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The Contexts and Theories of Communication
XCOM/100 Version 4
University of Phoenix Material
The Contexts and Theories of Communication
Communication, as a field of study, can be understood by examining the contexts in which
communication takes place and by reviewing some of the theories that govern how communication works
within each context.
Communication contexts consist of a blend of the audience being addressed and the social settings in
which communication occurs. The contexts range from intrapersonal communication (communication with
self) to mass communication (communication with many through mediation). Communication can be
broken down into seven contexts: intrapersonal, interpersonal, intercultural, group, organizational, public,
and mass (West & Turner, 2004). Each context has a specific purpose.
Intrapersonal communication is the communication you have with yourself. You are constantly talking and
thinking through situations in your mind. In essence, you are having conversations with yourself. You use
intrapersonal communication to make decisions. You think through the situation, determine its
significance, examine alternatives, choose a solution, visualize the results, and then act.
Interpersonal communication is face-to-face communication with people. This includes the
communication you have with friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers on the street.
Interpersonal communication is often considered the richest form of communication. When speaking face
to face, you have the benefit of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication consists of
everything but the words you use. Vocal qualities, facial expressions, and body movements are all part of
nonverbal communication.
Intercultural communication takes place between and among people with different cultural backgrounds.
Culture influences language, nonverbal communication, rules of communication, word meaning, and time
and space concerns. Those influences determine how messages are developed, delivered, and
Group communication takes place among the members of a group. A group contains three or more
people. In a group, several people work together to achieve a common purpose (West & Turner, 2004).
Organizational communication takes place within and among large, extended environments. Individuals
communicating within a company belong in this category. One difference between organizational and
group communication is that individuals within an organization have a rank.
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The Contexts and Theories of Communication
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Public communication is communication from one person to a large group of listeners. The purpose of the
communication may be to inform, entertain, or persuade. An example of public communication is a
potential candidate addressing a large audience at a political rally.
Mass communication is communication to a large audience through media such as radio, television,
newspapers, magazines, and the Internet.
According to West and Turner (2004), a theory is “an abstract system of concepts with indications of the
relationship among these concepts that help us to understand a phenomenon” (p. 44). The theories
associated with each context help explain why certain types of communication happen the way they do.
Theories of Intrapersonal Communication
Symbolic Interaction Theory
Symbolic interaction theory is based on the research of George Herbert Mead. Researchers at the
University of Chicago, Mead and Herbert Blumer, and University of Iowa, Manford Kuhn, worked on the
theory (West & Turner, 2004). The theory explains the process of interaction in the formation of meanings
for individuals. Blumer, Mead’s student, identified three core principles of the theory: meaning, language,
and thought. Through the three core principles, individuals come to conclusions about the self and
socialization with a larger community (Griffin, 1997).
Cognitive Dissonance Theory
Cognitive dissonance theory is based on the research of Leon Festinger. The theory explains that there is
a tendency for individuals to seek consistency among their cognitions, such as beliefs and opinions.
When there is inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to
eliminate the dissonance. In the case of a discrepancy between attitudes and behavior, the attitude will
most likely change to accommodate the behavior (Festinger, 1957).
Expectancy Violations Theory
Expectancy violations theory is based on the research of Judee Burgoon. The theory considers
communication as the exchange of information that is high in relational content and can be used to violate
the expectations of another, which will be perceived positively or negatively depending on the relationship
between the two people (Burgoon, 1978). In essence, the theory focuses on the role of nonverbal
communication and its effect on messages: “What we do is more important that what we say” (West &
Turner, 2004 p. 136).
Theories of Interpersonal Communication
Social Penetration Theory
Social penetration theory is based on the research of Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor. As relationships
develop, communication moves from less intimate levels to more intimate, more personal levels (Altman
& Taylor, 1973). Social penetration refers to a process of relationship bonding whereby individuals move
from superficial communication to more intimate communication. The dimensions of intimacy include
intellect, emotional, and shared activities (West & Turner, 2004, p. 172).
Relational Dialectics
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The Contexts and Theories of Communication
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Relational dialectics is based on the research of Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery. The theory
explains how parties to communication experience conflicting pulls that cause relationships to be in a
constant state of flux. The closer individuals become to one another, the more conflict will arise to pull
them apart (Baxter, 1988). People are not always able to resolve contradictory elements in their beliefs,
and they hold inconsistent beliefs about relationships (West & Turner, 2004, p. 205).
Communication Privacy Management Theory
Communication privacy management theory is based on the research of Sandra Petronio. The theory
explains the process that people use to manage the relationship between concealing and revealing
private information. According to the theory, individuals make decisions on what to tell (reveal) and what
not to tell (conceal) others (West & Turner, 2004, p. 221).
Theories of Intercultural Communication
Communication Accommodation
Communication accommodation is based on the research of Howard Giles. The theory explains some of
the reasons for changes to speech as individuals attempt to emphasize or minimize the social differences
between themselves and others. Perceived differences may be related to age, accent, ethnicity, or pace
of speech. According to the theory, individuals adapt their communication—speech and gestures—to
accommodate others (West & Turner, 2004, p. 494).
Muted Group
Muted group is based on the research of Cheris Kramarae. The theory explains why certain groups in
society are muted, which means they are either silent or not heard. Kramarae found that the language of
a culture does not serve all members equally. Some groups may be subordinate and are not as free to
say “what they wish, when, and where they wish” (West & Turner, 2004, p. 477).
Face-negotiation is based on the research of Stella Ting-Toomey. The theory explains how different
cultures manage conflict and communication. The theory explains that the root of conflict is based on
identity management on individual and cultural levels. The theory uses the terms face and facework. Face
is used to mean self-image, which is the public image that people display (West & Turner, 2004).
Facework “pertains to how people make whatever they’re doing consistent with their face” (West &
Turner, 2004, p. 448).
Theories of Group Communication
Groupthink is based on the research of Irving Janis. Groupthink is associated with small-group
communication. The theory explains that individuals may withhold their opposing opinions to promote
cohesiveness. Individuals may also withhold their opposing opinions because they fear rejection by the
group (West & Turner, 2004).
Theories of Organizational Communication
Organizational Cultural Theory
Organizational cultural theory is based on the research of Clifford Geertz, Michael Pacanowsky, and Nick
O’Donnell-Trujillo. The theory explains meanings for routine organizational events, thereby reducing the
amount of cognitive processing and energy members need to expend throughout the day. Organizations
Copyright © 2014, 2012, 2010, 2008 by University of Phoenix. All rights reserved.
The Contexts and Theories of Communication
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can be understood by looking at the organization’s values, stories, goals, practices, and philosophies.
“Culture is something an organization is” (West & Turner, 2004, p. 275).
Organizational Information Theory
Organizational information theory is based on the research of Karl Weick. The theory explains how
organizations make sense of the information that is essential for their existence. The theory draws from
other theoretical perspectives that explain the processes organizations undergo when collecting,
managing, and using information (West & Turner, 2004, p. 294).
Theories of Public Communication
Rhetoric/Dramatism/Narrative Paradigm
The rhetoric/dramatism/narrative paradigm is based on the writing of Aristotle and the research of
Kenneth Burke and Walter Fisher. The theory explains that people are essentially storytellers who make
decisions on the basis of good reasons. History, biography, culture, and character determine what we
consider good reasons. “Rhetoric is an attempt to show speakers that to be persuasive with their
audiences, they should follow some suggestions. The advice includes looking at the speech, considering
the speaker, and analyzing the audiences. Dramatism pertains to the important role that the public plays
in speech making. . .The Narrative Paradigm proposes to look at the audience as participants in a
storytelling experience” (West & Turner, 2004, p. 311).
Theories of Mass Communication
Agenda-Setting Theory
Agenda-setting theory is based on the research of Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw. The theory
explains that mass media has a major influence on audiences by choosing what stories are newsworthy
and how much prominence and space to give them. Individuals with similar media exposure place
importance on similar issues (McCombs & Shaw, 1972).
Spiral of Silence Theory
Spiral of silence theory is based on the research of Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann. The theory explains why
people tend to remain silent when they feel that their views are in the minority (Noelle-Neumann, 1991).
Noelle-Neumann used public opinion as the background to explain the three assumptions that support the
theory. “Society threatens deviant individuals with isolation; fear of isolation is pervasive. The isolation
causes an individual to try and assess the climate of opinion at all times. Public behavior is affected by
public opinion assessment” (West & Turner, 2004, p. 412).
This review of the contexts and some of the theories of communication provide a basis for the study of
communication. Courses in specific areas of communication build on the presented theories and add
more for examination.
Altman, I., & Taylor, D. A. (1973). Social penetration: The development of interpersonal relationships.
New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Baxter, L. A. (1988). A dialectical perspective on communication strategies in relationship development.
In S. Duck (Ed.). Handbook of personal relationships, 257–273. New York, NY: Wiley.
Copyright © 2014, 2012, 2010, 2008 by University of Phoenix. All rights reserved.
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Burgoon, J. K. (1978). A communication model of personal space violation: Explication and an initial test.
Human Communication Research, 4, 129–142.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
McCombs, M., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of the mass media. Public Opinion
Quarterly, 36, 176–185.
West, R. & Turner, L. (2004). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Boston, MA:
Copyright © 2014, 2012, 2010, 2008 by University of Phoenix. All rights reserved.