Site Loader



class, we discussed and later investigated different theories about human
relationships. All these theories examined why and how people relate to each
other, as well as tried to explain why they choose a particular relationship
and not others. I came across with the theory of Social Penetration while
reading about two American sociologists Altman and Taylor who developed the
theory. They insist, “…relations include various levels of intimacy,
exchange or degree of social penetration.” That is, there are stages in people’s
relationships, which go through a sort of a process of systematic and
predictable trajectory. This idea sounds interesting to anybody who is
struggling with developing meaningful relationships. Just thinking that relationships
follow a trail to proximity, which is organized and predictable development for
sure will save me from countless disappointments. The Social Penetration Theory
proposes that when we see a person, we understandably have a habit of focusing
on the appearance and visual aspects of such person. However, as we interact
and understand the person, they reveal their true identity. In other words, shared
information determines human relationships, which is why it is important to disclose
personal information to smooth the progress of interpersonal action, favoring
communicative exchange. However, it is worth mentioning that we must know how
to dose our information, since the excess of this can create confusion, or even
overwhelm the other person.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now


Theory Definition and Approaches


Altman and Dalma Taylor’s original statement of social penetration theory
appeared originally in their book “Social Penetration: The Development of
Interpersonal Relationships.” The theory points to the development,
maintenance and deterioration of social relations (Regis, 2008).
The central aspect of the theory is the conceptualization of relational
development as a process (Amada Carpenter, 2010). Specifically,
Altman and Taylor detailed that relationships go through sequential stages in
their development.


defined four stages (Irwin Altman, 1973):

Orientation stage: In this, the individuals are cautious and tentative in their
interaction, which is regulated by rules and social formulas. At this stage,
little information is shared.


Emotional exploratory exchange stage: At this stage, individuals begin to relax
and are friendlier to each other. Likewise, more information is shared.


3 –
Affective exchange stage: at this moment, there is an open exchange. According
to Altman and Taylor it is at this time when the close relationships of friends
or romantic relationships are formed.


Stable exchange stage: characterized by constant openness and interaction
richness. Those who interact understand each other very well, and communication
can occur on a non-verbal level.


and Taylor expressed that they saw movement through the essentially linear and
sequential stages. Additionally, for them, in the dissolution of relations the
same stages were present, but in the opposite direction (Irwin Altman,

Altman and Dalmas Taylor proposed the theory of social penetration in the early
1970s. They developed this theory in the field of psychology, shows a series of
communication processes. Many communication studies theorists embraced and
adopted this theory. In addition, this theory played a prominent role in the
ideas of communication as a central process in the development of relationships (West, 2007). The theory of
social penetration has gone through a great development over the years. In
order to understand it, therefore, it is necessary to consider some of the
original concepts developed by Altman and Taylor in the early seventies.


to the theory of social penetration, relationships develop as long as the
interpersonal open behaviors move from the surface to the deep or most intimate
part; and the most central of these behaviors is communication. Altman and
Taylor proposed an “onion” model to describe the ways in which
communication changes as relationships move through different stages of
intimacy. This metaphor underscores the notion that when relationships change,
they are characterized by increasing the kind of communication (by moving into
the inner areas of the onion) and by increasing the depth of communication (by
exploring more surface area of ??the onion) (Irwin Altman, 1973). In agreement with
the theory of social penetration, relationships develop if communication
increases in both amplitude and depth.


process of behavior through which amplitude and depth a relationship is
achieved depends on the self-revelation. It involves communication about
oneself and can include both intimate and non-intimate topics. I should mention
that in these processes of self-disclosure there is a general rule of
reciprocity. In addition, information that is public will tend to be exchanged
before private information. On the other hand, the rhythm of exchange changes
as individuals move through the relational stages (Kito, 2002).


to the theory of social penetration, the motivational force is the process of social
exchange. This handles the desires that push and pull relationships from one
stage to another. According to this, individuals evaluate their relationship in
a relatively rational manner similar to an economic analysis. This analysis
involves an evaluation of the rewards and costs derived from the relationship (Amada
Carpenter, 2010).


theory of social penetration was developed in the field of social psychology.
However, it is clear that the communication process is central to this theory.
On the other hand, other psychologists argued on the relevance of communication
in relational development by stating, “…relationships are created,
sustained, moved and eliminated through messages.” (Amada
Carpenter, 2010)


that the theory of social penetration is a theory of long-term relational
development, few studies have examined the whole theory (West, 2007). Self-disclosure
tends to be reciprocal, enhances attraction, and plays a role in the
development of interpersonal relationships. Taylor and Altman indicated that
individuals do evaluate rewards and costs when making relational decisions.


and Taylor both carried out an extensive study in the field of social affective
bonding in several types of couples. Social Penetration refers to a type of
affective relationship in which individuals move from a superficial
communication to a more intimate communication, according to Altman and Taylor,
intimacy encompasses more than physical intimacy, other dimensions of intimacy
include emotional and as a couple. (West, 2007)


Current Theory Status

New studies,
which investigated interactions on today’s age, appear to focus mostly on the
new ways of communication such as social media and blogs. A decade ago, people
communicated with family and friends in person and through phones, and slowly
changed to personal Social networks, Media
sharing networks, Discussion forums, Consumer review networks, Anonymous social
networks, and Blogging and publishing networks. In consequence,
social theories had to adapt.  Today millions
of people write and post photos to share their thoughts, feelings, and
experiences. According to the Pew Research Center,


is currently the most commonly-used online social network among adults. Among
adult profile owners 73% have a profile on Facebook, 48% have a profile on
MySpace and 14% have a LinkedIn profile Since people are encouraged to keep
personal webpages or social media accounts to document their lives,
self-disclosure and communication with unknown audiences, the gradual process
of developing a relationship described by the Social Penetration theory appears
to lose credibility” (Irwin Altman, 1973) (Lenhart,
Purcell, Smith, & Zickhur, 2010)


Penetration Theory describes self-disclosure as a methodical and structured
process and is important for interpersonal relationships. Recently, the Social
Penetration theory is the topic of many studies related to online relationship
and social networking. Applications in advertising and the way people find an
intimate partner appears to be evident and logical. Researchers agree that the
theory is still applicable today as was before it just transferred to new
methodologies of communication.  People
still presents many layers that form their persona as individuals. The outer layers
are visible information, which could be reachable reasonably easily by others. The
inner layers have information regarding the increasing vulnerability and/or
social desirability of the individual (Tang & Wang, 2012). People still keep defensive
outer layers that protect the self-disclosure process, and are not peeled all
at once.


Theory Evaluation


penetration theory is a central part in social psychology. The theory describes
how people evaluate interpersonal gains from interaction with others. In
addition, the development of the relationship is related on the nature of the
rewards presented as mutual disclosures from others and being “liked” by them. This
theory has been one of the most accurate and accepted by scholars of
communication but there are theorists who are opposed to some premises for
example Valerian Derelega and Stephen Margulis claim that
“self-disclosure” does not depend only on time because the human
personality it is constantly changing. Social Penetration Theory is a very
broad concept of study and not exempt of controversy. The main critique on this
theory is its main source of information is the western culture. Therefore,
scholars only have one way of considering things; they draw their interpretations
from an ethnocentric point of view. The next change on the theory development
appears to be the cultural consideration for a set of rules and behavioral and
social rules for which social interactions are defined.






believe, the theory of Social Penetration expresses the importance of
considering emotion in people’s relationships. Some authors even say that the
theory was developed in a period in which openness in relationships was a
highly valued standard (Amada Carpenter, 2010). In conclusion, this
controversial theory probably had more influence in the field of communication
than any other theory in the post-positivist tradition. It has been adopted in
many other fields and changed substantially to meet the theoretical needs of a
variety of scholars (Kito, 2002).
The theory begins with the supposition that, in the initial stage of
interaction between strangers, people are driven by their desire to reduce
uncertainty between the two. This uncertainty can be cognitive and behavioral
naturally. As social interaction, this was first effort to model the process of
interaction during the initial stage of relational development. This theory
generally focuses on reducing the high level of cognitive uncertainty present
in the initial interaction (West, 2007). These relationships
are naturally linear and causal between verbal communication, and nonverbal
affective behavior.

Post Author: admin


I'm Erica!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out