3.7 Evaluating Theories

Theories are lenses for understanding the world around us. We don’t have to use one theory to understand communication phenomena, but instead, it is possible to use multiple theories to examine our communication. Theories allow us to organize and understand communication experiences, select communication behavior to study, broaden our understanding of human communication, predict and control communication situations, challenge current social and cultural relationships, and offer new ways of thinking and living. Forming theories is a three-step process of (1) asking important questions, (2) looking for answers through observation, and (3) forming answers or theories as a result of observation.

Are all theories alike in their usefulness? Of course not. Evaluating the usefulness or value of a theory is important. Six qualities are crucial for evaluating theories—scope, parsimony, heuristic value, openness, appropriateness, and validity. As you recall, scope refers to the breadth of the theory, parsimony to its level of simplicity, and heuristic value is the theory’s ability to generate other theories. When a theory is open, this means that it recognizes other perspectives and options. Appropriateness refers to the fit between the research question and the theory used to answer it. Finally, validity is the overall worth or practicality of a theory which includes value, fit, and generalizability. When these characteristics are present, we can be confident of our choice of theory.

You have also learned five major paradigms for understanding, explaining, and changing the communication around you. It is important to recognize that no theoretical perspective is the right perspective, although most communication scholars do favor particular theoretical approaches over others and conduct communication research from their preferred perspectives. Those who believe there are universal laws that govern human communication conduct research from the empirical laws perspective. Those who think communication is a result of shared, adaptable rules utilize the human rules paradigm. The systems perspective recognizes the interconnectedness of people, relationships, and communication. If the use of symbols for message creation and evaluation is the focus, then rhetorical theory is the corresponding paradigm. For scholars who are action oriented and desire social change as an outcome of their research, the critical perspective is the one of choice.

Discussion Questions

  • How does understanding communication theory help you in your daily life?
  • Pick a theoretical paradigm. Now pick a communication phenomenon. How does that paradigm help explain that phenomenon to you?
  • What would you focus on using critical theories? What questions would you try to answer?
  • Think of a system in which you are a member. What communicative action could you change that would change the system? What do you think the effect would be?
  • What criteria do you use for constructing or evaluating a good persuasive message? How did you establish these criteria?

Key Terms

  • Theory
  • Scope
  • Parsimony
  • Heuristic value
  • Openness
  • Appropriateness
  • Validity
  • Paradigm
  • Empirical laws paradigm
  • Causation
  • Prediction
  • Generalization
  • Probability
  • Human rules paradigm
  • Social exchange theory
  • Teleological
  • Homeostasis
  • Rhetoric
  • Rhetorical theory paradigm
  • Critical theory paradigm
  • Praxis


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