Communications Paper on Social Penetration Theory

Social Penetration Theory


Social penetration theory describes relationships from a self disclosure perspective. The theory explains that interpersonal communication develops from shallow to deeper and more intimate levels with constant self disclosure. The theory is one of the most recognized communication theories in the contemporary times and goes a long way in explaining the nature of human relations. The wide applicability of the theory makes it especially beneficial and it has been studied to a great extent. Several aspects characterize the social penetration theory, and its evaluation based on the principles set by Griffins on theory effectiveness brings out the perception of a well developed, accurate and practical theory. Similarly, other principles put forward by several other authors also bring out the perception of the social penetration theory as a crucial explanation to human relations.

From the many pieces of literature that have been previously done on the social penetration theory, it can be argued that the theory fits perfectly within the precincts of objective theories. While many authors suggest that the social penetration theory is a perfect exemplification of a testable and practical theory, critics of the theory argue that it is time bound and limited in scope. The limitations of the theory are explained to originate from its inability to be applied in online and other forms of social media communications which are prevalent in the conventional times. The present study explores the social penetration theory to examine its application in the present times. In doing this, the objective of the paper will be to enhance an understanding of the theory through consideration of various theoretical concepts such as its epistemology, ontology and axiology as well as exploration of the key features of an effective theory according to Griffins’ explanation.

Summary of Theory

The social penetration theory was developed by Dalmas Taylor and Irwin Altmans in 1973. The theory was used as the basis of explaining the development of human relations. According to Griffins (2011), the social penetration theory explains the development of communication from shallow communications, to non- shallow and finally to deeper and more intimate communications. The progress from shallow to deeper communications depends on self disclosure as the principle upon which communication thrives. With constant self disclosure, vulnerability increases. VanLear suggests that the increase in vulnerability is what results in the development of close relationships (1987). From this perspective, it can be explained that the social penetration theory is relevant to explaining interpersonal as well as organizational relationships. The theory is also based on various key assumptions.

The assumptions associated with the social penetration theory include: that progress of human relations goes from the non-intimate communication to deeper and more intimate communications; relational development occurs systematically and is predictable based on the type of communication that exists between individuals; the development in relations is associated with de-penetration and dissolution of other relationships; self disclosure is at the center of relational; development in all instances (VanLear, 1987). These assumptions guide the exploration of the social penetration theory through an onion metaphor. The metaphor explains that human personalities are like onions. Removal of the outermost layer in an onion results in the exposure of the inner layers. Similarly, in relational development, removal of barriers to self disclosure results in the exposure of certain personality traits that one could not have exposed otherwise. The application of the theory thus extends from interpersonal communications to the organizational communications. However, critics of the theory argue that it does not especially address all aspects of relational development or even communication based on the principle of emergence of other forms of communication. For instance, computer aided communication is exempted from the application of the social penetration theory (West, 2013). It is argued that although the theory captures the ways in which communication progresses, the case presented through the use of other media such as the social media. As such, the theory is claimed to be limited (Dietz- Uhler et al., 2005)

Based on the theoretical assumptions, the social penetration theory can be described as being objective in nature. This is also based on the principle that the theory was formulated through experimentation and observation. The traditions of theory are the perspectives upon which theories can be viewed and/ or explored. One of the perspectives of theory is the socio- psychological theories. According to the work of Griffins (2011), socio-psychological traditions consider communication to be a form of interpersonal influence through which one individual affect the perceptions of another. The socio- psychological perspective occupies the far left position according to Griffins’ map of theory traditions. The position is associated with the most objective theory. Griffins describes objective theories as those founded on truths that are obtained through observations and systematic experiments. Since the social penetration theory is also founded on experimental data and on observation, it thus occupies the far left end of Griffins’ map of theory traditions under the socio-psychological traditions. This position is assigned to the most objective theories. According to Griffins (2011), consideration of a theory is only complete if the theoretical expertise or trustworthiness of the source is confirmed. The social penetration theory has thus been confirmed through many pieces of literature.

Theory World View


The theory of social penetration can be explained from the world view perspective based on the concepts of epistemology, ontology and axiology. The epistemology of a theory relates to the acquisition of knowledge regarding the theory. Providing evidence for theoretical epistemology helps to find rationale or justification for the study. Irwin Altmans and Dalmas Taylor conducted an experiment to determine the role played by self disclosure in the process of developing personal relationships. Since the theory can be explained from the point of view of its origin, in that its stems from experimentation and systematic observation, the theory can be described as being justified in this context. Crisp and Turner argue that the data obtained from the theorists experiments helped in the formulation of the theory and thus it can be justified on the basis of its origin (2010). The theory asserts that relationships go through stages of self disclosure that are described through the onion analogy, and only experimentation can actually confirm the truth in this.


The ontology of a theory defines the foundation of the theory. In this context, ontology explores the basis from which a theory originates or the phenomenon which the theory attempts to explain. For instance, the theory of social penetration is drawn from the perception of human relationships. Its ontology derives from the examination of relationships, the concept of self disclosure, personality and the similarity between the entire concept and the onion analogy. The movement of relationships from shallow to deeper communication levels is likened to the exploration of an onion. According to Zelley and Dainton (2005), the theory can be described as a social constructionist theory. This is because it is based on the interpersonal relationships that exist between people. In addition to this, the theory also explains various other processes in which its assumptions are anchored. The presence of strong theoretical assumptions gives rise to strength of theory. In addition to consideration of the theory in terms of human relationships, distinguishing between actual face to face communication and computer aided communication is one of the key concepts in the application of social penetration theory.


The axiology of any theory is described as the values upon which the theory is anchored and through which it gains its axis. For instance, Dietz- Uhler (2005) asserts that the concept of social penetration theory is built on the value of self disclosure. This can be described as an effective description consideration the explanation accorded to the theory. From the theorists’ perspective, the relational development process depends on the ability of self disclosure to occur. People have to be vulnerable in order to develop functional and long lasting relations. Self disclosure is what aids this. From this perspective, it can be argued that the social penetration theory cannot stand without the concept of self disclosure. Apart from this, the theory is also based on intimacy as the ultimate value. This is because the theory considers all relationships to be aimed at the ultimate desire of being intimate. As such, the theory postulates that intimacy is the most desirable feature of human relations and should therefore be sought by all (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008). The non intimate and shallow levels of communication are thus considered merely as throughways in the development of interpersonal relationships.

Theory Analysis

There are several key conditions described as the basis of theoretical analysis. According to Griffins (2011), theories can be described as either objective or interpretive. Objective theories are evaluated through six key principles which include explanation, testability, practicality, simplicity, consistency and acuity. From this point of view, the interpretive theories are also evaluated based on six key principles. In either case, the objective is to determine how effective the theory is in pursuing its objective communication. The theory of social penetration can be described as being explanatory. Based on the descriptions given by Jarvis et al (2003), explanation in theoretical evaluation relates to the ability of a theory to explain factors such as who, where, what, when, why and how. The theory has to include an explanation of all terms pertaining to it as well as the phenomenon of target. The social penetration theory clearly mentions people as the who and communication as the what of the theory. In addition to this, it explains the progress from shallow to deeper (how) and intimacy as the final objective (why) in relationships (where). Through this, it can be said that the theory is sufficiently explanatory.

The second evaluation principle is the accuracy of the theory. In Griffins (2011), accuracy is defined through the use of the term testability. In this regard, the availability of additional supporting research is used as the basis of testability. The theory of social penetration has been the subject of many other studies. Besides the theorists, other studies carried out by some authors such as Griffins (2011), VanLear (1987), Crisp and Turner (2010) and Zelley and Dainton (2005) all focus on the concept of social penetration theory. It can therefore be said that the theory has sufficient research report. Apart from the mentioned studies and authors, several other studies also cover key phenomena described under the social penetration theory. It is therefore prudent to argue that the theory is not only sufficiently explanatory but is also accurate in its presentations. As such, other principles of evaluation can be explored.

Additionally, Griffins mentions applicability to real situations as another evaluation basis for objective theories. Since the theory was formulated through experimentation and systematic observation, it is only justifiable to evaluate it on general applicability. Griffins also posits that an objective theory can only be confirmed as effective through consideration of its ability to predict future events. Prediction can only occur when a theory has practical applications in the real world. VanLear (1987) opines that the social penetration theory can be applied in the context of interpersonal communications as well as in organizational communication. An example of mother – child relationships is given in the explanation of the theory’s application. In such relationships, as in other forms of relationships, development from shallow to deeper and more intimate relationships only results after self disclosure. On the other hand, the theory does not apply to all communication contexts. It can therefore be argued whether this creates a reason for digression from the position that the theory is applicable in the real world. From the perspective of the researcher, this may not be necessarily the case as no theory satisfactorily addresses all concepts within the targeted field.

The theory of social penetration can also be evaluated from the view of simplicity. According to Griffins (2011), any objective theory should be simple enough to be understood. In cases where more than one theory exists to explain a particular phenomenon, the most basis and the simplest of all the theories would be chosen to explain the phenomenon. As such, every theory should be direct and presented in the simplest way possible. It is crucial for a theory to make fewer steps and not make more than necessary assumptions (Jarvis et al., 2003). Considering the social penetration theory brings out a perfect exemplification of the relative simplicity of objective theories. In this regard, the theory clearly explains in simplicity the nature of communications development from the shallow communications to the intimate communications. As such, by reading the theoretical explanation, one clearly gets the context of the theory as well as its basis and ultimate objective.

Consistency also forms another rationale for theoretical evaluation. Griffins combines the explanation of prediction of future events with that of theoretical consistency. The intended consistency is supposed to be both external and internal. The ideas presented in the theory should be logically knit together. In the social penetration theory, the logical connectivity of the ideas represented therein is explicit. The theory is developed coherently from the simple statement to the explanation of the social disclosure process and the role it plays in the development of relationships is clear. The internal consistency relates to the explanation of the theory and to the key concepts it entails. On the other hand, the external consistency relates to the theoretical context as well as to the applications of the theory, its merits and limitations. Based on this, it could be said that the social penetration theory also satisfies this condition of theoretical evaluation.

The last condition that a theory needs to satisfy to be effective in Griffins’ view is that of acuity. Griffins defines acuity as the possibility of providing insight into a complex issue in a theory. Goes and Simon (2012) also explore the place of acuity in the theoretical development process. The objective of any theoretical development process is to provide simple explanations to the complex phenomena that the theory addresses. The theory of social penetration explores the subject of communication in relational development. This is a complex concept as it depends on the interplay between several factors including personality traits, communication methods and many other concepts (Goes and Simon, 2012). As such, the availability of a simple explanation of the relational development process through the use of the theory of social penetration. From this point of view, it can therefore be said that the condition of acuity is also satisfactorily addressed by the theory of social penetration.

Based on this analysis, it can be said that the theory of social penetration is effective in all the concepts of analysis. As such, it is suitable for application as a theory of human communications. Griffins’ conditions for a good theory have all been satisfied in full. As such, the theory is a good theory and thus relevant to the communication context. There are other bases upon which the analysis can be built. Some of those theories, just like Griffins’ theory as represented in the earlier editions of his book, contain five key evaluation standard for objective theories as well as for interpretive theories. As such, the standard of acuity is to be taken as a measure of confirming actual effectiveness of a theory.


The social penetration theory is communication theory that explores the development of relations from shallow communications to deeper and more intimate communications. The theory explains the principles of relational development based on four key assumptions, one of which is that relational development is systematic and predictable. The theory is objective based on Griffins’ description of objective theories as being founded on experimentation and systematic observations. According to the analysis given by Griffins, the theory falls on the far left of the map of theory traditions under socio-psychological theories since it is most objective. The theory of social penetration is based on an onion metaphor which describes relationships as being like onions where revelation of inner layers comes with removal of outer layers. The layers in the relational context refer to self disclosure which increases vulnerability.

The theory of social penetration stems from experimental knowledge whose data was used by the theorists to develop the theory. In this regard, the theorists believed that relationships go through stages similar to an onion layers. The ontology on the other hand is on relationships and communication in that context. The axiology of the theory is on the values of self disclosure and intimacy as the most desirable objective that should be explored. Based on the analysis of the theory on the foundation of Griffins’ standards of theoretical evaluation, it is established that the theory is explanatory, accurate, practically applicable, simple, consistence and acute. The satisfaction of these standards makes the theory of social penetration a good theory. However, it has one key limitation which relates to its limited scope in that it does not encompass relations and communications built through computer aided procedures.



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