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A Constitutive Approach to Interpersonal Communication
This Constitutive Approach to Interpersonal Communication Studies suggests Communication can be measured by the stability of the network built.

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Francis Roberts

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May 10, 2020


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Constitutive Approach to Interpersonal Communication

To take a constitutive view of communication means to presume that communication, or interaction, is a process of meaning creation or social construction.

An important implication of a constitutive view is that communication is assumed to be the basic building block for social entities, such as personal relationships and organizations.

This post provides a brief history of the origins of the constitutive view, explains its basic assumptions, and examines examples of applications in interpersonal and organizational communication.

Fractal Communication, Intent of Communication, and the Constitutive Approach to Interpersonal Communication

In the video above, the speaker talks about how Communication is about “accomplishing” something.  It is not communicating just to say something.

Communication therefore can be seen as a tool to achieve an intention.

A Constitutive Approach to Interpersonal Communication Studies. 

Under the Constitutive Approach, communication is not a mere tool for expressing social reality but is also a means of creating it.

This view is compelling because it takes what is perceived as a limitation by some—that communication as a discipline is fragmented and plagued by too many theoretical camps—and transforms it into a productive dialectical-dialogic tension.

Pointing to a Constitutive Model of Communication as Metamodel, Craig ([10], [11]) notes eight dominant theoretical traditions at play in the field of communication: rhetorical, semiotic, phenomenological, cybernetic, sociopsychological, sociocultural, critical, and pragmatic. He points out that, although metatheoretical discourse was happening within each particular tradition as theories were being developed, compared, and contrasted, similar discussions were not happening across those traditions, allowing the discipline to operate in independent, tradition-oriented silos. As such, he called for scholars to embrace metadiscourse about communication theory that reached beyond a single tradition. Unfortunately, despite Craig’s arguments being well cited (an August 2013 Google Scholar search shows 529 citations) and a staple in many graduate-level communication theory courses (Ta et al., [31]), his plea has been widely ignored (Cooren, [ 9]).

Embracing Craig’s challenge as a contextual area of the discipline would be a worthwhile endeavor to ensure a prosperous future for interpersonal communication studies. Picking up the threads of interpersonal communication research across the field’s eight dominant traditions and weaving them into a tapestry of understanding will allow for nuanced theorizing, richer practical findings, and more opportunities to engage intercontextual research across the communication discipline as well as interdisciplinary research across the academy. For example, a constitutive approachdisrupts a common fallacy often passed along to interpersonal communication researchers: that theories are locked in a singular paradigm or tradition. If this were true, one of our most generative theories, Communication Privacy Management (CPM; Petronio, [28]), would lose much of its value. From a cybernetic point of view, CPM considers how information is shared or co-owned; from a sociocultural view, CPM considers how notions of privacy are socially constructed; and yet still the theory is often measured sociopsychologically. I suspect CPM could be translated or enacted in other theoretical traditions as well, as could countless other interpersonal communication theories. Unfortunately, CPM is currently the exception to metatheoretical plurality and not the rule. Most theories remain embedded in one theoretical tradition.

Methodology is also often limited within traditions. Given interpersonal communication’s ongoing tensions regarding methodological plurality (see Levine, [19]; Manning, [21]; Tracy & Muñoz, [33], among others) that are often related to theoretical assumptions (Baxter & Braithwaite, [ 4]; Manning & Kunkel, [22]), it would make sense that working across traditions might open interpersonalscholars to new possibilities and might help us to see limitations in a preferred theoretical tradition. As Condit ([ 8]) points out, the “understandable status anxieties and dispersions of a small, relatively new, vulnerable discipline have hindered our willingness to take the necessary steps outside of the existing academic paradigms” and, relatedly, “most prominent theorists are usually those who best introduce or imitate the work of other disciplines” (p. 4). Although not all interpersonal communication research imitates the work of other disciplines—one need look no farther than Baxter’s ([ 3]) contrapuntal analysis or Tracy’s ([ 4]) action implicative discourse analysis to see that—it is hard to dismiss feelings that interpersonal communication studies, because of their reliance on methods from other disciplines, have not reached methodological maturity. This is true not only in the inabilities of some to understand the methods others are using in their work (see Levine, [19], or Manning & Kunkel, [23], for critiques) but also in the sense that our methods lack conceptual understanding (Foster, [14]), are enamored with statistical sophistication over solid design (Levine, [19]), value familiarity over creativity (Manning & Kunkel, [23]) and cite the same limitations time and again without repair (Duck, [12]; Levine, [19]). It also raises questions as to why, if we are appropriating so much of our theory and methods from other disciplines, they are not citing our work in kind.

The future of interpersonal communication studies depends on researchers, theorists, and pedagogues advocating for the full body of our scholarship. That includes learning—and on some level respecting—the knowledge generated across theoretical traditions. Moreover, scholars should consider how theory and method that was developed in other traditions can be heuristically transformed for use in the tradition or traditions they favor. Only then can the strengths of a constitutive approach to interpersonal communication studies be achieved.

Interpersonal Communication Research Across the Traditions

To encourage cross-tradition exploration and a constitutive approach to interpersonal communication, I offer a model that looks at interpersonal communication studies as a metamodelinclusive of diverse topical, conceptual, and theoretical manifestations. This model illustrates interpersonal communication’s multitradition reach. Due to space limitations, it highlights only a few notable topical, conceptual, and theoretical advancements (see Table 1) used to provide an understanding of what kinds of topoi can be found within a given tradition. Although the format places each of the topoi in a distinct tradition, it must be noted that if they were extended to include more topoi then it would help to illustrate how some of our research areas have already crossed traditions. For example, family communication could be listed in the sociocultural tradition given it is one of the most fruitful topics of interpretive inquiry in interpersonal communication studies, but a great deal of family communication research and theorizing happens in other traditions, especially the sociopsychological and critical, as well. Similarly, Martinez’s ([24]) communicology of sexual experience could be listed in both the phenomenological and semiotic traditions, as much of her work blends those theoretical approaches in innovative ways. These two examples of topical and conceptual fluidity alone help to demonstrate some of the many possibilities for cross-tradition metadiscourse and theorizing. It is my hope that this Model of Interpersonal Communication Studies as Metamodel encourages even more.

Table 1 Constitutive Model of Interpersonal Communication as Metamodel

TraditionCommunication as …Interpersonal metadiscursive vocabularyIntellectual interestsSample of recent topical, conceptual, or theoretical manifestations
RhetoricalArt of discourseLogic, emotion, values, personal and social orders, art, theory as method, presentation, articulation, constructionWords and their power; improvement of practice; values associated with informed judgment; words and action; matters of style, substance, appearance, reality, opinion, and truth• Presentational and articulated rhetorics (Manning, 2014)• Rhetorical vision (Duck, 2011)
SemioticIntersubjective mediation via signsMedium, sign, signifier and signified, nonverbal cues, icons, memes, meaning, indexicality, referent, language, mediumUnderstanding from common language; enduring possibilities for miscommunication; correctness and appropriateness of words and meaning; codes and media as neutral channels• Multimodal meaning (Hood, 2010)• Network, mass, and interpersonal convergence (Jensen, 2010)
PhenomenologicalExperiencing othernessDialectics, discourse, dialogue, contrapuntal analysis, supportiveness, description, reduction, interpretation, openness, tensionsNeeds for human contact; mutuality; differences; dialogue; communication as skill; “the word is not the thing;” objective facts and subjective values• Interaction theory (IT; Froese & Gallagher, 2012)• Relational Dialectical Theory 2.0 (Baxter, 2011)
CyberneticInformation processingInformation, networks, boundaries, co-ownership, source, receiver, function, feedback, noise, redundancy, managementInformation and logic; mind, brain, identity; complex, often unpredictable systems; differences and similarities in humans and machines; linearity, cause, and effect; differences between emotion and logic• Personal and social networks (Parks, 2011)• Uncertainty and information management (Afifi & Afifi, 2009)
SociopsychologicalInfluence, interaction, and expressionVariable, effect, behavior, emotion, personality, perception, attitude, cognition, interactionCommunication indicating or reflecting personality; beliefs, feelings, bias, and judgments; interpersonal effects in groups; humans as rational; mindfulness and mind; perception• Emotions (Metts & Planalp, 2011)• Supportive communication (MacGeorge, Feng, & Burleson, 2011)
SocioculturalProduction and reproduction of social orderCulture, performance, identity, negotiation, practice, stories, rules and rituals, socialization, sensitization, co-constructionIndividuals negotiating identities with society; society and its culture or cultures; social actions; agency and responsibility; social order• Narrative and autoethnography (Bochner & Ellis, 2006)• Workplace relationships (Sias, 2009)
CriticalDiscursive reflectionOppression, resistance, individualism, ideology, dialectic, paradoxes, historicism, consciousness, emancipationCirculation of power; freedom, equality, reason, and other similar values; awareness and insight; social order; questioning of objectivity; sites of knowledge• Heteronormativity (Chevrette, 2013)• Race and whiteness (Herakova, Jelača, Sibii, & Cooks, 2011)
PragmatistCommunity pluralism; coordinating practical activities through reflexive inquiry and discourseCommunity, interdependence, discourse, consequences, participation, cooperation, support and control, social capitalIncommensurability; participation; reflexivity and nonreflexivity; unsound discourse practices; applied pedagogy• Action-implicative discourse analysis (Tracy, 2008)• Social capital and community organizing (St. John & Shepherd, 2004)

Reflecting on the Model: Toward a Constitutive Approach

Reviewing this model, even in its abbreviated form, might be intimidating. It is likely few interpersonal communication scholars will be able to identify each of the areas of study listed in the last column; and even for those that can it is likely that their understanding of each is limited. Still, a constitutive approach is not so much a matter of knowing everything that interpersonalcommunication studies has to offer but more about respecting, acknowledging, and celebrating our diversity. Too often scholars run away from different aspects of interpersonal communication when we should be running toward concepts, theories, or philosophies that challenge what we know. It is most likely that competing perspectives will not eradicate or even diminish existing theories, concepts, or research claims, but that the seemingly incongruent ideas can be generatively combined to strengthen them.

To understand and contribute to this or other metatheoretical dialogues, however, scholars must educate themselves or be trained to understand communication theory across different traditions. As such, one much-needed resource for interpersonal communication scholars is state-of-the-art reviews and theorizing that reaches across traditions to allow constitutive insights for readers. A strong example of this is Caughlin, Koerner, Schrodt, and Fitzpatrick’s ([ 6]) review of family communication. Their handbook chapter weaves a compelling and inclusive overview of family communication studies that includes sociocultural, critical, cybernetic, and sociopsychological traditions. In doing so, they honor each tradition’s unique contributions while maintaining a generative tone that highlights how the diverse approaches to family communication studies come together into an intelligible body of knowledge. The chapter stands as a shining example of how a constitutive approach to interpersonal communication studies does not have to be muddled or lost in metatheoretical jargon.

Another way to move a constitutive approach to interpersonal communication studies forward is to expand the abbreviated Model of Interpersonal Communication Studies as Metamodelpresented here. Even if one does not wish to take on this expansive and theoretically demanding endeavor wholesale, with the generation of a fuller and more inclusive model, it does not mean that scholars are limited from challenging theoretical hegemony or contraction in their own ways. For example, it would be a worthwhile endeavor to begin borrowing theories from one tradition and seeing how they hold up in another. The insights provided by Baxter and Braithwaite ([ 4]) and Manning and Kunkel ([23]) can be helpful for enacting cross-tradition translation of theories. Teachers and mentors might also consider how they can step out of their comfort zones to engage new theories or perspectives. Some of the most engaging and exciting classroom discussions on my end have been when I introduced an article or book chapter into a graduate classroom that challenged my own assumptions. The ensuing discussions helped me to be mindful of how I was framing the research or theory to my students and also of how my students’ different takes on the readings were enabling a reciprocal process where roles of student and teacher were somewhat diminished. To be certain, embracing new ideas often means making oneself vulnerable and open to challenge.

I embrace that challenge here. As Cooren ([ 9]) notes, any entry into a dialogue of constitutive metatheory is but a point of view that awaits both affirmation and dispute. In other words, the second-order theoretical model offered here, like other models and theories, serves as a form of dialogue that can instigate agreement, disagreement, and—ideally—productive tensions that allow for more fully realized theories and theoretical perspectives than a singular, monolithic theoretical view. Expanding our interpersonal communication worldview requires a serious commitment from us as interpersonal communication scholars, but that commitment will strengthen our studies and this context of the discipline as a whole. A constitutive approach to interpersonal communication studies will allow us to dialogue with other disciplines from where many of our traditions were appropriated, dialogue with others in our own discipline who are sitting amongst those various traditions, and—most importantly—encourage solid theoretical contributions that benefit from being explored and examined from multiple perspectives.


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