A Survey of Scientific Communication Theory

by Charles Pavitt (Author)
©2016 Textbook VII, 369 Pages


This detailed survey of present-day scientific communication theory rejects the outmoded «levels» organizational scheme in favor of a system based on the underlying model and fundamental explanatory principle each theory presupposes. In doing so it shows the fundamental similarities among all communication-relevant contexts. Most theories included in the book are causal in nature, derived from one of three underlying models: message production, message reception, or interactive. A few theories take on a functional form, sometimes in dialectic or systemic versions. An introductory chapter describes what is meant by scientific explanation, how that concept is instantiated in scientific communication theory, and delineates the three causal models prevalent in these theories. A useful resource for scholars, this book is suitable for graduate and advanced undergraduate courses in communication theory.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Chapter 1 The Foundations of Scientific Communication Theory
  • Chapter 2 Hedonistic-Driven Message Reception Theories
  • Chapter 3 Hedonistic-Driven Interactional Theories
  • Chapter 4 Understanding-Driven Message Reception Theories
  • Chapter 5 Understanding-Driven Interactional Theories
  • Chapter 6 Cognitive Consistency-Driven Message Reception Theories
  • Chapter 7 Other Need-Based Theories
  • Chapter 8 Goal-Driven Message Production Theories
  • Chapter 9 Other Goal-Directed Theories
  • Chapter 10 Functional Theories
  • Final Thoughts
  • References
  • Index

← vi | vii →


The goal of this book is to examine the current state of what, for want of a better term, I call scientific communication theory through a categorization and summary of a relatively large set of representative theories.1 It is an extension of an earlier book chapter (Pavitt, 2010) that introduced the method for categorization and gave a short mention to many of the theories included here. While preparing that chapter, I realized that a large majority of present-day scientific communication theories are founded on the assumptions about human motivation underlying the three most significant movements in 20th century experimental psychology: learning theory, Gestalt psychology, and cognitive psychology. At the same time, I also learned that almost every present-day scientific communication theory relies on a variant of either one of two causal models, the Organism-Stimulus-Process-Response Model and the Input-Process-Output Model, both of which I define in the first chapter. The only exceptions in this latter class are that tiny class of scientific communication theory that follows a functional form.

There is an ulterior motive to this categorization scheme, one shared by my earlier communication theory book (Pavitt, 2000b). It is traditional for communication theory courses and textbooks to classify communication theory according to the so-called levels: interpersonal, group, organizational, ← vii | viii → and mass. (I purposely leave out intrapersonal communication. Even though the concept makes sense from learning theoretic and symbolic interactionist approaches, I still consider it an oxymoronic and utterly useless term that should be permanently banished from our lexicon. Communication is always social. Sheer thinking and other cognitive processes are not.) There is value in teaching individual courses and writing individual books on each of these levels. But the level scheme as a whole is a fundamentally wrong-headed way of thinking about communication theory, scientific or otherwise, as a general category. For one thing, the levels themselves cannot be coherently separated from one another. In which category does the study of family communication belong, interpersonal or group? Is a telephone call an interpersonal event or an instance of a mass media phenomenon? What do we do with an organization small enough to count as a group under any reasonable definition of the latter? And most prominently in this day and age, where does one fit communication via interactive media, in forms such as chatrooms, social networking sites, and massively multiplayer online games—as interpersonal, group, organizational, or mass communication? For one thing, the answers to these questions are not important, because the distinction among levels has little if any conceptual validity. For another thing, the level scheme does not encourage insightful thought about how different theories are related to one another, other than that some are about the same thing.

A much better way is to classify theories according to their underlying presumptions about what communication is and what the communicator is like, no matter the level. I do not claim that my typology is the best possible, although it works well and has what I think to be a strong conceptual underpinning. But any sort of classification system of this type encourages an examination of the most fundamental aspects of communication theory. It allows for perceptive comparisons and contrasts among theories. This way, one learns why the relationship between similarity and liking is so theoretically interesting, why the debate between the respective authors of uncertainty reduction theory and predicted outcome value theory could have no definitive winner, and why the cognitive mediation theory of learning from mass media and the acculturation theory for intercultural immigrants/sojourners have so much in common.

I admit that my definition for what counts as scientific communication theory results in a narrower set than others may want. A proposal counts as a scientific communication theory if and only if communication performs a central role in the theory and the theorist intended the proposal to meet ← viii | ix → the standard view of scientific theory as providing four functions: description, explanation, prediction, and potential control. At least three classes of theories that others may want to include are disqualified. One class consists of many social psychological theories that often show up in communication theory courses and textbooks but do not privilege communication within them. I do include some of these here, such as cognitive dissonance, balance, interdependence, and attribution and impression formation theories, but only after revising them to emphasize the role of communication to a much greater extent than had their originators. A second class comprises a wealth of sociological theories relevant to the role of media in society; see McQuail (1983) for an overview. The third class includes what I call quasi-scientific theories, those that do emphasize communication but do not provide all of the four standard scientific theoretical functions. I have a great deal of respect for some of these, such as adaptive structuration (DeSanctis & Poole, 1994) and relational dialectics (Baxter & Montgomery, 1996; Rawlins, 1992), and their absence should not be taken to imply that I believe them to be any less valuable than those included herein. But I make no apologies for their absence; they do not belong in this book. The authors of the theories just mentioned (and many others in this class) have all explicitly stated that their goals in formulating their theories did not match the standard four-function approach.

There is one other class that will not be found here, consisting of proposals that have been given the name “theory” but do not deserve it. One often reads of framing theory or of priming theory, but there is no such thing as either. Framing and priming are important mechanisms that relevant communication theory, scientific or not, would be well advised to include, but no more than that. At least in their current state, the same goes for the basic goals-plan-action typology for message production (critical concepts that do appear in many relevant theories), the idea of relational turbulence (an important phenomenon in committed relationships), relational framing (a valuable clarification of the roles performed by liking and power in interpersonal message interpretation), information manipulation (a very imaginative extension of Grice’s four types of maxims), social information processing (which proposes important moderators to standard theories of impression formation relevant to mediated interpersonal interaction), and uses and gratifications (which deserves much credit for directing attention to the reasons why people choose to consume specific forms of media). As with the quasi-scientific theories listed above, I again emphasize the fact that I do not consider these proposals substandard in any way, but only that they are not theories. Perhaps some ← ix | x → of these could be extended into theories, analogous to the manner in which the basic micro-level cultivation hypothesis, in its original conception not a theory (as opposed to the macro-level cultivation theory), became one thanks to the work of Shrum (see Chapter 4).

Back in 1963, in a book chapter commenting on the state of research on attitudes and opinions, Serge Moscovici explicitly stated that “strictly speaking, communication theory does not exist” (p. 241). He was obviously referring to the small set of scientific communication theory (after all, rhetorical theory goes back at least to ancient Greece if not earlier), and, to be frank, was fairly close to being correct at that time. Not including social psychological theories with communication implications such as the examples listed above, there was the work of the Yale Communication Research program, congruity theory, and social judgment-involvement theory, plus the rudiments of what became the theory of reasoned action that appeared during the same year. Group equilibrium theory also existed, relevant to a different context. That’s it. Matters have most assuredly changed in the more than five decades since. Contributions have continued to come from psychology (social learning, social penetration, emotions-in-relationship, affiliative conflict, arousal labeling, attentional focus, elaboration likelihood, heuristic-systematic, persuasive arguments, social comparison when applied to group polarization, reactance, self-regulation, social anxiety, sex-role orientation, emotional contagion, disclosure decision, turn-taking, social situation) but also from business administration (affect in negotiation, organizational information theory), education (the capacity model of comprehension of educational media), psychiatry (attachment, family systems, relational pragmatics), sociology (affect-control theory), and anthropology (politeness theory). The bulk of scientific communication theories, however, have been proposed by scholars pledging allegiance to the communication discipline. This book is directed toward that discipline, and we have much to be proud of in that regard. Other disciplines ignore our work at their peril.

As noted earlier, the intent of this book is to provide a summary and meta-theoretical interpretation of the present-day situation in scientific communication theory. I make no attempt to describe any of the relevant proposals in full detail but rather to pinpoint their fundamental forms, mechanisms, and implications. With a few exceptions, I concentrate on one primary exposition of the theory, excluding either earlier versions or later developments. Readers interested in understanding any of them in their full glory would be well advised to examine the full range of their authors’ relevant publications. ← x | xi → However: In Neil Young’s autobiography Waging Heavy Peace (2012), he wrote the following about songs (page 157): “To me, they are like children. They are born and raised and sent out into the world to fend for themselves.” Young continued to note that, for this reason, they can be interpreted in different ways, both by listeners and by other musicians wanting to “cover” them in their own individual manner. I feel the same way about theories. I am of the belief that once a version of a theory has been set in print, it takes on a life of its own independent of its author(s). For this reason, I present the theories in what I believe to be their most defensible form, in so doing taking liberties in my interpretations either beyond or even opposed to those of their originators. I take full credit and/or blame for these liberties, also done without apology.

Any book such as this could not have seen the light of day without contributions from many people besides the author. To begin, I would like to thank the editors of the second edition of the Handbook of Communication Science, Mike Roloff, Dave Ewoldsen, and particularly Chuck Berger, for giving me the opportunity to write the book chapter that allowed me to originally crystallize the ideas expanded on here, and to Chuck and Mike for their comments about the manuscript, which resulted in among other revisions a greatly improved Chapter 1 and Final Statement and the addition of story appraisal theory to Chapter 4, and endorsement of it. Mike, keep brewing; Chuck, I hope your next home maintenance project goes better. Next in line for thanks are several of the folks at Peter Lang, most notably Mary Savigar for getting everything underway, Sophie Appel for designing the cover, and Kimberly Husband for correcting my typos. I would also like to thank Alice and Bob for allowing me to give them so many differing personalities and roles and place them in such a wide range of communication-relevant situations throughout the book.

I wish to dedicate this book to all of those who have provided aid and encouragement for me throughout my academic career, beginning with among many others Joe Cappella and Dean Hewes and all of my graduate student cohort, continuing with all of my past and present colleagues and all my former graduate student friends (the theorizing of some of whom is included in this book) in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware, and ending with again among many others Chuck and Mike.


1. I would welcome a better term than scientific, as it disqualifies some theories that seem scientific but do not meet the criteria I set in this Preface. Let me mention a couple of ← xi | xii → alternatives that would not work. The term empirical means evidence based on observation or experience, and the disqualified theories are just as empirical as those included herein. The term positivist can be taken in two senses, one too broad and the other too narrow for the job. In the broad sense, positivism, as defined by philosopher Auguste Comte in the mid-19th century, basically means the same thing as empirical. In the narrow sense, positivism is equated to logical positivism, a philosophical movement active in the first half of the 20th century. Logical positivists (Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap) believed that for a term (scientific or otherwise) to have meaning, it must be possible to demonstrate a direct connection between that term and either a sensory experience or a mathematical/logical concept. As all scientific communication theory has relied on concepts with no direct connection to sensory experience or mathematics/logic, there has never been a scientific communication theory that was logical positivist in nature.

← xii | 1 →



The intent of this book is to survey and categorize existing scientific communication theory. Before getting to the main task, I need to explicate its underlying foundations. For the purposes of this book, I will consider a scientific theory as consisting of two parts, a scientific explanation and either a conceptual or a formal model, and performing the three functions of explaining, predicting, and providing potential control. The present chapter concentrates on each of these parts and functions in turn, with particular attention to explanation.

Scientific Explanation

An explanation is a story that makes something confusing understandable in terms of something else that is already understood. Characterizing an explanation as scientific presupposes that conception but calls for additional criteria that distinguish that type of explanation from others. Rather than immediately describing those criteria, I think it useful to begin by discussing what they are not.

As my previous volume (Pavitt, 2000b) covered the major movements in the philosophy of science over the past century, including their implications ← 1 | 2 → for scientific explanation, in some detail, I will only cover that here in brief. Philosophy of science during the first half of the century was dominated by a school of thought well characterized by the label “logical empiricism,” as advocates of this approach accepted the premises that the basis of all knowledge is through sensory experience (empiricism) and that logic is central to the construction and evaluation of scientific theory. It is critical to understand that logical empiricism was first and foremost a philosophy of language. In essence, although as just noted the basis of knowledge is sensory experience, most logical empiricists were skeptical about the trustworthiness of any knowledge claims beyond those experiences. In other words, our everyday perceptions cannot be trusted, as they may be as much a function of factors such as the physical conditions under which those perceptions occur and our preconceived expectations about what those perceptions will be like. We can, however, trust our sensory experiences of color, shape, relative position, and the like. Thus these experiences are the only credible basis for science, but, counterproductively, they are private and inaccessible to anyone other than the experiencer. Logical empiricists saw their task as concocting a technical language (or, at least, the logical basis for such a language) that would allow for scientists to describe those experiences to one another and thus serve as the foundation for scientific theorizing.


VII, 369
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Present-day scientific communication Communication theory Organisational scheme
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VII, 369 pp.

Biographical notes

Charles Pavitt (Author)

Charles Pavitt (PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison,) is Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Delaware. He is the author of The Philosophy of Science and Communication Theory and Small Group Discussion: A Theoretical Approach.


Title: A Survey of Scientific Communication Theory
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
383 pages