THE NATURE OF INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION
A Message-Centered Approach
Brant R. Burleson
he first edition of the Handbook of Communication Science included a chapter that focused on definitions and fundamental questions about interpersonal communication (Cappella, 1987). In this handbook’s second edition, I continue this tradition. In the sciences, definitions of central concepts (and the models these imply) are core theoretical equipment. Differences in opinion about definitions crop up even in mature sciences, and these disagreements may be healthy, serving as the harbinger of significant conceptual advances. However, a radical lack of consensus about fundamental conceptual matters undermines coherence in research areas, creating confusion and discord. At present, little consensus exists about the meaning of interpersonal communication. This is not a good situation—scientifically, pedagogically, or politically. To address this situation, I propose a new definition grounded in the idea that interpersonal communication fundamentally involves an exchange of messages. Although this notion hardly seems novel, some of the most influential definitions of interpersonal communication N
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downplay or even exclude this necessary feature. To make the case for the new definition, I begin by describing the current state of dissensus about the fundamental nature of interpersonal communication and detail the undesirable consequences that follow from this. Next, I review and critique three popular definitions of interpersonal communication. I then present my message-centered definition and explicate its key terms. A subsequent section demonstrates how the conceptual model implied by this definition can serve as an organizing framework for theory and research on communication processes, structures, functions, and contexts. Finally, I comment on several potential objections to the proposed definition and consider directions for further conceptual development. (c) reviewed prominent theories and research findings in this area of study (e.g., Berger, 1977, 2005; Hallsten, 2004; Roloff & Anastasiou, 2001). Although there is some overlap among scholars in how interpersonal communication is conceptualized, there are also substantial differences. For example, consider some of the definitions of interpersonal communication that appear in recent textbooks: • “Interpersonal communication [refers] to dyadic communication in which two individuals, sharing the roles of sender and receiver, become connected through the mutual activity of creating meaning” (Trenholm & Jensen, 2008, p. 29). • “Interpersonal communication is a distinctive form of human communication that . . . is defined not just by the number of people who communicate, but also by the quality of the communication. Interpersonal communication occurs not when you simply interact with someone, but when you treat the other as a unique human being” (Beebe, Beebe, & Redmond, 2002, p. 6). • “Interpersonal communication refers to the exchange of messages, verbal and nonverbal, between people, regardless of the relationship they share. . . . Thus, interpersonal communication includes the exchange of messages in all sorts of relationships, ranging from functional to casual to intimate” (Guerrero, Andersen, & Afifi, 2007, p. 11). These definitions all represent interpersonal communication as involving some form of mutual activity, interaction, or exchange, but they also differ significantly. For Beebe et al. (2002), interpersonal communication occurs in close relationships; for Trenholm and Jensen (2008), it transpires within dyads—any two-person system. Guerrero et al. (2007) are even less restrictive; for them,
o Dissensus in Conceptualizations of Interpersonal Communication Since “interpersonal communication” emerged as a recognizable area of theory, research, and teaching in the early 1970s, its scholarship has been reviewed in...
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