What Is Theory? Puzzles and Maps as Metaphors in Communication Theory

  • Diana Iulia Nastasia University of North Dakota
  • Lana F. Rakow University of North Dakota
Keywords: theory, science, positivism, interpretivism, inquiry


Many handbooks, books, and articles in communication studies offer definitions of theory, as well as approaches to what are the features of theory or what makes a good theory and to what are the functions of theory or what makes a theory useful. In this essay, we configure a taxonomy of definitions of and approaches to theory through a cross-disciplinary perspective, by reflecting on the different views on theory in the discipline of communication in the broader context of views on theory at the intersection of the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities. We argue that a preeminent tendency, theory as puzzle-solving or map-reading, with its varieties science and investigation, is predominant in communication studies, based on a subject-object schism and on the preexistence of the object to the subject. We also argue that a counteracting tendency, theory as puzzle-making or map-making, with its varieties interpretation and inquiry, has been posited as an alternative in communication studies, based on a subject-object communion and on the creation of objects by subjects.

Author Biographies

Diana Iulia Nastasia, University of North Dakota
Doctoral Candidate, Communication and Public Discourse, University of North Dakota
Lana F. Rakow, University of North Dakota
Professor, Communication and Director, Center for Communication Engagement, University of North Dakota