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Social Penetration Theory

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In their attempt to describe the dynamics of relational closeness professors Irwin Altman and Tyler summarized their study in what has been known as the Social penetration theory. According to these professors, humans, even without thinking about it, weigh each relationship and interaction with another human on a reward cost scale. Then how do our levels of relations affect what we disclose to those we relate with in verbal or non verbal communication? “As relationships develop, communication moves from relatively shallow, non intimate levels to deeper, more personal ones.”(Altman & Tylor, 1973, pp. 34). This is the basis on which the theory stands.

Perhaps to examine the authenticity of Taylor and Altman, let’s consider some really life occurrences. John walks from the counter in a cafeteria, looks around from corner to corner and makes his way to the further end where a couple of other young men were sited.

In another observation, newly admitted students in a college who hardly know each other grow fonder of others sooner and others much later. For instance one could grow fonder of a house mate than a classmate and a classmate than just a mere school mate. And yet members of the same class may become fonder to others than others of the same class as well. Could this well be explained by the social penetration theory? (Griffith, 2000, pp.126)

From the above observations, we could tell that friendship or rather intimacy does not just arise, but by close consideration of some factors that make people close to others, closer to other and yet closest to others. Studying of the factors leading to these phenomena could be in itself the motivating factor to the publishing of Taylors, and Altman theory. That notwithstanding social penetration involves a number of stages from just superficial to more particular intimacy levels that triggers though not in totality influence on each party that is in relation.

According to the authors of the theory, these stages can be vividly explored as

Orientation stage. In this stage the depth of conversation is shallow “simple, harmless clichés following standards of social desirability and norms of appropriateness in most cases prevail. No much ado. Exploratory affective stage. At this stage we start peeling off the first layer of the onion – (the onion analogy) we now start to make our attitudes, behaviors likes and dislikes known. Here one could say; John is high tempered, peter is always early and other descriptions that reflect ones behavior or attitudes towards some aspects of life. Conversations here are characterized by moderate subjects and topics such as a football match or a movie. These topics may not however reflect what one truly feels as yet no one is yet ready to peel off his/her character fully.  That friends here treat each with contempt is worth mentioning.

Affective stage. The physical space reduces considerably here. Personal feelings and arguments mar arise. Intimate kissing and touching may arise.  Stable stage. In this stage a plateau in which personal belongings are shared and each partner can guess the t line of action of another in some cases. Degeneration. This can be characterized by pulling away. The friendship degenerates as the cost of the relationship exceeds benefits. In the article “Communication Monographs” Vanlear (1991) explains that relationships undergo two cycles, one a characterized by positive loops and the other negative loops where the friendship starts degenerating. Rather it is important to note that friendship grows indefinitely. There reaches a point where the level of intimacy becomes overwhelming in that no party is ready to disclose or peal oneself further. The relationship then starts its degeneration stage (pp.337).

How fast the process of penetration may vary depending on the following;

The time spent together. People who take more time together more often than not become intimate fast than those who have less time together. This explains why when all other factors are kept constant; students belonging to the same class develop friendship than those merely in the same school. Some of the individuals that are affiliated to the same organizations “peel off their onion covers” faster than those who do not. Members of a choir, school drama club or a concert tend to get develop relations faster compared to those that are hardly affiliated.

The social class of the individuals in a relationship also determines the period on which they rise from the orientation stage to the affective stage. People of different social class more often than not end up breaking up at an early stage than those considerably on the same social class.

Considerations are also made on the “cost benefit factor of the relationship” based on these benefits relationships may then be characterized as either growing, or gradually diminishing. It has been observed that in many cases relationships that have its members benefiting mutually from each other grow and are sustained longer before they start degradation stage (Tibet & Kelley, 1952)  

Are all relationships characterized by these benefits? Perhaps deficiency of some of these benefits lead to degeneration of relationships. The social penetration theory still remains a subject of discussion facing both support and criticism. An individual’s experience may lead to support or denial and hence criticism of the theory. The “cost benefit”and“degeneration factors are the major citing of the theory that face numerous discussions today. Are really relationships driven by the cost benefit factor, or what factors lead to degeneration of a relationship and are there exceptions of the theory? The topic still remains unclosed.

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