An Investigation of the Relationship between Implicit Personal Theories of Communication and Community Behavior

Article excerpt

A waning sense of community has been well documented and widely accepted as among the most significant problems of our time. Both social capital (trust in others and civic participation) and interpersonal acts of assistance (or helping) are considered to be common indicators of community. The question of whether certain personally held beliefs about communication correspond to differences in individuals' community behavior is a timely and important one. This study investigated whether individuals' levels of social capital and prosocial behavior differed as a function of message design logic. Results indicated that individuals employing the rhetorical message design logic reported significantly greater levels of social capital and prosocial behavior than did those employing expressive or conventional message design logics. The implications of this difference for communication scholarship and community health are discussed.

Keywords: Civic Participation; Community; Message Design Logic; Social Capital

A declining sense of community in contemporary America has been widely lamented by scholars, social critics, politicians, and everyday citizens (e.g., Adelman & Frey, 1997). Furthermore, discussions about the vitality of community are often interlaced with concerns about the role of communication in civil society. The purpose of this essay is to determine whether individuals' personal conceptions of communication relate to the quality of their community experience. We begin by defining community and discussing its characteristics. We then examine the relationship between community and communication, giving special attention to O'Keefe's (1988) theory of message design logic as it relates to individuals' contributions to good community life. Results from a study conducted with undergraduate students regarding their personal theories of communication (message design logics) and the quality of their community experience (social capital and prosocial activity) are presented and discussed.


There is considerable variation in conceptualizations of community (e.g., Adelman & Frey, 1997). On the one hand, much debate has centered on whether community ought to be defined primarily in terms of place or process (Adelman & Frey; Shepherd, 2001). Largely, studies have abandoned the conception of community as entirely place-bound to find its center in features of social interaction and in structures identified by process (e.g., Dunham, 1986; Shuler, 2001). Similarly, the configuration of community as a social (communicational) accomplishment is increasingly popular (e.g., Leeds-Hurwitz, 2002; Rothenbuhler, 2001; Shepherd, 2001). For the purposes of this essay, community is considered a socially/symbolically accomplished mode of associated living. Following Dewey (1944), good communities are those characterized by a broad and deep level of common interests between persons and by their level of participation in various other forms of association. In this sense, community involves meaningful participation in social affairs, conjoint communicated experience with others, and educative (enlarging) experience.

In addition to the more general and philosophical notions of good community life, there are several compatible, but more concrete, indicators of quality community life. Included among those are variables such as social capital (political/civic participation and trust in generalized and specific others) and prosocial activity (behaviors of interpersonal assistance and support). The following section describes these important indicators of healthy community life.

Social Capital

In his best-selling book Bowling Alone (2000), Harvard University professor Robert Putnam documented the recent decline in "social capital" and related deteriorating sense of community in the United States. According to Putnam (1995a, 1995b, 2000), social capital, understood primarily as membership in large voluntary associations, has been decreasing for several decades. …