Structure-Interaction Theory: Conceptual, Contextual and Strategic Influences on Human Communication

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This paper addresses Structure-Interaction Theory (SIT), a theoretical framework that both describes communication messages as well as assists in making predictions about how human communication can be improved based on listener preferences for message structure or interaction. Communication messages may be characterized as existing on a continuum of structure-interaction. Communication structure is the inherent way information in a message is organized. A highly structured message is one in which the message is strategically organized using a planned arrangement of symbols to create meaning. Communication interaction is a way of viewing a message with give-and-take, less sustained “notes,” more change in note sequence and briefer notes. SIT seeks to provide a framework to assist communicators in appropriately adapting a message for maximum effectiveness. Although Structure-Interaction Theory newly articulated here, it is anchored in both classic ways of describing communication, such as rhetoric and dialectic (Aristotle, 1959), as well as more contemporary communication theories (Salem, 2012; Littlejohn & Foss, 2008). Specifically, the paper provides an overview of the theory and its conceptual assumptions, identifies how the theory can help explain and predict communication in several communication contexts (interpersonal, group, public communication), and suggests how SIT may help identify strategies to enhance human development. Structure-Interaction Theory is based on an assumption that a human communication message which is understood, achieves the intended effect of the communicator, and is ethical, requires an appropriate balance of two things: structure and interaction. Communication structure is the inherent way a message is constructed to provide a sustained direction to present information to another person. In linking structure and interaction to Aristotle’s description of messages, rhetoric is a more structured, sustained speech or planned message. Dialectic is characterized by a more spontaneous give and take interaction of messages and response to messages. SIT posits that all communication can be placed on a continuum of structure-interaction. The paper identifies applications of SIT to several communication situations and presents communication strategies that can enhance human development. The paper also notes how SIT can be used to develop message strategies to adapt to audience preferences for structure and interaction based on culture and audience expectations. Considering the needs, interests, values (including cultural values) of the audience, is the prime determinant of the degree of structure or interaction that should be evident in a communication episode. Appropriately applied, SIT may help both describe the nature of messages (as structured or interactive) as well as assist in making predictions as to how applications of the structure-interaction message continuum may enhance communication effectiveness.

About the authors

Steven A Beebe

Texas State University

Regents’ and University Distinguished Professor; Department of Communication Studies


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