The term theory appears in just about every course you’ll take in college but is seldom clearly defined. In the popular sense, theory is used to refer to an idea or a way of looking at things and so you might say, “I have a theory about what went wrong”. Sometimes it’s used negatively to mean “not practical” or “useless” as in the expression, “It’s all theory.” In fact, a reviewer on Amazon.com comments that one of my books is “too much theory, not enough substance”. Although intended as a criticism, I took it as a compliment because theory is very substantive.
The term theory as used in academic disciplines such as communication, anthropology, and psychology refers to a general statement or principle—usually consisting of an organized collection of related specific statements—about the way things operate. In most academic writing, the term is usually reserved for a well-established system of knowledge about how things work or how things are related. It’s still fundamentally a generalization, but it’s often supported by research findings and other well-accepted theories. Here are some similar definitions; from the American Heritage Dictionary: “a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena,” “the branch of a science or art consisting of its explanatory statements, accepted principles, and methods of analysis;” and from the Philosophy Dictionary: “a way of looking at a field that is intended to have explanatory and predictive implications.” Isaac Asimov—perhaps more famous for his science fiction than his scholarly works—likened a theory to an argument; a theory is an argument—supported by research and evidence—for the way things will turn out.
Explanation and prediction—as in this last definition—are often used together. A theory should be able to explain how things work and if it’s successful then it’s likely that it will also be able to predict how things will work in the future.
Sometimes you’ll see the word hypothesis used instead of theory. Often, they’re used to mean similar things but generally hypothesis is more of a reasoned guess about something fairly specific whereas theory is more general and its predictions better supported or verified. Look at it this way: initial assumptions with some evidence become hypotheses which, when tested and supported by research and achieve success as explanations and predictions, become theories.
The theories you’ll encounter in college generally and in communication in particular try to explain how something works and to predict how things will work in the future. In physics, chemistry, and most of the hard sciences, the theories are very specific and yield very clear and reliable conclusions. In the social sciences such as communication, sociology, and psychology, for example, the theories are less clear and less reliable in their conclusions. Electricity and chemicals, for example, respond the same way every day. Humans, the subjects of the social sciences, don’t; there is enormous variation from one person to the next and hence theories about people’s behavior are much less clear and explicit than those you’ll encounter in the hard sciences.
In communication you’ll encounter such theories as how you accommodate your speaking style to your listeners, how communication works when relationships deteriorate, how friends self-disclose, how problem-solving groups communicate, how speakers influence audiences, and how the media affect people. As you can see from even these few examples, theories provide general principles that help you understand an enormous number of specific events.
One great value of communication theories is that they help you predict future events and ultimately provide the tools to control many of these events. For example, theories of persuasion will help you predict what kinds of emotional appeals will be most effective in persuading a specific audience and in that suggest what you should or should not do in using emotional appeals. Or theories of conflict resolution will enable you to predict what strategies would be effective or ineffective in resolving differences, suggesting that you use certain strategies and avoid others. Theories of interpersonal attraction offer insights into how to make yourself more attractive to others; theories of leadership offer practical advice on how you can more effectively exert your own leadership. Theories often have extremely practical and valuable implications.
And this connection between theory and practice brings up the issue of the relationship between theory and skills. Theories exist independently of skills; you can have a theory without a corresponding skill. On the other hand, some theories have practical implications for communication skills. As the above examples illustrate these range widely from persuading others to your point of view, to resolving conflicts effectively, to presenting a more attractive self to others, and to becoming a more effective leader. Skills that come from well-developed theories are usually the ones that will prove the most valuable and the most reliable. Ideally, the skills you come across in your textbook will have been based on well-developed theory and will have well-developed explanations of why one method of communication will yield positive results and another won’t. This interrelationship between theories and skills is a theme you’ll find throughout your study of communication. The more you know about how communication works (that is, the theories and research), the more likely you’ll be able to use it effectively (that is, build and enhance your communication skills).
Most departments of communication offer courses in theories of communication which you’re likely to find interesting and well as practical. Before signing up, however, take a look at some of the typical textbooks in communication theory which your college library is sure to have. Here are a few:
1. Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (2002). Questions of communication (3rd ed). New York: Bedford/St. Martins.
2. Baldwin, J. R., Perry, S. D., & Moffitt, M. A. (2004) Communication theories for everyday life. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
3. Dainton, M., & Zelley, E. D. (2005). Applying communciation theory for professional life: A practical introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
4. Griffin, E. (2006). A first look at communication theory (6th ed). New York: McGraw-Hill.
5. Infante, D.A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (2003). Building communication theory (4th ed). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.
6. Littlejohn, S. W. & Foss, K. A. (2008). Theories of human communication (9th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
7. Miller, K. (2005). Communication theories: Perspectives, processes, and contexts (2nd ed). New York: McGraw-Hill.
8. Severin, W. J., & Tankard, J. W., Jr. (2001). Communication theories: Origins, methods, and use in the Mass Media (5th ed). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
9. West, R. L. & Turner, L. H. (2007). Introducing communciation theory: Analysis and applications (3rd ed). New York: McGraw-Hill.
10. Wood, J. J. (2004). Communication theories in action: An introduction (3rd ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.