Some of the words in this compendium were subsumed from everyday language into academic disciplines (for example, see “behavior” and “group”), but the adjective “interpersonal” originated as an academic term. It was introduced Harry Stack Sullivan, an American psychiatrist (1892-1949), “to describe behaviour between people in any encounter” (Oxford English Dictionary online, 1989). Now, the adjective is used more generally to describe anything pertaining to “relations between persons” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, n.d.).

In Communication Studies today, one most often sees the adjective “interpersonal” attached to the noun “communication”. Interpersonal communication has become one of the discipline’s most established subfields (Craig & Muller, 2008); some scholars have suggested that this prominence is due in part to the sub-discipline’s ongoing commitment to a positivist research paradigm (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008; Presnell & Carter, 1994).

In the 1970's, students and scholars were more likely to specify whether they were studying a one-to-one, one-to-some, or one-to-many setting for interpersonal communication, but, in recent decades, the term has been streamlined to signify only one-to-one communication – although it need not be face-to-face (Knapp & Daly, 2010). Knapp and Daly (2010) define interpersonal communication as follows: “A very common definition suggests that interpersonal communication is the process whereby one individual stimulates meanings in the mind of another through verbal and/or nonverbal means” (p. xxi).

Developing a clear, concise, and sufficient definition of interpersonal communication is difficult because of its transactional nature. Knapp and Daly (2002) have said that “[T]here is considerable variety in how [scholars] conceptually and operationally define this area of study. In some respects, the construct of interpersonal communication is like the phenomenon it represents – that is, dynamic and changing. Thus attempts at specifying exactly what is and is not are often frustrating and fall short of consensus” (pp. 8-9). Despite this, Bochner (1989) asserts that scholars generally agree that interpersonal communication is “at least two communicators; intentionally orienting toward each other; as both subject and object; whose actions embody each other’s perspectives both toward self and toward other” (p. 336, as qtd. in Knapp & Daly, 2011, p. 11).

Emergence of Interpersonal Communication in Communication Studies

During the 1960s and ‘70s, the growth of interpersonal communication research reflected, in part, the growth of behavioral research in Communication Studies in general (see “behavior”). For example, when the National Society for the Study of Communication formally separated from the Speech Association of America (now the National Communication Association) in 1968 to become the International Communication Association, it only had four divisions, and one was interpersonal communication (Chaffee & Rogers, 1997). New journals also reflected this new emphasis. Chaffee & Rogers explained:

To service its large constituency of behavioral researchers, ICA in 1974 created a second journal [the first was the Journal of Communication], Human Communication Research. The first editor, Gerald R. Miller, attracted mostly theory-testing empirical studies related to his specialty, interpersonal communication. Another empirically-oriented journal, Communication Research, was also established in 1974 as an independent venture by Sage Publications. […] So the new journals, despite generic ‘communication’ labels, rapidly came to reflect the new structure of the field, replacing the universities’ speech-journalism instructional dichotomy with the researchers’ interpersonal-mass communication dichotomy. (p. 174)

Interpersonal communication also gained popularity among college undergraduates, and courses in the subject became more widely available (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008). Baxter & Braithwaite explained, “[In the 1960s, the] practical reasons for wanting to understand communication persisted and, as Gerald Miller (1976) explained, ‘students themselves began to demand answers about how to relate communicatively with their acquaintances and close friends, and romantic partners’ (p. 10)” (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008, p. 3; Miller, 1976, p. 10).

Interpersonal Communication approaches

In 1978, Gerard R. Miller and a colleague, Art Bochner, each wrote state-of-the-field assessments of interpersonal communication, in which they evaluated the promise of various approaches, including:
  1. the situational approach,
  2. the developmental approach,
  3. the law-governed approach, and
  4. the rules-governed approach (Miller, 1978; Bochner, 1978).

These assessments promoted the further development of communication-specific theories in interpersonal communication (Knapp & Daly, 2010). In the 1980s, popular topics of study in interpersonal communication included conflict, gender, and nonverbal, workplace, and intercultural communication (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008). The 1990s brought the emergence of two prominent sub-fields: family communication and health communication (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008).

Classifying Contemporary Studies of Interpersonal Communication

Given the volume of research in interpersonal communication over the past few decades, scholars have advanced various ways of classifying the extant literature. For example, one could classify interpersonal communication theories and research by any of the following categories:

  • The function or functions of interpersonal communication that they emphasize (i.e., to exchange information, to influence the other person, to generate and maintain relationships and roles, or to entertain someone; Knapp & Daly, 2010)
  • The setting or context of interpersonal communication that they emphasize (e.g., family, healthcare, romantic relationship, friendship, workplace; Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008; Knapp & Daly, 2010)
  • The developmental stage of interpersonal relationship involved in the communication (e.g., initiation, increasing intimacy, disengagement; Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008)
  • The type or channel of communication (e.g., verbal or nonverbal communication, face-to-face or mediated communication; Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008)
  • Central topic areas, such as personality, cognition, processes, messages, development and maintenance of relationships, attraction and initial interaction, commitment and comfort, conflict, persuasion, and competence (as in Knapp & Daly, 2010)
  • The most frequently cited theoriesin published interpersonal communication research. In Baxter & Braithwaite’s 2008 content analysis of interpersonal communication journals, the top ten (from least cited to most cited) were:
        • 10. Attribution Theory
        • 9. Constructivism Theory
        • 8. Communication Accommodation Theory
        • 7. Social Penetration Theory
        • 6. Expectancy Violations Theory
        • 5. Relational Dialectics Theory
        • 4. Dramatistic Symbolic Interaction Theory (Goffman)
        • 3. Uncertainty Reduction Theory
        • 2. Social Exchange Theories
        • 1. Politeness Theory

The most cited, Politeness Theory, was cited more than twice as often as numbers 10, 9, 8, 7, or 6 above (Baxter & Braithwaite, 2008, p. 13 ).

Moderate revisions by Erin Basinger (July 2012)

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Bochner, A. (1978). On taking ourselves seriously: An analysis of some persistent problems and promising directions in interpersonal research. Human Communication Research, 4, 179-191.

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