What’s Your Theory All About, Anyway?

The first few weeks of class have been interesting. I feel slightly behind the curve (my undergrad work was in music and theatre, afterall), but after reading and re-reading this week’s assignment, I finally had my “aha!” moment and have started to really catch on to the material being presented. This week we covered the three different kinds of philosophical assumptions behind communication theory, as well as ways to evaluate what composes a “good theory”, and two varying types/branches of theory (nomothetic and practical theory, to be exact).

To start with, the three different types of philosophical assumptions are; epistemology, ontology, and axiology. (A lot of -ology is about to be thrown around.) In a simpler way of stating it, the three main driving forces behind communication are knowledge, human nature, and value. (Seems simple when you put it that way, right?) Let’s take epistemology, or the study of knowledge. Basically, it’s making up theories about why we know what we know. Epistemology covers various perspectives; one view is that knowledge is ever-changing. An example of this would be the theory that Pluto is a planet. Back when I was in elementary school, Pluto was considered the furthest planet from the sun. Now, it is considered to be a moon, not a planet (which totally messes up my 5th grade planet-mobile). An alternate view of this philosophy believes that there is an ever-present, underlying truth somewhere. An example of this would be the theory that we need oxygen to survive. While it is true that humans can breathe in more than oxygen, most of those other breathable fumes are not safe and will usually end in sickness or death. Another important aspect of the epistemological view is whether or not the theory presented is all-encompassing, or if it presents a picture of a smaller aspect of the big picture. (Think the big bang theory, not the show, in comparison to how a cell replicates itself.) (Littlejohn and Foss, 2011, p.21-22).

Ontology goes along with epistemology; It deals with the study of human nature. Whereas epistemology theorizes what knowledge is known, ontology theorizes about who knows the knowledge. The things ontology ponders over is how people make choices, states and traits that affect choices, individual and social human experiences, and behavioral factors. Do we really and truly make our own decisions or is there something ingrained in us that makes us do something? Think about it- when deciding what to study in school, did you follow your passion, or were you persuaded to go into the same line of work as your family? Me? I deviated from the norm. My father and mother both work for the local police department. My brother and sister both went to school for criminal justice. I, on the other hand, studied music and theatre- a far cry from police work. This ties in with states versus traits. States are temporary conditions that affect us, where traits are more permanent influences that aren’t easily changed. A state can be a financial status, whereas a trait can be your nationality. Easy enough, right?

Ontology also looks at whether human experience is individual or a social construct. Do we decide to do something because it is important to us, because it is who we are, or because it is something society expects of us? For instance, the perpetual struggle to lose weight. Some people do it because they need to be healthier in order to prevent diabetes or heart disease. Others do it to fit the socially accepted image of beauty. This goes hand in hand with looking at whether or not behavior is influenced by universal factors or if it stems from our own experienced situations. (Littlejohn and Foss, 2011, p.22-23)

The third philosophical assumption is Axiology, or the study of values. This philosophy looks at whether a theory can be value free. This means that the scholar who developed the theory has absolutely not investment in the theory. More often than not, this is seen in scientific theories. Scientists proclaim that human bias must be left out of science in order for findings to be valid. However, others believe that theories are intrinsically value-based. Why does a scientist work to find a cure for cancer? Usually, it is because someone they knew had cancer and it is important to them on a personal level. This means that their research is not value-less. It is actually very important to the scientist.

Another aspect that axiology views is how our observations or studies affect what we are studying. Think of Jane Goodall as she spent all of her time observing and studying chimpanzees. She tried to blend into their world- at first they were leery of her, but eventually accepted her presence. How much did their behaviors alter because they knew she was around? This raises the question of whether we should study things to develop answers and knowledge that will make a difference in the world or if we should study things just to solely gain knowledge? (Littlejohn and Foss, 2011, p.23-24).

Using all of the above information, we can take a modern day saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” and see which philosophy it fits best into. Personally, I think it is an ontological theory, as it has a base in human nature, as opposed to knowledge or values. It presents a subtext of making sure that one acts in a way that shows positive and admirable values, but it is not about a value itself. If a person professes to be a humanitarian, but perpetually ignores the homeless and needy he passes on the street, what says more about his characters? A person would need to choose how they act or behave, and many different states and traits could factor into that behavior. So too could societal expectations and personal experiences.

On the other hand, the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” takes the side that one cannot solely judge a person or thing by its appearance- you must look at the whole picture. Instead of just relying on a person’s actions alone, take into consideration their actions, words, experiences, and past. This all-enveloping statement looks at the big picture and presents an ever present truth.

Reference: Littlejohn, S., & Foss, K. (2011). Theories of human communication  (10th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

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