• Summary
  • Contents
  • Subject index

Well-known journal editors and Communication scholars Alison Alexander and W. James Potter provide an insider’s guide to getting published in scholarly communication journals. Alexander and Potter begin with a review of the manuscript submission process followed by coverage of writing traps that should be avoided. Additional chapters, written by eight other distinguished journal editors, tell prospective authors what editors and reviewers look for when deciding which articles should be published and which should not.

The Challenge of Writing the Theoretical Essay
The challenge of writing the theoretical essay
Judee K. Burgoon

An oft-heard lament among communication scholars is that there are too few theories in our published literature. One possible reason for this is that scholars are frequently unsure as to what constitutes a theory. Can it be as succinct as Einstein's theory of relativity? Need it be as formal as a mathematical equation? Does a model or taxonomy qualify? How much “flesh” must a theoretical skeleton have before it is granted the status of a theory? The nebulousness of the criteria that must be met, coupled with wide variability across disciplines in what counts as theory, makes it unsurprising that many scholars are reluctant to label their work “a theory,” opting instead for the more modest approach of proposing hypotheses, models, and the like.

However, if we heed Kaplan's (1964) claim that nothing is so practical as a good theory and realize that the primary objective is to purchase us greater insight into the world around us—greater ability to predict, explain, and/or control some phenomenon of interest—then we need not be fainthearted about attempting to develop a theory. What follows are some practical guidelines for undertaking such an endeavor. These are by no means the only or necessarily a superior approach to theory construction; they simply represent a distillation of guidance that I have gleaned from my own mentors and colleagues, from scholarly writings on the process of theory development, and from my personal experiences in attempting to formulate several different theories of human interaction.

Remember That a Theory is in a State of “Becoming”

Theories are dynamic, not static. They are evolving entities, not finished products. At the core of science is the concept of tentativeness. We advance theories in hopes of gaining greater understanding and heurism with them than without them. However, they are still speculative. They are open to being rejected or modified once subjected to public scrutiny and rigorous empirical testing or criticism. A commitment to developing and writing about theory obligates the writer to a stance of uncertainty. The point of theory development is incremental improvements in our knowledge base: what behavior modification folks call successive approximations, not final answers. Theories are never proven: They either gain support or they fail to gain support. The fact that they may be contested, discarded, and replaced can feel threatening, yet it also frees the writer to be wrong. Like a work of art, the process of shaping, modifying, and transforming a theory is itself a liberating activity, as long as one is not too ego invested in a particular point of view. Put differently, you have to love the process of inquiry, not the product itself, and to welcome the challenges and modifications that inevitably follow a theory's debut if you are going to make theory development a serious pursuit.

Stake Out Your Territory for the Reader

Sometimes authors begin a paper with an interesting quotation or anecdote or they chronicle some historical trends in the literature, but they neglect to tell readers exactly what their topic is. Readers need to get their bearings in order to be located somewhere in conceptual space and time. Early in the manuscript, then, the domain and scope of the theory need to be evident. Is the work about individual, dyadic, group, organizational, mediated, or public communication? Is it concerned with description, interpretation, antecedents to or consequences of communication, or social critique? Is it a macrolevel or microlevel examination of some phenomenon? Are you offering a bird's-eye or worm's-eye view, an insider's (i.e., emic) or an outsider's (i.e., etic) perspective? In short, how much terrain are you trying to cover, and from what vantage point will you do so?

As illustration, when I first began writing about nonverbal expectancy violations, I was only looking at personal space. I was interested in the social consequences of violating personal space for such outcomes as comprehension of what a violator said, attraction toward the violator, the impact on a violator's credibility, and willingness to comply with a violator's request. It was important that my co-authors and I make clear that our domain was nonverbal behavior but that our scope was fairly narrow. We were not talking about all manner of nonverbal violations, just ones related to proximity or distance. We were not talking about the causes of violations, only their effects. And, we were not talking about all manner of effects, just ones that had special relevance to communication. Later, when we expanded the theory to cover a wide range of nonverbal behaviors, we changed the theory's name accordingly. However, in the interest of simplicity and because a name can never describe all of a theory's content, it has been our obligation to inform readers whether we think the theory is applicable to verbal as well as nonverbal phenomena and to behavioral confirmations as well as violations.

This last point brings up a related caveat that should definitely count as one of the first principles of writing about communication theory: Make sure it is about communication. That statement may seem self-evident, but it is remarkable how often people who claim to be investigating communication actually have little interest in communication itself. Their interest may lie in some anthropological, sociological, psychological, or biological phenomenon in which communication per se plays an ancillary role. For example, decades of research have examined how individual difference variables (e.g., Machiavellianism, stimulus screening, gender, or cognitive heuristics) correlate with yet other individual difference variables (e.g., central v. peripheral information processing, attitudes toward health, attachment style). This is not to say these are not worthy topics, but if communication itself gets lost in the shuffle, then these really are not communication theories.

The fact that communication scholars so frequently find themselves wandering into others' “territory” feeds the claim that communication is a derivative discipline with no real theories of its own. I regard that as an unfair indictment. Our discipline by its very nature informs and is informed by many other disciplines, and so we are going to overlap with other fields of study. I have always been fond of a perspective attributed to the eminent psychologist Donald Campbell. He was said to embrace a “fish scale” model of disciplines, in which each, like the scales of a fish, overlapped with other related cognates in a very natural and functional manner. Whereas other fields may tend toward a “telescopic” (or what some might view as a parochial) approach to what is within their purview, communication, with its polyglot heritage, traditionally has taken a more panoramic (or what some might view as an eclectic) approach. Unlike the proverbial blind men who will only ever “know” their small part of the elephant's anatomy, communication scholars often strive to take in the “bigger picture.” (I will say more about the downside risks of this later.) Thus, it is perfectly permissible to “borrow” theories or parts of theories from other fields, as long as you give proper credit when doing so and as long as you can articulate not only why what you have to offer is original but also how it differs from the other theories upon which you are drawing.

So, begin by clearly staking out the locus and boundaries of your topic. Then make sure that communication factors into it somehow.

Answer the Question, “What is Your Question?”

Far too often, enthusiastic students have come for approval to write about something that interests them, only to have me ask, “But what is your question?” It is not enough that your topic be “about” something—television violence, marital interaction patterns, coping with chronic illness, new technologies in the workplace. There must be some problem, issue, claim, or puzzling phenomenon that piqued your interest in the first place. That underlying question should be your starting place. In other words, problematize your topic: Put into words what intrigues you and what question or questions your theory is intended to answer. Then tell the reader what that question is. Nothing is more frustrating for reviewers than to find themselves 10 pages into a manuscript still waiting to find out what the proposed theory is supposed to cover. Within the first few paragraphs, the reader should know what you are attempting to predict, explain, interpret, understand, or criticize.

Do Your Homework

Your mother's favorite injunction remains inescapable, even though you have left the nest. Many a scholar in other disciplines has had an “inspired revelation” about the need to study communication phenomena, only to discover, red-faced, that an entire discipline devoted to its study has existed for centuries. If you wish to avoid the same embarrassment, you will carefully research the extant literature not just in communication but also in related fields to determine if your insights are in fact new and unique or you are tilling ground that has been thoroughly hoed before. The payoffs for such spadework, in addition to avoiding the work of reinventing the wheel, are that you may uncover relevant theorizing and findings that bolster or redirect your own thinking and that allow you the luxury of building on the shoulders of others rather than starting from the ground up. The discovery that someone in an entirely different arena has been thinking along the same lines as you can be as exciting as the original discovery of the idea itself (assuming that you are more motivated by the pursuit of knowledge than the pursuit of personal fame), because the convergence of ideas from different perspectives and databases serves as important validation of our own thinking. It also means that you may have a much larger audience for your own work if you can show how it relates to parallel lines of inquiry.

Define Your Terms

When we become intimately familiar with an area, we tend to forget that others are far less familiar with it and that even seemingly obvious concepts may be foreign to them. Two types of definitions need to be distinguished—those that are constitutive or conceptual, and those that are operational. The former are the formal definitions of terms in your theory, and they should be sufficiently concise and precise so that the reader knows both what is included or excluded by your definitions and how they differ from seemingly related or synonymous concepts. In many cases, the terminology may differ across disciplines, but the concepts are in fact the same. In other cases, they may be similar but not identical to what you are discussing. Be explicit about the similarities and differences, and do not rely on lay understandings, which may be hopelessly vague and perhaps entirely off the mark, for the key terms in your theory.

The latter type of definition—operational—refers to the ways in which you plan to instantiate empirically the conceptual elements in your theory. Although the theory itself should be articulated in conceptual, not operational, terms (just as properly worded hypotheses should be posed in conceptual, not operational, terms), each conceptual term should have corresponding ways of being measured and should be amenable to multiple forms of measurement. If you are theorizing, for instance, about communication goals, you may have a variety of ways in which you might empirically test their impact, such as employing individuals' self-reported priorities in a given communication event. However, the theory itself is about goals and should be worded using such terminology.

At some point, your theoretical concepts will be defined in terms of yet other concepts that must remain undefined if you are to avoid an infinite regress. These undefined terms are left as “primitives” in your particular theory. That is not to say they will not be constitutively defined in someone else's theory, only that in your theory, they are the starting place for your own definitions. So, for example, goals may be primitive in one person's theory, but constitutively defined in another person's theory. It all depends on what the central focus of your work is and which concepts are critical to understanding your thinking.

Identify Your Assumptions

Identifying your assumptions is a stage that scholars often skip, yet it is crucial to understanding what perspectives and assumptions you are importing into your theory or at least undergird it. For example, do you think communicators tend to be highly conscious, rational, and deliberate in their behavior, or do you subscribe to a view of humans as frequently operating on “automatic pilot,” committing mindless, irrational, and/or spontaneous rather than thoughtful actions? Do you think the degree of voluntary, intentional, and planned action is contingent on specifiable conditions? More to the point, do issues of consciousness, intentionality, instinctiveness, and automaticity have any relevance to your theory? Do you think that affect plays a role comparable to that of cognition in governing human behavior? Do you favor a more biologically based or sociologically based view of human behavior? Do you see human action from a systems perspective? Are there particular metatheoretical positions that guide your thinking? Are there theories from other disciplines that you are incorporating and that function themselves as primitives in your theory?

Returning to my own work as an example, when my colleagues and I were first developing nonverbal expectancy violations theory, I came to realize that I was influenced strongly by a number of psychological and biological theories related to human responsiveness to novel and arousing stimuli. At the same time, I was utilizing sociological principles of norms and expectations. I was also drawing upon a behaviorist perspective on the role of rewards in reinforcing, intensifying, diminishing, or extinguishing certain communicative responses. It was important that I make explicit, if only for myself (but preferably also for readers), what assumptions I was making so that I could determine if they were incompatible with one another and reconcile any conflicts.

Because communication as a discipline draws upon the knowledge bases of so many other disciplines, it is easy to fall into the trap of treating the profusion of theories that abound across allied disciplines like a Chinese menu in which you can pick one item from Column A, another from Column B, and so forth. To do so, however, often signals only the most superficial understanding of the theories, because they each have embedded in them their own assumptions about knowledge, human nature, and communication, some or many of which may conflict with one another. It is therefore a very useful preliminary exercise to identify your currently held assumptions and how they figure into your theorizing in either a tacit or explicit manner. Then state what those assumptions are in your writings.

Determine at What Level Your Theory is Pitched

Although it is universally recognized that we will never develop a unified theory of communication and that the pursuit of a single theory would be folly, there are strong differences of opinion as to whether midrange theories (ones of fairly large scope) are even possible. Many feel that a theory must be built around a single explanatory mechanism, a single variable or process that accounts for the observed phenomenon of interest (e.g., arousal, hedonic tone, heuristic information processing, need hierarchies, biological imperatives, intolerance for uncertainty, or universal politeness norms). If no explanatory mechanism is offered, or there are multiple explanatory factors, some would consider that what is being advanced is not a theory at all. This is perhaps why so many “models” rather than theories abound. Models escape the requirement of specifying unitary causes and, indeed, usually specify a large number of linkages. Nonetheless, these are theories in that they specify which communication-relevant variables relate to one another and how they do so.

I do not happen to agree that a theory needs to be so microscopic that it can safely revolve around a single explanatory variable. The theories to which I have devoted some considerable effort developing and testing have been midrange theories, which is to say they are neither simple nor small. Some would say that is one of their failings—that they lack parsimony and elegance. It is true that all else being equal, simpler is better. I do not buy the notion that our job as communication scholars is to “complexify” rather than simplify. However, for me (and apparently for many other communication scholars), communication processes do not admit to simple and easy explanations unless one has carved out a project of rather narrow scope. Even then, one may still have to reconcile how a particular explanatory mechanism relates to explanations being proffered outside the narrow confines of the theory. For example, scholars working on cognitive explanations are now constantly being pressed to address how their theories take account of affective or instinctive or physiological variables.

That said, there is virtue in not proposing a model or theory of such magnitude—a “one size fits all” approach—that it defies comprehension or cannot be subjected to adequate testing and possible falsification. In fact, larger theories, like oak trees, from smaller “acorn” theories grow. Therefore, starting smaller and letting the work evolve into something larger makes a great deal of sense.

All the things I have proposed so far are just the preliminaries to articulating the main arguments of the theory itself. At this stage, there are many different treatises on what the theory should look like, what its principal ingredients need be, and how they should be put together. It is probably advisable at this juncture to consult such writings so that you are consistent in your terminology, know what kind of theorizing you are doing, and know what kinds of criteria are likely to be applied to your work by your target audience. What a critical theorist expects to see, for example, is going to be different from what a social constructivist or logical positivist expects to see. In fact, there is considerable controversy surrounding whether the traditional conventions and criteria of social science—replicability, objectivity, falsifiability, parsimony, and accretion of knowledge, for example—even remain valid.

What follows as my final bits of advice are thus necessarily shaped by my own philosophy of science and my own efforts to create empirically testable social scientific theory. They represent the steps my colleagues and I have followed in our own theorizing, and are therefore only one way to go about the process. Perhaps they will at least serve as a concrete illustration of how to go about laying out a theoretical essay and have some applicability beyond my own brand of social science.

Specify Propositions or Axioms to Create a Logical Progression of Arguments

Theorizing is a rhetorical activity. It is your job to create a convincing case for your position, whether you are proposing a causal model, offering a new interpretive framework, or advancing a particular critique. When I speak of propositions or axioms, I am referring to the central claims for which you must then provide warrants and evidence. If you are going to avoid fuzzy thinking and to create a logically related set of arguments, you need to make them explicit for yourself first, and then analyze them critically to see if they create internal contradictions, conflict with your assumptions, omit critical aspects of your argument, and cohere into an understandable account of some aspect of human behavior.

This is not to say that the theory needs to be complete. You can demur from trying to address everything at once and carve out some subset of the larger problem to be addressed. For example, scholars trying to understand why people are so poor at detecting deception have come at the problem from many different directions, such as how receivers process social information. Even within that general information-processing perspective, a host of different explanations have been offered (e.g., hypotheses related to truth bias, distraction, familiarity, accommodation to senders' intentional cues, visual biases, cognitive biases, cognitive busyness, and self-persuasion), each of which might be called its own “theory,” because each posits its own explanatory mechanism for why deceivers are so successful.

Once you have created your skeletal list of propositional statements, try to order them in a logical and coherent progression (something akin to a legal brief or debate case). This will inevitably require much rearranging, addition of new statements, and integration or deletion of yet other statements. Then, see if you can dispense with any of the statements and still have a sensible theory. This is often the point at which you will expose fuzzy thinking, unnecessary terms in your theory, contradictory or inconsistent claims, missing links, and assumptions that have yet to be thought through. For example, nonverbal expectancy violations theory originally included arousal as a key element. In subsequent modifications, we came to realize that it was not so much arousal that was so relevant as it was the possible attentional shifts caused by violations, irrespective of whether they were accompanied by physiological arousal changes. This is but one small example of the innumerable changes your theory is likely to undergo once you have spelled out your current framework.

As with building a house, erecting the frame is still a long way from having a finished edifice. The statements are just the supports to which must be added supportive evidence and reasoning. Assumptions, although articulated at the outset, should be interjected along the way as the warrants for your claims. Like mortar between the evidentiary bricks, they serve to bind everything together and make what you hope will be a compelling case. At this stage of assembling all the parts, including insertion of relevant work by other authors, you may again find flaws in your thinking or find that what you are proposing conflicts with extant data. This is yet another opportunity to revise your thinking.

Finally, consider how you might go about testing the theory. Propose hypotheses that emanate from the propositions and possible means of operationalizing those terms that are not hypothetical constructs. If this last exercise does not uncover heretofore-overlooked problems, and you do not intend to test the theory yourself first, you are ready to release it for public consumption.

Reference
Kaplan, A. (1964). Conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioral science. San Francisco: Chandler.
  • arousal
  • axioms
  • theory testing
  • information processing
  • theories
  • discipline
  • communication theory
  • Loading...
locked icon

Sign in to access this content

Get a 30 day FREE TRIAL

  • Watch videos from a variety of sources bringing classroom topics to life
  • Read modern, diverse business cases
  • Explore hundreds of books and reference titles