A Theory of Dyadic Social Interaction and Meanings Michelle Miller-Day In this paper, the author proposed and describes a theory of the social construction of meaning in dyadic communicative interaction. The author argues that necessary convergence communication is a theoretical framework useful for explaining how power may influence the process of meaning construction in interpersonal communication.
This essay describes the features of this theoretical framework and provides theoretical suppositions for future empirical testing. Child:Mom, look at the blue package! Mother: It’s not blue, it’s teal. Child:It looks like blue to me. Mother: It’s not though. It’s got green in it too, so it’s teal. Later that day Friend: Oh, that’s a pretty package. The blue matches your shirt. Child:It’s not blue, it’s teal. To many of us this scene is not unusual.
Children often learn from elders what any given symbol “means” and once children learn these meanings they incorporate them into their cognitive schemata. According to Piaget’s (1972, 1954) theory of cognitive development, from approximately ages 4-7 children are in an intuitive phase where they can grasp logical concepts, but reality is not yet firm and is often dictated by authority figures. The role of authority figures to shape constructions of reality certainly does not end in childhood.
Social constructionists such as Berger and Luckmann (1966) argue that individuals “together produce a human environment, with the totality of its socio-cultural and psychological formations and understandings; social meanings are a human product “(p. 52). It is not unusual, say, for an abusive romantic partner to convince his or her partner that the abuse is deserved or symbolic of care or even love. The dyadic construction of acts of abuse as signifying love or care may not e clearly understood by others outside the relational dyad, yet perceptions of abusive behavior as acts of love are common in abusive interpersonal relationships, along with sacrificing one’s own interpretation of events so as not to lose the affection of the partner (Woods, 1999). In fact, in a recent episode of the popular television show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (Denoon & Platt, 2004) a teenager was placed in foster care due to a mother’s complete and utter dominance over the child, with the episode focusing on the control the mother had over how her offspring interpreted the world around him.
The psychologist in the episode did not have a name for this process of maternal domination, but compared the teenager to a “puppet,” merely appropriating his mother’s interpretations of the world out of fear; the fear of losing her love, protection and their relational structure. Although this essay does not focus on children or abusive relationships specifically, it outlines a theory addressing the social construction of meanings in dyadic communicative interaction wherein there is disequilibrium between members in that process.
Berger (2005), in his review of the interpersonal communication up until the 21st century, pointed out that very few interpersonal communication scholars have developed theories addressing this central tenet of communication –meaning. His review argued that for the field to move forward interpersonal communication researchers should look more at interaction routines and the process of meaning-making between interactants.
Around the same time as this review was being written, Koerner and Fitzpatrick (2002) published an article in Communication Theory arguing for a similar need for research examining intersubjectivity, meaning, and interactivity in the area of family communication. They argued the following: “… a complete explication of family communication needs to consider both intersubjectivity and interactivity (Fitzpatrick & Ritchie, 1993). Intersubjectivity refers to the sharing of cognitions among participants in a communication event, whereas interactivity refers to the degree to which the symbol creation and interpretation are linked. ,Interactivity refers to the way that a family maintains its own structure through patterns of family members’ responses to each other’s communicative acts” (p. 73, Koerner & Fitzpatrick, 2002). Correspondingly, Miller-Day (2004) also presented a Necessary Convergence Communication (NCC) theory which focused on both intersubjectivity and interactivity in family member interactions, while addressing issues of power and dominance involved in the process of meaning-making between communicators.
At this junction, in response to these calls for theoretical development in the area of meaning construction and dyadic social interaction in the fields of interpersonal and family communication, and building on the ideas introduced by Koerner and Fitzpatrick (2002), this essay will briefly review the original ideas of Miller-Day’s (2004) Necessary Convergence Communication (NCC) theory, elaborate on them, and then discuss how this framework might be a workable mid-range theory to assist communication scholars understand how the construct of power or dominance may influence the meaning construction process in interpersonal communication.
A theory is a lens through which to examine human interaction and theories have four functions–description, explanation, prediction, and change (Griffin, 2000; Littlejohn & Foss, 2005). The foundation of a theory is description and as Wood (2004) points out, “before we can figure out how something works, we must describe it” (p. 32). Therefore, the first task of building new theory is to describe its features. This essay provides a description of necessary convergence communication and identifies specific features that may be empirically tested.
An Introduction to Necessary Convergence Communication Miller-Day (2004) argued that necessary convergence is a form of intersubjectivity that occurs during a pattern of interactivity when one communicator is dominant and the other submissive. When convergence of meaning occurs, meaning coordination tends to be coercive rather than cooperative with the dominant partner’s interpretive frame privileged over the submissive partner’s, leading to unequal contributions to the process of meaning coordination. Author Ayn Rand (1993) referred to this type of process in her novel The Fountainhead.
Rand argued that some individuals tend to be “second-handers”—people who don’t judge for themselves, who just repeat what others close to them say, embrace it, and make it their own. Miller-Day’s (2004) argument suggests that when the relational schema for the submissive partner is based on conditional regard—that is, she or he believes that acceptance in the relationship (e. g. , receipt of emotional resources) is contingent on meaning convergence; the submissive partner will converge with the dominant partner’s meanings for relational maintenance purposes.
As discovered in Miller-Day’s family communication research (2004) and Miller (1995) and illustrated in the Law and Order episode mentioned earlier in this essay, not to converge with a dominant partner’s interpretation of symbols or events in any transaction would risk already precarious acceptance and approval in the relationship. An interpretive frame is defined here as cognitive structure that contains mental representations of meanings; the process of constructing meaning activates interpretive frames.
Necessary infers that convergence is perceived as essential to achieving a certain result, and convergence indicates a tendency toward one point (Miller-Day, 2004). Thus, to obtain relational approval and avoid rejection, the submissive partner will accommodate the dominant partner by assimilating his or her interpretive frame. Within this model, convergence is relationally adaptive. This introduction to NCC as a theoretical framework offers an overview.
But, to fully understand how this theory may be applied more generally to interpersonal relationships, I will elaborate on this theoretical framework, present the assumptions linked to it, describe its characteristics, and provide some theoretical statements for empirical testing. A-Priori Theoretical Assumptions Communication Is an Emergent, Creative Activity through Which Meanings are Coordinated Via Interpretive Schemata People approach the world through processes of interpretation. As human social animals we are in a constant state of interpreting and managing meanings, and interpreting meanings is an interdependent process.
The assumption is that meanings are not inherent in objects, but instead arises out of social interaction. During social interaction, meanings are coordinated through interpretive schemata—mental structures consisting of organized knowledge about relationships. Interpretive schemata represent accumulated knowledge—the sum of past experiences—which help an individual interpret, understand, and predict the outcomes of interactions with others (Burleson, Metts, ; Kirch, 2000; Cragan ; Shields, 1998; Koerner ; Fitzpatrick, 2002).
Moreover, interpretive schemata include expectations about what should happen in a given situation and serve to guide behavior. Interpretive schemata specific to relationships—relationship schemata—influence the “encoding and decoding of information, the inferences and evaluations people make … and ultimately their interpersonal behavior” in relationships (Koerner ; Fitzpatrick, 2002, p. 80). This assumption presumes that the process of “making meaning” activates interpretive frames.
Communicators then coordinate their meaning systems as filtered through these frames and then negotiate agreement. Understanding between the members builds intersubjectivity and hopefully leads to consensus (Crotty, 1998; Solomon, Dillard, ; Anderson, 2002). Implicit in this assumption are claims of coordination and negotiation. Coordination implies a state of equal rank, equal power, and harmonious order, whereas negotiation suggests that communicators confer with one another in order to reach an agreement.
Coordination involves collaboration of all communicating partners. Communication Enacts Relationships The state of being in a “relationship” is inherently a communication process and must be understood as a series of transactions in which messages are exchanged. Relationships are formed across repeated transactions, with each new transact adding new information to the one that came before, building a cumulative database of information about the relationship (Burleson et al. 2000; Duck, 1992; Guerrero, Anderson, ; Afifi, 2001). Transactions are units of interaction affecting both interactants and carrying commentary on the interactant’s relationship. As Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson (1967) pointed out, each message (both verbal and nonverbal) carries information at two levels—the content level and the relationship level. The relationship level enacts the current state of the relationship and provides information about how the communicators see each other, themselves, and their relationship.
Communicative Transactions in Close Personal Relationships Have Implications for Personal and Relational Identities Relational members encode and decode information about themselves as well as for their partner, extrapolating this information to the relational unit (Aron ; Aron, 1986). Within this framework, the self is conceptualized as inseparable from dynamic interaction, with each transaction contributing to both self- and relational knowledge. Early work by Mead (1934) identified the centrality of essage exchange in personal identity management. More recent work in relational communication points out that both personal and relational identities are cocreated communicatively within the context of relationship (Wilmot, 1995). Personal identity development is really the unfolding of the self while retaining relational ties; identities are constituted and managed through relationships, not to their exclusion (Adams ; Marshall, 1996). Relational Culture Shapes Interpretive/Relational Schemata
Relational cultures consist of shared meaning systems, routinized patterns of interaction, and norms that structure members’ roles and behaviors (Wood, 2000). These cultural norms shape relational schemata (Koerner ;Fitzpatrick, 2002), and these schemata are socialized across the developmental trajectory of the relationship. Socialization involves the “social and communicative processes through which cultural knowledge, resources and practices are made available and internalized” by cultural members (Burleson et al. , 2000, p. 35).
As Entman (1993) demonstrated, culture is the stock of commonly evoked interpretive schemata and culture might be defined as the “empirically demonstrable set of common interpretive frames exhibited in the discourse and thinking of most people in a relationship” (p. 53). Relational schemata are the mental structures that are socialized within a relational culture, organize knowledge about relationships, and are used to process information relevant to these relationships. Therefore, relational cultures will share common schemata and should be reflected in the communication practices of relational members.
Interpersonal Scripts Emerge From Relational Schemata Scripts are one form of communication practice enacted within relationships that emerge from relational schemata (Koerner ; Fitzpatrick, 2002). Relational scripts direct interaction, exemplify relational work, and dictate normative ways of issuing directives and responses. Scripted interactions are often routine, habituated, and overlearned through repetitive practice in the family culture (Sillars, 1995); however, these scripts are useful in directing the “typical” ways in which an interaction should be handled given the particular relational schema.
When relational members become practiced in these roles and memorize their lines, these enactments become scripted. That is, partners may not think about their day-to-day ways of interacting with each other on a conscious level, but they may still tend to communicate in patterned ways with well-defined scripts that enact “appropriate” relational behavior. These a-priori assumptions are implicit in the theoretical framework of NCC.
In summary, they presuppose that relational culture shapes partner’s knowledge of relationships; each partner’s accumulated knowledge of relationships helps her or him to coordinate meanings; patterned or scripted communication behavior emerges from relationship schemata; and this communication behavior is consequential for interpersonal relationships. Characteristics of Necessary Convergence Communication Necessary convergence communication can be captured by describing its three separate characteristics, equilibrium, weighted proportion of meaningfulness, and motivation, and two process dimensions, degree and chronicity (Miller-Day, 2004).
These characteristics are illustrated in Fig. 1 and can be assessed in terms of their valence and intensity in any given interpersonal relationship. [Insert Figure 1 about here] Equilibrium When necessary convergence occurs, there tends to be disequilibrium in the relational coordination of meanings. Equilibrium refers to an equality of distribution; however when disequilibrium occurs, there is unequal power to determine meanings in interpersonal interaction. Power is a person’s ability to control valuable resources and is often tied to status.
Any type of power such as expert power, legitimate power, or coercive power is relevant to equilibrium as long as the person is in control of resources considered valuable. Control of resources provide the potential for the exercise of power in most relationships, with resources being all knowledge, skills, emotions, words, actions, and materials that are at the disposal of the person. Given the distribution of resources within any specific interpersonal relationship, power might be evaluated by its outcome, which is dominance.
Dominance refers to the degree to which a person can influence and impose their will on the other; its counterterm, submission, refers to the degree to which a person gives up influence or yields to the wishes of the other. I think it is important to keep in mind that dominance itself is determined by the submissive response of others. Moreover, as Burgoon, Johnson, and Koch (1998) pointed out, “While power enables the display of dominance, and dominant behavior may solidify power—though correlated—dominance and power are not interchangeable concepts” (p. 10). According to Miller-Day (2004), when NCC occurs the relational member who has higher status or more power in the relationship (e. g. , parent, teacher, boss, or romantic partner) would be dominant in imposing, rather than cooperatively negotiating, meaning in the relationship. Moreover, as one person’s power to determine meanings increases, the other person’s decreases, this then leads to an unstable situation in which the importance of one partner’s interpretive frame outweighs the partner’s. Weighted Proportion of Meaningfulness
The second characteristic of necessary convergence occurs when one partner submits to the unequal distribution in the power to construct meanings in interaction. Dominance requires submission. Consequently, when a lower-status partner submits, she or he affords the dominant partner’s meanings more weight—more significance—in the transaction. Developmentally, as most individuals begin to acquire personal authority they naturally become differentiated from parents and others in their life, even as they remain emotionally connected (Nadien ; Denmark, 1999).
However, as adults form unique relational cultures, they will develop new connections with others. Some times these relationships are purely social and require accommodation of meanings for social management purposes; for example, in the classroom where a professor does not encourage critical thinking but mandates rote memorization and resists any challenge of information. In this case, students are required to accommodate the professor’s meanings into his or her own understanding (and repeat that on the exam! ).
Anyone who has ever been in a classroom with one of these instructors may empathize with students placed in a setting where there is a low tolerance for differentiation in thinking among members. But the case of relational partners where one partner is dominant in most realms of the relationships and the other submissive, there is both a social and emotional connection between partners. In this case, the dominant partner will typically closely monitor any behaviors that signify the submissive partner’s movement toward differentiation (uniqueness outside the relationship), regardless if emotional ties remain undisturbed.
If the less powerful partner resists the imposition of meaning and challenges her partner’s construction of meaning in the dyadic interaction, then necessary convergence communication has not occurred. It is the absence of resistance –the convergence–that is a key feature of this kind of communication. According to NCC, the less powerful partner will be motivated to converge because he or she feels it is necessary. Motivation Motivation is a reason for action, an incentive.
This theory argues that when there is a compelling reason for convergence, such as is to avoid undermining the relationship or to secure relational acceptance, there is increased motivation to converge with the higher-status partner. When acceptance in the relationship is perceived to be conditional on that convergence, then convergence is perceived as relationally adaptive and the lower-status partner is more likely to perceive convergence as necessary. Necessary convergence, then, might be viewed as a form of secondary control.
According to Rosenberg (1990), “Secondary control is an attempt to accommodate to objective conditions in order to affect a more satisfying fit with those conditions” (p. 147). Although convergence tends not to be explicitly demanded, lower-status partners will perceive it as a condition for relational acceptance. Manipulation of resources in a relationship, such as support, regard, or inclusion, emerged as a significant contributor to asserting dominance in the family relationships observed by Miller-Day (2004).
As a form of psychological control, higher-status family members offered and withheld these resources contingent on the convergence of the lower-status member. The manipulation of emotional resources, therefore, was used to assert psychological dominance with the provision or withdrawal of resources providing a compelling motivation for lower-status partner’s convergence. According to NCC, once convergence is perceived to be necessary, and one accommodates the dominant partner’s interpretive frame at the expense of one’s own, two additional characteristics become important when assessing necessary convergence: degree and chronicity.
Process Dimensions Degree. The relative intensity or amount of convergence in any given dyadic interaction is important to the process of NCC. The following illustration captures different degrees of convergence. Example: An adult woman and a friend are talking. The friend comments that she likes the woman’s new hairstyle, pulled up on her head with a hair clip. The woman comments that she likes the style too. Soon the adult woman’s mother walks into the room, looks at her adult daughter, and with a tone of disapproval says, “What have you done to your hair? It looks awful”
Under conditions of high convergence, the lower-status woman would change her hairstyle extensively as a result of her mother’s comment, converging with her mother’s interpretation that the style was indeed horrible and altering her original interpretation to “fit” more closely with her mother’s. If asked by another, she would explain that the hairstyle looked awful so she altered it. Under conditions of moderately high convergence, the lower-status woman would significantly change her hairstyle as a result of her mother’s comment, but just to please her mother or to reduce conflict.
The lower-status woman would not alter her own interpretation to fit with her mother’s interpretation; she would merely accommodate the alternative interpretation. Under conditions of moderately low convergence, the lower-status woman might make minor alterations in the hairstyle to integrate both perceptions of what was attractive into one style. Finally, under conditions of low convergence, the lower-status woman might listen to her mother’s comment but keep the style anyway because she likes it.
As Miller-Day (2004) comments, there are times when we all perceive that it is just easier, necessary, or politically astute to adjust our interpretations to others’ view of the world. However, when there is extensive accommodation and convergence, obliterating personal interpretative frames constitutive of self, this might negatively influence personal identity. Chronicity. Convergence may be chronic or the pattern of convergence may occur across time and contexts. When lower-status individuals experience repeated failures in negotiating meanings in transactions with a partner across time (e. . , across the life course) and contexts (e. g. , attitudes, values, behaviors), this may instill a generalized expectancy of learned helplessness and “giving in. ” Miller-Day’s (2004) data revealed that women who chronically engaged in necessary convergence had an undefined sense of self and lower self-esteem than women who did not engage in convergence. When boundaries between individuals blur in personal relationships, identities may become undefined and convergence communication becomes the modus operandi.
Piaget’s (1972) theory of cognitive development points out that in normal development, both assimilation and accommodation processes are used simultaneously and alternately throughout life. Assimilation being the process of using or transforming the environment so that it can be placed in preexisting cognitive structures and accommodation being the process of changing cognitive structures in order to accept something from the environment. Necessary convergence communication offers an explanation for those interactions where accommodation becomes the primary means of making sense of the world.
Theoretical Suppositions of Necessary Convergence Whereas theoretical assumptions are claims already supported in the research literature, suppositions are considered true or existing but not yet proved. Miller-Day (2004) provided the groundwork for this theory development and I seek to build on that by offering the following suppositions about NCC. I believe these suppositions may provide the necessary building blocks for theory development and offer future directions for empirical testing. Supposition #1 Interactants with more power (e. g. expert, legitimate, reward) in a dyadic social interaction will exert more influence in the construction of meaning than interactants with less power. Coordination of meaning involves power and control and according to this theory meanings can be hijacked. When both partners share moderate levels of power in the relationship, it would be predicted that they would enjoy the equilibrium and co-construction of meaning–shared cognitions with a relatively high degree of match between symbol creation and interpretation. But most theories assume co-construction and equilibrium in sharing cognitions.
According to NCC, we need to factor in power status of the interactants in the dyadic construction of meaning. Although studies exist that explore social stratification and power in terms of race, gender, and larger cultural hierarchies (see, e. g. , Altheide, 1995; Lyman, 1994), rarely do scholars explore interpersonal dominance and perceptions of status in their attempts to understand meaning construction. Supposition #2 Under conditions where there is disequilibrium—unequal power—in determining meanings in dyadic social interaction, both partners will afford the dominant partner’s meanings more significance.
If one participant in the communication event is dominant in the dyad then it is predicted that connections between symbol and interpretations can be coerced, and the interpretations of the dominant partner are privileged in that communication event. Supposition #3 Converging with a higher-status partner’s assigned meanings will function to maintain the relational identity. The act of convergence is relationally adaptive. The act of convergence in any given interaction will serve to protect the entangled identity of the participants and function to maintain the relational status quo.
Partners in dominant-submissive relationships will maintains their relational culture through this patterns of responding to each other’s communicative acts–by one requiring convergence and the other converging. Supposition #4 Among submissive partners, necessary convergence communication will be positively related to an undifferentiated self. Relationships demonstrate varying degrees of tolerance for intimacy and autonomy through interactions. In differentiated relationships partners are provided with autonomy, while maintaining respect and intimacy.
In undifferentiated relationships boundaries are regulated, with high demands for connectedness, and ultimately impeding individual identity (Skowron ; Schmitt, 2003; Skowron, 2005). Supposition #5 The manipulation of emotional resources by the dominant partner in relationship with an undifferentiated partner will positively predict necessary convergence communication. It is posited that a communication partner who encourages emotional and psychological dependence through the manipulation of emotional resources (e. g. , love, acceptance) will also coerce a high degree of convergence in the communicative interaction.
Respectively, a communication partner who is undifferentiated and submits to the dominant partner will perceive that convergence–or a shared interpretation–is necessary to maintain the relationship. Supposition #6 The more chronic and the greater the degree of convergence, the more likely the submissive partner will have a generalized expectancy of learned helplessness predicting increased risk for depression. The theory of learned helplessness (Seligman, 1975) offers a model to explain human depression in which apathy and submitting to more dominant others prevails, causing the person to fully rely on others.
This can result when life experiences cause the individual to understand that their own cognitions are irrelevant. Summary This essay introduced necessary convergence communication as a theoretical framework to help explain how meanings can be hijacked by others in interpersonal relationships. Under certain conditions it is predicted that dominant members in interpersonal relationships may be able to control the coordination of meaning in the relationship, subverting the interpretations of the submissive communication partner.
Outlining characteristics of NCC (equilibrium, weighted proportion of meaningfulness, and motivation), two process dimensions (degree and chronicity), and posing 6 testable suppositions about NCC, this essay argues that this mid-range theory may be useful in understanding intersubjectivity and interactivity in dyadic social interaction where one partner is dominant and the other submissive. Whether that partnership is interpersonal or relational, there are implications for this kind of communication in understanding interpersonal influence and possibly even mental health outcomes such as depression.
Future Directions There are criteria by which theories are judged to be effective. According to Shaw and Costanzo (1970) and Wright (1998), the following criteria may be used for evaluating theories and future research should examine this theoretical framework to assess if it meets these criteria. First, there is explanatory power—do the suppositions of the NCC theoretical framework enable scholars to explain as much of the communication phenomenon as possible? Next, is the theoretical model parsimonious—does it contain as few suppositions as possible, is it as simple as it can be?
Is NCC internally consistent, that is, do the suppositions contradict each other? Does NCC have heuristic potential; does it suggest hypotheses to be tested through additional research? Finally, does NCC promote new understanding and have societal value? This essay outlines the features of NCC and proposes suppositions for empirical testing. Future research should test these suppositions with the potential to falsify and/or delimit this theoretical framework.