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An Overview of Theories of Human Communication

Human Communication (Free Image by Pexels)

“I take a pragmatic view of theory. There is no one correct theory of communication, but many theories are useful for thinking about specific problems. The more theories you know, the different problem-solving options you have. However, the diversity of the field is also a source of confusion. My model simplifies the big picture by showing that most communication theories come from a small number of traditions representing fundamentally different practical approaches.” – Robert Craig

Project 3: EH 603 “An Overview of Theories of Human Communication”

(Textbook Review: Theories of Human Communication by Littlejohn, Foss, and Oetzel)

It is only by confidence in, and commitment to, scholastic integrity that the field of communication can say we do not yet have a field but rather a well-developed group of theories. In a world grabbing for attention within a finite amount of potential focus and funding, the position advanced by the authors of the textbook Theories of Human Communications bold and stimulating.

One major theorist highlighted in this textbook is Robert Craig, author of the 1999 landmark essay Communication Theory as a Field, which helped shape the modern field of communication. He claims that communication theorists have “no canon of a general theory to which they all refer” (1999, p. 119). The key reason lies in how the theory of communication developed; multi-disciplinary in nature but disparate in evolution as a field. To quote another theorist named Deetz, as Craig did in his essay, “new disciplines arise when existing modes of explanation fail to provide compelling guidance for responses to a central set of new social issues” (Deetz, 1994, p. 568).

In Theories of Human Communication, we learn the disciplines of psychology, sociology, economics, and political science developed communication theories early in the last century with specific goals to achieve behavioral, attitude, and societal change. With the priority of change in mind, early communication theory was being developed within a context to influence and motivate, which erected a pillar in communication theory that assumes all communication seeks an outcome to change, influence, or motivate. A more comprehensive and perhaps mature side of the communication theory prism might suggest communication itself seeks to stimulate more communication unto the goal of knowledge.

We learn from this textbook that it was only after WWI that literacy and technology provided an opportunity for the academic study of communication, and it was against the backdrop of desire for social change. WWII strengthened the aspiration to learn and explore the psychological and social processes involved in communication. The influence achieved through war propaganda propelled a practical interest to study various outcomes achieved by structured disciplined messaging. Clearly, the study of communication was born out of the unsteady transitional times of two World Wars with specific goals of change and societal influence.

Perhaps the formative years establishing communication theory were guided by the values (or axiology) of change, but the days we live in now place a high value in generating knowledge. In digging deep into the process of knowledge, or epistemology meaning how people claim to know what they know, a more advanced cohesive approach to the field of communication can emerge. It is from the perspective of studying the process of forming knowledge that the field of communication can gain more autonomy and greater identity as a field.

My review of this textbook will focus on the major theories of communication that are explored within its pages:

  • Robert Craig’s Seven Communication Traditions
  • The Medium theory
  • Communication Privacy Management theory
  • Health Communication theory
  • Anxiety-Uncertainty Management theory


Craig, R. T. (1999). Communication Theory.Communication Theory as a Field, 9(2), pp.119-161.      International Communication Association.

Deetz, S.A. (1994) Future of the discipline: The challenges, the research, and the social contribution. In S.A. Deetz (Ed.) Communication Yearbook 17(pp. 565-600) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Littlejohn, S. W., Foss, K. A. & Oetzel, J. G. (2017). Theories of Human Communication(11thed.). Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press.