As Phillips (2000) observes, the term constructivism is associated with numerous doctrines and positions in the social sciences, but in the communication discipline constructivism is most associated with a theory of individual differences in communication skills developed by Jesse Delia and his colleagues at the University of Illinois in the 1970s. Although constructivism originally focused on individual differences in interpersonal competence, it has been applied to numerous communication events and behaviors. It has served as the foundation for theoretical and empirical analyses of relationship development and maintenance, cultural influences on communication, language acquisition and communicative development, socialization processes, and communication instruction. It has also been applied to numerous communication events and processes in business, families, education, health-care, mass media, and politics (for reviews, see Delia 1987; Applegate 1990; Gastil 1995; Coopman 1997; Burleson & Caplan 1998; Burleson 2007).
Development Of The Concept
Constructivism was initially developed to understand how people’s interpretations of the social world shaped their communicative behavior. Early versions of the theory were influenced by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896 –1980) and the American philosopher George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), both of whom believed that effective communication depended on the ability to “take” (or imaginatively construct) the perspective of others. Thus, early constructivist work focused on how individual differences in social perception related to the use of effective forms of communication.
As it developed, constructivism focused on the explanation of functional communication competence, the ability to generate and process messages that enable people to accomplish their social goals efficiently and effectively. Four processes involved in functional communication receive attention within constructivism: (1) message production, the process of generating verbal and nonverbal behaviors intended to obtain desired responses from others; (2) message processing, the activity of interpreting the communicative behavior of others in the effort to understand the meaning of that behavior; (3) interaction coordination, the process of synchronizing message production and processing activities (along with other behaviors) in social episodes so as to achieve smooth and coherent interchanges; and (4) social perception, the process of identifying and making sense of entities and events in the social world, including experiences of ourselves, others, and social relationships, situations, and institutions.
Constructivism addresses four issues for each aspect of functional competence: (1) the nature and forms of specific functional competencies (i.e., what counts as skillful behavior in each process); (2) the determinants of skillful behavior for specific functional competencies (i.e., models of competence, including abilities and motivations required for skilled communication practice); (3) the antecedents of skilled communication (i.e., the biological predispositions, socialization experiences, and educational efforts that cultivate communication skills); and (4) the consequences of individual differences in specific functional competencies (i.e., the effects of skilled communication for multiple outcomes in varied domains of life).
Although social perception is not a communication process per se, constructivism maintains that it plays a central role in virtually all communicative conduct since making sense about the self, others, and social situations is critical to effective communication. Social perception proceeds through several processes, including identifying affect, making attributions, forming impressions, integrating information, and taking the other’s perspective (Moskowitz 2005). Each process can be performed more or less well; thus, social perception is a skill (or a set of skills) on which individuals differ. According to constructivism, all social perception processes occur through the cognitive structures that Kelly (1955) termed “interpersonal constructs” – cognitive schemes that apply to the thoughts, behaviors, and qualities of others. Individuals’ systems of interpersonal constructs are more or less differentiated (numerically large), abstract (have elements referring to concrete qualities such as appearance or abstract qualities such as traits), and integrated (organized, connected, and accessible). People with more differentiated, abstract, and integrated systems of interpersonal constructs have higher levels of interpersonal cognitive complexity. Consistent with the constructivist view that all social perception processes proceed through the application of interpersonal constructs, extensive research has found that interpersonal cognitive complexity predicts several social perception skills and performance on numerous social information processing tasks (Burleson & Caplan 1998).
Constructivism gives extensive attention to the role of social perception in message production. Message production is a complex process composed of many different skills; constructivism has focused on the particular skill of producing highly person-centered messages, which take into account and adapt to the subjective, emotional, and relational aspects of communicative contexts. As a general quality of messages, person-centeredness assumes a somewhat different form depending on the primary communicative goal pursued: highly person-centered persuasive messages exhibit greater concern with the goals and desires of the persuasive target; highly person-centered regulative messages seek to induce the other’s understanding of and compliance with behavioral rules by getting the other to reflect upon and reason through the consequences of his or her problematic behavior; and highly person-centered comforting messages acknowledge, elaborate, and legitimize the feelings of distressed others and encourage them to express and explore their feelings. Highly person-centered messages are more likely than less person-centered messages to attain desired primary goals (e.g., persuading, regulating, comforting) and secondary goals (e.g., self-presentation, relationship maintenance), especially in demanding communicative contexts; further, the regular use of person-centered messages is associated with long-term outcomes such as personal acceptance and professional success (Burleson 2007).
Constructivism maintains that the competence to produce highly person-centered messages is a function of both relevant abilities and motivations. In particular, advanced social perception skills are seen as a critical determinant of person-centered message use since they facilitate identification of and adaptation to characteristics of message recipients and social situations, generation and pursuit of multiple social goals in interactions, and deeper insights about the dynamics of human thought, feeling, and behavior. Extensive research has found substantial associations between interpersonal cognitive complexity (and other assessments of social perception skill) and the use of personcentered messages in a variety of social settings (see reviews by Coopman 1997; Burleson & Caplan 1998).
Another factor that contributes to the use of person-centered messages is the availability of procedural memories or plan elements that contribute to message construction; persons with more plan elements available are more likely to use highly person-centered messages. In addition, because producing person-centered messages often involves considerable effort, their use is dependent on several types of motivation, including “goal motivation” (the desire to achieve a particular outcome), “effectance motivation” (the producer’s belief that he or she is capable of achieving the goal), and “normative motivation” (the producer’s belief that it is socially appropriate for him or her to use particular messages with the recipient). These motivations are influenced by a variety of personality traits (e.g., emotional empathy, locus of control orientation) and aspects of the communicative situation (e.g., the source–recipient relationship).
To date, constructivism has provided less detailed analyses of message processing and interaction coordination than it has of social perception and message production. Sketches of message processing (Burleson 2007) and interaction coordination (Burleson & Caplan 1998) explain individual differences associated with these processes in terms of underlying differences in social perception skills.
Constructivism gives considerable attention to the antecedents of communication skills and their development, especially the influence of parents and peers during the course of primary socialization (Burleson et al. 1995). Two caregiver practices that contribute to social perception and message production skills are (1) using language that explicitly mentions internal states (feelings, intentions), and (2) using person-centered messages when nurturing and disciplining the child. Frequent interaction with peers, especially those with good communication skills, may also contribute to developing the interpersonal constructs, procedural memories, and motivations that underlie skillful communication. Constructivism assumes that humans actively interpret the world, construct meaningful understandings of it, and act in the world on the basis of their interpretations. Given these assumptions, constructivist research frequently employs free-response research methodologies (Delia et al. 1982). These include Crockett’s (1965) Role Category Questionnaire (RCQ) for measuring interpersonal cognitive complexity. This task has participants write impressions of people known to them; these impressions are subsequently scored for qualities such as construct differentiation and abstractness by expert coders. Skill at producing person-centered messages is typically assessed by having participants generate messages in response to hypothetical or actual situations (rather than select messages from researcher-supplied lists of strategies); the generated messages are then coded or rated by experts for degree of person-centeredness and other qualities. These free-response methods are not only natural tasks for research participants, but they also preserve participants’ spontaneous structuring of the social world and provide what are regarded as highly valid assessments of relevant theoretical constructs. Constructivist research also makes use of standard social science methods such as closed-ended questionnaires, rating scales, forced-choice response formats, and researcher-supplied items.
Constructivism has demonstrated value as a communication theory. It is general, flexible, and broad, having been applied to different skills exhibited by different types of people in different situations. It is testable, and has produced one of the largest bodies of empirical findings in the communication discipline, with corroborations of its predictions suggesting the accuracy of the theory. It is heuristic, having generated novel analyses of numerous communicative phenomena, and it has been fruitfully synthesized with other theories. It also has noteworthy limitations; constructivism has narrowly focused on the contribution of social perception to the use of person-centered messages and has not given sufficient attention to the processes through which messages are generated and received. In addition, some concepts in the theory need further specification, and greater effort should be made to apply the theory to skill enhancement.
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