forms that are some combination of these. Theories with their foundations in cognitive processes will most likely use metric measurement methods that use a logic of quantities (metric empiricism); theories based on action (rather than behavior) will use interpretive ethnographic methods that use a logic of narrative (hermeneutic empiricism); theories based on cultural texts will use interpretive/analytical methods based on close readings and critique and using syllogistic or enthymemic logic.
Contemporary discussions about the social construction of knowledge have complicated the relationship between the claims that theory makes and the understanding that we derive from those claims as to the specific case. The relationship comes down to the question as to whether the facts of the case are explained by the theory (facts and explanation are relatively independent) or the facts of the case are constituted in the theory (facts and explanation are both derived from the theory).
The answer to this question makes a difference if and only if the reality we are trying to explain is not itself a product of the social action that supports the theory in the first place. In our earthbound state, what happens when one steps off a curb is neither contentious nor subject to modification in social process. Our foot will fall to the street. We have a theoretical explanation for that circumstance—gravity. In the United States, we also have a factual certainty that over all full-time jobs, women will earn less than men. This fact is a different sort of fact from that of stepping off the curb because it is constructed in the data collection and analysis methodology in use by the U.S. Census Bureau and the subsequent interpretations applied to those data by other researchers. Change the methods as the Census Bureau did in 1993, and the facts change.
There is a fundamental ethical principle of equal pay for equal work, which is protected by the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in play here. Consequently, whatever the quality of the fact, if we generally agree that it is true, or fail to adequately challenge it, we then have to provide an explanation for the difference. The facticity of the difference is not by itself enough to warrant a claim of ethical and legal violation. We have to understand the nature of the fact; it has to be explained. There are a variety of theoretical positions from which we can develop that explanation. For example, we can use the economic theory of the market, or we might use any single or some combination of the critical issue theories of gender, class, or race.
If we choose economic theory, our method of analysis would undoubtedly be based on metric approaches with a heavy emphasis on quantitative data and statistical analysis (for an example, see the Government Accounting Office  document “Women’s Earnings”). If we approached the problem from the critical issue theory of gender, or if the methods are narrational; we would create an argument as to how that wage gap should be understood as gender discrimination (for a practical—not scholarly—example, see the National Committee on Pay Equity Web site, www.payequity.org/about.html; accessed October 10, 2007).
So why would one see women’s earnings as a communication problem? It is a communication problem because regardless of the theory and its preferred method of analysis, the result will be an argument—a set of claims supported by evidence that makes sense inside some framework of warrants. It will not result in the of-courseit’s-true certainty of stepping off the curb. Furthermore, the issue cannot be resolved through epistemological force. It can be resolved only through political process, which means that both our understanding and the resolution of the inequity reside in communicative practices.
The argument character of the outcome or product of research is itself subject to argument. Objectivists (here played by the traditional science type) would contend that conclusions may be wrong but competent data are above contention just as the consequences of stepping off a curb are. Standpoint theorists (aka subjectivists, relativists) would argue that as long as the data are semiotic (based on language or action), the whole enterprise depends on the cultural moment of its production. The human condition (our ultimate explanatory target) is not transcendental but historical.
Evidence and Warrants
The preferred relationship between theory and some method develops out of the terms of the theory itself. If one is working from a cognitive theory that holds that internal cognitive states direct subsequent behavior and that these internal states are addressable through nonreactive linguistic measurements, why bother with the drudgery of field notes? In fact, under this theoretical structure, field notes would be considered insufficiently objective to count as adequate evidence for a subsequent claim. On the other hand, if one’s theory concerns the cultural hegemony embedded in the industrialized texts on relationships, objective measurements would be considered insufficiently nuanced to reach the complexity of the text, revealing only surface characteristics.
It is certainly true in the realm of theory production that the method can precede the theory. One exquisitely trained in ethnographic methods is unlikely to develop a cognitive theory of behavior. All of that researcher’s insight is based on the observable conditions of action. Researchers and theorists often resent this fall from Cartesian privilege, but knowledge production is a human activity.
Whatever its starting point, theory and its method of analysis establish the requirements of what will count as evidence by providing the foundational assumptions of the explanation itself. In the field of argumentation, these foundational assumptions are called warrants. These are the necessary prebeliefs that allow evidence and claim to be connected. If you are going to make a claim about the reliability of a scale, for example, you have to first believe that there is something independent of the scale to be measured (the scale is not simply responding to the interplay of language, for example). Furthermore, that something has to be stable enough to be measured accurately more than once. If you don’t hold these warrants to be true, then a reliability coefficient cannot stand as evidence.
Warrants are the hidden game of theory. They are revealed by carefully addressing the question “What do I have to believe to be true for this theory to make sense?”— or in a less subjective modality, “What has to be true of the world for this theory to make sense?” Every theory has a nexus of warrants that are present but mostly unexpressed. This interconnected structure reaches some teleological or axiomatic point that may or may not be accepted. Depending on whether the axiom is accepted or not, the theory stands or fails, just as different geometries stand or fail on whether or not parallel lines meet at infinity. Espousing a theory entangles the spokesperson in the warrants of that theory. Without an adequate analysis of those warrants, we are ignorant of the implications of our theory beliefs.
The combination of theory, method, evidence, and warrants create the requirements of the explanation that can follow. A competent explanation has to be true to these requirements. It is also true that an explanation achieves competence by meeting these requirements. And there is more: TheAmerican PsychologicalAssociation (APA), for example, has a 400+ page manual innocuously titled as A Handbook of Style. It has rules for everything from the formatting of references to the parentheses in citations to spelling and punctuation. It also imposes a structure of argument and presumes the presence of certain kinds of evidence. Publication outlets that require the use of the APA style (or any single style sheet) impose a way of thinking on the writer. What we as readers see as the result in whatever scholarship we read, is a highly regimented argument, many elements of which can be there as much for these conventional requirements as for their epistemological force.
Scope of Performance and Application
Although we typically identify a theory by the author(s) whose formulation either captures the research community’s interest at the time of presentation or is resurfaced at a later time, theory has to go well beyond the initial presentation and engage many other practitioners in order to be successful. (The whole issue of the attribution of ideas to individuals is a cultural practice and is itself the subject of research.) Theory that is not picked up by others (and more meets that fate than not) is “dead” to the community, although resuscitations do occur. A theory “lives in a community of scholarship because it is productive—it generates hypotheses, research questions, frames arguments, and directs critical analysis in a way that the community finds valuable. In somewhat crass terms, works achieve publication, grants are secured, careers are advanced, and it might also have some lasting effect on our knowledge. This last marker of success is always in doubt. The Ptolemaic universe lasted from about AD 150 to Copernicus’s heliocentric system of 1543, nearly 1,400 years. When we talk about the test of time, then, nothing in the social sciences comes close to meeting that standard.
The “test of time” is not just time, however. It is time that is needed to examine and refine the theory to find its areas of success and points of failure. This testing develops the theory’s scope of performance and appropriate application. Every theory has a scope of performance and typical applications. Step off a curblike height in outer space and float away. The more mature and tested a theory is, the better defined are its scope of performance (circumstances where we gain knowledge) and its appropriate applications (the conditions under which it works as claimed). Determining the scope of performance and successful applications is a defined step in theory development. It involves a meta-analysis of the works that advance as well as those that critique the theory. A meta-analysis of a theory examines the primary research and scholarship that the theory has promoted to see if the set is coherent in its findings and claims. For example, Mares and Woodard (2005) examined 34 studies on the oft-neglected prosocial consequences of children’s television viewing. They find about the same effect size for prosocial content as has been found for antisocial content. Mare and Woodward did not conduct any of the 34 studies they analyzed, but their meta-analysis allows us to see a developing preponderance of evidence that enlarges our understanding of television effects.
The appearance of meta-analysis is an important marker in the viability of a theory. It indicates that sufficient competent work has been done to allow the possibility of consilience. Consilience is the convergence of evidence that points to some conclusion—in our case, that the terms of the theory are supportable. Consilience is not evidence of validity (or truth). The convergence could be a convergence of error. The absence of consilience, however, is strong evidence of a failure to thrive within the community. Consequently, one should remain deeply skeptical of any theory until the meta-analyses start to show up in the literature.
One point that follows here is that theory is a work in progress. The theory of its initial formulation is rarely the theory of a mature meta-analysis. What a theory is, then, depends on when one engages it. The theory you learned in an undergraduate course is not the theory being used 10 years later. It is a process of continuing education.
Consequence of Value
Issues of value are always problematic in the discussion of theory. For some, theory is solely involved in the pursuit of truth, and questions of the good (value) are viewed separately across Hume’s gap. This position is most easily held when the true is material and can be directly represented in theory. In this case, theory is a simple description and no more than a description of what is “out there.” The position becomes untenable when the true is a social practice and represented in forms of discourse that load in preconception, hierarchy, and power relationships. In this case, something is true because it ought to be true—it benefits someone, some group, some class, some social structure. This sounds sinister, but the social construction of knowledge has to include the political processes endemic to the social.
But even if one holds to a 17th-century conception of the discovery of knowledge and the ultimate supremacy of truth over error, value inhabits theory. In the current battle of evolution and intelligent design creationism, there is much more on the line than which one is correct. There is identity, standing, voice, career, textbook market, and all the economic and political implications of the fight involved. To understand the intensity of the fight, one has to consider value. Individuals reap great benefits in the ascendancy of one theory over another.
There is a third framing of this issue that causes contention across materialists and social constructionists alike. This is the position that theory is an active form of advocacy. It is one thing to necessarily reproduce hegemonic social relations, as social constructionists believe, or to benefit from the success of a theory, as even materialists believe; it is quite another to say that theory is a deliberate form of advocacy. In this framing, theory is constructed to achieve its truth through its force of advocacy.
This position is justified as an extension of the social constructionist argument. If the realities of social life are created in social practice and if our knowledge of those social practices is itself a social practice, then a claim of knowledge reproduces and reinforces what is social practice. If, however, our knowledge claims disrupt ongoing social practices and change these practices to bring these practices in line with the claims, then the claims become true through advocacy. The advocacy forms of the critical issue theories of class, gender, and race are examples of this kind of theorizing.
The effective engagement of theory in general and of a specific theory requires our attention to eight components: (1) target, (2) method, (3) evidence, (4) warrants, (5) explanatory form, (6) scope of performance, (7) typical application, and (8) value. For the nonpractitioner, communication theory is some discursive form. For the practitioner, however, a living theory is a way of thinking that governs the scholarly practices of the members of that theory community. If it is only a discursive form, it is merely an artifact of some bygone scholarship. The eight components, then, can be summarized in the questions: What do I have to believe to be true about people and the world to accept this theory? And what are the scholarly practices that are enforced by these beliefs?
Levels of Theory
In more technical terms, we have been talking about the ontological (questions of existence), epistemological (questions of knowledge), praxeological (questions of action), and axiological (questions of value) issues to which every theory must explicitly or implicitly respond. How a theory in general responds depends on the prevailing preconditions of theory that are in play in the epistemological culture in which that theory is developed.
Theory doesn’t just appear. It appears within a field of understanding. If, for example, you live in an era or cultural domain where all knowledge comes from authority, an empirical theory based on knowledge through experience would be marginalized and likely suppressed. In our current Euro-American epistemological culture, of course, empirical theories—theories connected to material evidence—are the norm. It was not always so, and in some areas of scholarship, it may never be.
At some grand level, these preconditions form the episteme. Our current Euro-American episteme has been called the Age of Enlightenment, and it puts a premium on the individual mind, rationality, and empiricism. Theory that develops in this era (which is now some 400 years old) will show these same characteristics (methodological individualism, deductive argument, and testable claims) or will spend resources in the struggle against them.
But of course there is more. As knowledge divides into domains of production, characteristic frameworks—generally called paradigms—develop. A paradigm establishes the norms, conventions, and warrants of the scholarship conducted within it. It is the ground on which the figure of the argument can appear. The paradigm provides for normalized scholarship. It allows us to evaluate the particular case to determine if it is good work and fits in with what we already know is true.
Paradigmatic theory has no single author, but rather it is the work of several to hundreds of authors who produce a body of like-minded work. Marxist theory, feminist theory, continental theory, cognitive theory, social action theory are all examples of paradigmatic theory. Theory at this level is an ongoing conversation of scholarly activity. This conversation creates a field of discourse, and while the boundaries of this field are both permeable and elastic— like those of a conversation, they do create real limits. If, for example, your characteristic explanations do not include the function of socioeconomic class, your theoretical position would be unlikely to be considered normal Marxist scholarship. (On the other hand, one can address socioeconomic class from positions other than Marxist ones.) There are, therefore, rules of discursive membership. They are, however, dynamic not stable. The feminist theory of the 1980s is not the feminist theory of the first decade of the 21st century.
While there are many communities of scholarship in our discipline (collectively, our professional associations have more than 100 divisions and interest groups), paradigmatic communities ordinarily are not discipline specific but are distributed across many disciplines. In fact, one might consider that reach to be a mark of paradigmatic status. Paradigmatic theory would influence any field that addressed the issues that were the explanatory targets of the theory.
Kuhn’s (1970) original formulation of the concept of paradigm referred to a way of thinking and scholarly practicethat dominated a field of endeavor. In a field such as communication, which is widely understood as having no center to dominate, the term has come to mean any more or less organized community of practitioners who would recognize the same authorities, cite the same seminal works, produce common lines of argument, and use agreed-on protocols of evidence.
The social science of communication, for example, has been marked by the cognitivist paradigm for more than 50 years. Very briefly, cognitivism holds that physiological and psychological conditions lead to the formation of mental structures, which in turn direct behavior. If one can gain knowledge about or the ability to manipulate these mental structures, then one can predict and/or control behavior.
Cognitivists for their part want to predict and control behavior because prediction and control are hallmarks of the science to which they aspire. Consequently, when a cognitivist develops theory, the theory will be responsive to those requirements. Could one write theory that is independent of those requirements and not depend on mental structures or be directed toward prediction and control? Of course, but such a researcher would not be a cognitivist— he or she may be a radical cognitivist, postcognitivist, neocognitivist, or anticognitivist, but not a cognitivist.
We care about these constraints on theory because a paradigm refers as much to the political processes that control the appearance of new theory as to the epistemological principles that shape it. We know the stories of the true overcoming human ignorance—Galilean astronomy over Ptolemaic, oxygen over phlogiston, viruses over vapors, but we know little of the silenced desperation of those marginalized in opposition to normal scholarship. If one wants to claim the title of a social scientist in communication, the easiest route, today, is still through cognitivism. Paradigms are never secure even if long-lived, however.
The scholarly discourse within a theory field leaves an extensive record, far beyond what any one individual can access.Any one of us, then, can have only partial knowledge of a paradigm, and there may be as much variation within a paradigm as between paradigms. At this level, we create “versions” located in time, place, and authorship. Because this sort of theory is a constrained but unregulated mosaic of different works, its specific terms and conditions depend on the way the works are compiled and analyzed. Consequently, the answer to the question “What is cognitive theory?” (or any other theory field) depends on the works that are chosen to represent it, the resolutions of the differences those works present, and the descriptive narrative the author constructs.
One might hope that as more of these meta-analytic compilations are developed, it is more likely that there will be convergence on some conventionalized sense of what the theory is, but there are tensions that seem to intervene. The compilations themselves are not neutral but rather have a point of view and often an agenda. The compilations of postmodern theory within the social sciences that appeared in the 1980s, for example, were mostly written by modernist authors. The postmodern theorists themselves were all too busy during that period writing the theory to step back and tell the rest of us what it was all about.As a result, many of the early meta-analyses were more about defending the turf of modernism than of illuminating the terms of postmodernism. All meta-analyses are purposeful.
Epistemologists such as myself are not very interested in the substantive content of theory—what their specific claims are. We are much more interested in the traces the theory leaves of the theorists’ efforts to constitute the world for the pleasure of their theory and what the theory tells us about the knowledge production practices of that community of theorists. For us, theory and theories are just handy exemplars of what is really important. And of course, I write those lines from the vantage of a particular theory of knowledge from which I make sense of the practice of theorizing and to which I am beholden in my writing. Theory is everywhere. All this is a forewarning that what follows is at best incomplete and certainly written from the point of view of accomplishing this research paper.
I have categorized the paradigmatic theory that appears most commonly in communication into five large classes and given exemplars (not a complete listing) of each. In the grand scheme of things, these five categories leave out as much theory as they include but not much that regularly appears in communication. The classes are (1) theories of human performance: behaviorism, cognitivism, developmental theory, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, social action theory, performance theory; (2) psychoanalytic theory: Freudian, Jungian, Neo-Freudian, Lacanian, Deleuzean (Guattari); (3) critical issue theories: Marxism, feminism, critical race theory; (4) theories of discourse: semiotics, deconstructionism, postmodern discourse theory, critical discourse analysis, conversation analysis, Foucauldian theory; and (5) critical/ cultural theory: critical theory, critical rhetoric, rhetorical theory, literary theory/theories of criticism, American/British/ Continental studies, critical legal studies, disciplinary studies, media studies, popular culture, postcolonial studies, poststructuralism, queer studies, race studies, gender studies, women’s studies, men’s studies.
Theories of human performance have been most interested in why we humans do the things we do (the epistemology of performance). Most of the particular theories arise out of the cognitivist paradigm. The bulk of research, on the other hand, has been interested in cataloguing what we do by collecting surveys on communicative behaviors (the ontology of performance). There has been very little effective ontological theory work. The field is still debating what communication is, what a message is, what a relationship is, what constitutes an organization and all the other nouns of the discipline, albeit definitions abound. The interpretive turn of the 1980s saw a reinstallation of an interest in how performances are enacted and constituted as action (the praxeology of performance). Most of this work has rested on social theory or social action theory. Finally, theories relating to the character (value) of human performance have been located in performance theory.
The language used in specific theories of human performance quickly locates the paradigm from which the theory emerges. Theories that talk about “acts and behavior” are most likely located in either—depending on the era of publication—the behaviorist (through the 1930s) paradigm or the cognitivist (from the 1940s to the present) paradigm. Theories that talk about action, interaction, or the semiotics (meaningfulness) of behavior rest on social/social action theory. Finally, when performance is the central term, the theory is part of the rapidly coalescing performance or critical ethnography paradigm.
Psychoanalytic theory considers the structure and performance of the conscious as a product of the disunity of the human mind. In very simple terms, for Freud, it was the struggle between the id and the superego; for Jung, it was the preconscious archetypes that shaped human understanding; for Lacan, the base is desire in the lack of self and other; and for Deleuze and Guattari, it is the schizophrenic character of capitalism that both liberates and represses the conscious. Freud and Jung attacked the “good man thinking well” conceptualization of human rationality, and Lacan and Deleuze and Guattari took the conscious out of the individual and into the politicaleconomic system. In so doing, psychoanalytic theory undercuts the rationality and individual principles of the Enlightenment episteme by declaring that the thinking individual is not trustworthy (anti-Cartesian) and, consequently, is often held in disdain by U.S. and British empiricists.
Perhaps for that reason, until recent times, little of what communication theory textbooks consider as communication theory has been located in the psychoanalytic paradigm. Film theory has been the most likely member, although gender studies, particularly studies in masculinity, and cultural studies focusing on power and oppression have clear (if often unspoken) dependencies.
The critical issue paradigm generates theory that is initially universalist and utopian. Critical issue theories see the human condition as organized around their particular focus, whether it be economic class structure, power relationships, patriarchy, or race and ethnicity. In their early development, they tend toward monolithic villains and innocent victims instead of collusion and complicity. Throughout their development, they hold the promise of a better world—at least for some—once their issue is resolved. As critical issue theories age, they develop greater complexity and less certainty, which in the eyes of this writer is much to their credit. Postmodern feminist theories and theories of resistance are two excellent examples. Both of these theoretical frameworks are making quite a presence in organizational communication.
Theoretical approaches based on the concept of discourse are also typically dependent on the principle of social constructionism. As with all ontological features of communication, discourse has a variety of definitions. The one to be used here is “language use that participates in social structures and relationships.” Social constructionism for its part holds that human practices constitute the features of human social reality. Discourse then is a player in the social structures and relationships in which it appears. For example, this writing is an exemplar of the discourse of scholarship. It is constrained by the rules of that writing; its appearance in turn validates and reinforces those constraints. It positions the author as knowing and the reader in a lower hierarchical position of learner. I write this because I know about discourse, and you read it because you want to find out, unless, of course, you are a critic/reviewer intent on enforcing the rules.
Most theories of discourse focus on the realities constituted in discourse, the structures of dominance and oppression it supports, and the power relationships that result. There are two notable exceptions: Semiotics can be a technical theory of language, a very broad investigation of significance, or a very focused analysis of meaning. Conversation analysis can range from a systematic theory of conversational structure to a broad argument concerning communicant relationships.
The critical/cultural paradigm is probably the most difficult to summarize because it covers widely diverse fields of theory such as critical theory, which comes out of 19thcentury German intellectualism and radical hermeneutics, which is based on 20th-centuryAmerican pragmatism. It is probably the least paradigmatic of the five, but it is, nonetheless, a location more likely to be called home by critical theorists and radical hermeneuts alike than any other. What makes it home is the common theme of social justice and the active pursuit of a redress of wrongs. There is also a common focus on texts, but the definition of text is expanded to include all meaningful construction of symbolic material. For some cultural and hermeneutic theorists, this definition includes the cultural performance of myths, rites, rituals, competitions, and the like. Cultural performances of this sort, of course, bring us back to performance theory and a connection to our first paradigmatic category. This connection underscores the premise that there are greater differences within a paradigm than between border occupants across paradigms.
Paradigmatic communities in communication tend to divide along two axes: empirical–analytical and foundational– reflexive. Empirical theories are ones that motivate the collection of data, whether those data are numerical values of a scale or the field notes of an ethnographer.Analytical theories are those that put the focus on the argument. This distinction is a matter of balance as all theories begin with data on some sort of problem and have to construct some kind of argument. There is, however, a clear difference between a media effects theory that generates a survey and a media studies theory that generates a cultural argument.
Considering the second axis, foundational theories rest their validity on an unproblematic base that may be a set of universal, of-course-they’re-true, principles or the unassailable evidence of experience. Reflexive theories rest their claims on more temporary standpoints that are themselves the product of the research and argument process. This axis cuts much more cleanly than the first. The cutting edge is the concept of the social construction of knowledge. This concept holds that human knowledge—particularly knowledge about social processes—has no independent source of validation but is always a product of the language, episteme, culture, scholarship, paradigm, theory, practice, and practitioners involved in its production. Reflexivity is the infinitely recursive practice of discovering how these sources provide for the claims that we make. Universal principles become much more local, their ofcourse-they’re-true status appears because we create it, and our connection to experience is mitigated or constituted through language and culture.
Figure 1 presents a graphical image of the effect these axes have on communication scholarship. I have started the figure as a circle to indicate that while there are large differences among us, there is still a boundary that identifies our work as communication and separates us from other fields.
Some interesting interpretations of communication theory appear as one explores Figure 1. The left hemisphere contains much of the history of the scientific and critical scholarship of the field. The right hemisphere represents the forces of change in communication theory, with the most action occurring in the lower right quadrant.
The upper hemisphere contains the qualitative-quantitative methodological divide. In this diagram, one can see that this divide is much more than methodological. The quantitative and qualitative methodologies typical of these quadrants connect to different ways of thinking about the world, our knowledge of it, and the purposes of scholarship. One can also see that foundational empiricism—the quadrant where metric approaches make sense—has a somewhat greater variety of theory than reflexive empiricism. There are good reasons for this difference that need not include the creativity of reflexive empiricists. Foundational empiricism in the social sciences developed along the well-trod epistemological trail of the physical sciences. The premise that the social reality in which we live is a product of our own practices is an entirely different pathway. The world history of the first half of the 20th century with its bevy of absolute dictators and two world wars greatly interrupted the scholarship of this field. One could go on: the conflation of Marxism with godless communism, the oppressions of the positivist regime, the control of science funding, the monolingual character of even the scholarly elite in the United States—all the juicy human practices that we often fail to discuss in most encyclopedias and textbooks.
There are, of course, other axes that we could use to divide the communication circle: Modern-postmodern, atomism-holism, propositional-narrational are three that come immediately to mind. Each would sort the theory list differently, and each would generate different explanations of the theory in our field. It’s a never-ending story.
Paradigmatic theories at the level we have been addressing them up to this point reach across a broad field of scholarship. The basic principles of discourse theory or of cognitivism or social action theory would easily reach across communication, sociology, psychology, and related fields. If we now have an idea of what theory is in its particular responsibilities and paradigmatic expressions, perhaps it is time to consider what makes a theory a communication theory.
The simplest and in many ways the best answer to that question is that a communication theory is whatever we claim as a communication theory. For example, Leon Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory is routinely included in the catalog of communication theories by our textbooks. Festinger was a social psychologist teaching at Stanford and developing his theory at a time when communication was still speech and journalism. The theory deals with the behavioral motivations of conflicting cognitions. It is centered in the heart of the cognitivist paradigm, connected as it is to Heider’s (1946) balance theory. How does this theory become a communication theory? My reading of that is twofold. First, the experiments Festinger conducted used messages to induce the conflicting cognitions and information seeking as the behavioral consequence. Messages and information seeking are clearly communication variables; consequently, the theory must be a communication theory. Not that simple, unfortunately, because cognitive dissonance does not depend on it being induced by messages—it could be induced by logical thinking—and information seeking is just a convenient behavior to measure. Nonetheless, it resonates as a communication theory, and consequently, we have appropriated it as a communication theory.
The second way it becomes a communication theory is that it has shown itself to be useful to the field. Communication scholars who take both a cognitivist and a message orientation have successfully used cognitive dissonance to explain the outcomes of competing messages or of messages competing with preexisting cognitive states. Sun and Scharrer (2004) used cognitive dissonance theory to explain the resistance of college students to critiques of the Disney studios’film The Little Mermaid. In their application of cognitive dissonance theory, Sun and Scharrer mostly use dissonance as a place holder for more appropriate cognitive balance theories (e.g., Feather, 1964)—a minor disconnection, one supposes.
In the Sun and Scharrer (2004) study, the cognition formed by the instruction in the “troubling ideologies of Disney” came into conflict with the preexisting admiration for Disney held by the students. Cognitive balance theory would predict four possible outcomes: rejection of the existing cognition (“I no longer admire Disney”), resistance to the new cognition (“Oh, it does not,” or even “I don’t care”), compartmentalization (“I’ll hold this belief in class and the other elsewhere”), or some synthesis of the two (“Disney films have troubling ideologies, and they provide clean entertainment for children”). The authors either found only resistance or used the theory to explain only the resistance they found. (A critique of their study would suggest the latter.)
If we return to our list of components of a theory (target, method, evidence and warrants, explanatory form, scope of performance, typical application, and value), one might assume that a communication theory would somehow target communication. Cognitive balance theories target the cognitive processes that work to maintain a desired balance of cognitions. What is the communication part of this theory? For some, the initiation of the cognitive processes to effect or preserve balance is seen as the consequence of communication. So in this case, resistance is seen as the effect of the course communication.
For others, it tells us something about cognitive processes but little about communication. The communication part of this study is held to be the construction of the instructional message that produced the dissonant cognition. The finding of resistance is evidence of that cognitive production (something of an ontological claim), but how and why the instructional message resulted in that production (the praxeological and epistemological claims) remain unknown.
Most communication epistemologists (Anderson, 1996; Craig, 1999; Peters, 1986) would argue that much of what we identify as communication theory is not truly communication theory. It is, rather, theory in which communication processes play some part. As a consequence, the field quickly fractionatesinto interpersonalcommunication,mediatedcommunication, journalism, new media, organizational communication, cultural studies, and so on. Under this thinking, communication is an applied discipline. The real theoretical interest is in, say, the character and success of relationships; the formation and operation of organizations; the force of gender; the role of media in morality, violence, politics; and so on.
In the end, why does it matter? It matters because if our focal interest is in organizations, for example, and all we bring to the study of organizations and organizing is communication processes, we impoverish our theoretical efforts. At the same time, because communication processes are central to all social behavior, the study of these processes is centered in all interests in social behavior. Communication theory has made a strong contribution to our understanding of many social behaviors, not just a developed one in the social behavior of communication. Epistemologically, this puts us at risk because we have no secure intellectual center. It is an interesting, contentious, and unresolved issue.
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- Sun, C. F., & Scharrer, E. (2004). Staying true to Disney: College students resistance to criticism of The Little Mermaid. Communication Review, 7, 35–55.