Relationships: Social Penetration Theory




Social Penetration Theory






The social penetration theory states that as relationships starts and through opening up it grows.This is a process that entails self-disclosure as people become close to each other and with time being even able to share about their private life (Gibbset al., 2006). The theory aims at giving an understanding of how two people get to be close to each other with time.
This theory makes assumptions on how relationships develop with regards to the levels of self-disclosure. We meet different people daily on our day to day endeavors; some make impact while some do not, some end up being our friends while some the people with whom we share our lives with indefinitely through the act of love(Gibbs et al., 2006). For a relationship to grow, the parties concerned must make an effort to open up about themselves. This theory therefore helps us understand on the kind of relationship two people may have in the real world experience based on how much information they reveal to each other. In as much as the theory sought to help us understand how relations are built, it failed to point out the factors that influence the levels of self-disclosure which may not be limited to race, gender or ethnic background(Dunleavy & Booth-Butterfield,2009).
The theory will attempt at looking at the concept behind social penetration as well as the influencing factor(s) and limiting its objective to self-disclosure and its stages.
Theoretical Discussion
The theory qualifies as aqualitative research paradigms and falls under the symbolic interactionism form of theoretical traditions. This form of rhetorical tradition conceptualizes communication as something that is shared by people in their day to day interaction with one another(Jiang et al., 2013). People interact in different settings using communications that are symbolic to achieve different objectives. The theory is qualitative as it tries to explore and gain understanding of underlying reasons. It looks at things in their natural environment while trying to interpret the issue based on the meaning brought by people(Gibbs et al., 2006).
The theory has different assumptions: from the epistemology point of view, the theory assumes that relationships grow if one discloses more about self. It is optional as one can choose whether to disclose information or not. From the axiological point of view, the theory assumes that the behavior will happen and it will not give considerations to values(Jianget al., 2013).
The theory claims that relationship between people grows, their interpersonal communication gradually advances from those that are shallow, levels that are not intimate to deeper, and finally to those that are more intimate(Dunleavy & Booth-Butterfield,2009).People build relationships by disclosing very basic information in the beginning and advances to information that are intimate as the relationship builds up.
The theory with regards with how people relate to one another makes use of interpersonal communication(Gibbs et al., 2006). For instance, in a family set up, information obtained from children by their parent in the day to day life helps in building and maintaining trust between parents and their children. For a start it may be difficult for children to feel like they can trust their parents with certain issues, but when the parents creates a listening environment that is conducive for their children, the children with time build confidence and find it easy to confide to their parents with any issue that may be disturbing them, (Jiang et al., 2013).This is also applicable when dealing with friends, peers and in romantic relationships that lead to courtship. Of importance it can be noted that relationship building is neither automatic nor guaranteed but depends on the expertise of the persons involved in disclosing their attitude, behavior as well as who they really are which should be mutual (Myers& Johnson, 2004).
The theory has led to the sprouting of so many social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn among others some of which help people in achieving breadth by indicating day to day life as well as sharing information while at the same time achieving depth through private messages(Dunleavy & Booth-Butterfield,2009).It has also helped people build in their interpersonal skills and shape how people relate to each other.
The theory has its fair share of weaknesses. The theory is not supported by data, there is very little research done on this theory to exclusively support the idea behind the theory. Factors such as gender, race and ethnicity are not captured making it biased. Often, men will be less willing to disclose their personal life compared to women. Finally, majority of the social network platforms are not regulated leading to high cases of cyber bullying which can destroy someone’s reputation(Dunleavy & Booth-Butterfield,2009).
Synthesis of Scholarship

The synthesis is going to adopt the topical type of organizational scheme as it help organize the study by their main themes as well as help highlight the relationship of emerging issues to the main topic.

The theory of social penetration has helped explains numerous ideas on how people react when information is revealed about oneself and what is key to the concept is the fact that when relationship starts, they tend to have narrow breadth and small depth which advances in intensity over time both which are vital for any relationship to grow(Gibbs et al., 2006). Self-disclosure can be described as the behavioral process in which the depth, which is the degree of intimacy, and breadth, which is day to day conversations, is realized through interaction by two people. It entails revealing information about self to others which they do not have an idea of. In the process of self-disclosure by the two persons, trust is built and strengthened as well as supporting their disclosures(Myers& Johnson, 2004).
The theory uses the onion as a metaphor to explain opening up by one person enables the other person to get to know a segment of who they actually are(Gibbs et al., 2006). Four stages are used to show how relationships develop with time: the orientation stage in which very little information that may be regardedas harmless is disclosed about self; exploratory affective stage where more information is given about oneself but with caution which may help know a bit about a person’s personality, most do not go beyond this stage; the affective stage where private and personal information is disclosed and the parties involved regard themselves as one; and the stable stage which is very intimate and the parties involved can predict each other’s reactions from emotional point of view(Green et al., 2006). The relationship here is described as having reached a plateau.
The theory is very interesting and its authors Altman and Taylor suggested ways in which the development of relationship can be viewed. The theory is versatile thus can be applied in different ways by the different scholars. Self-disclosure effect on different relationship types has been explored widely and written on across an array of populations(Jiang et al., 2013).Turner and West in 2002 wrote about the relationship being experienced in a family setup, Simonds and Hunt in the same year looked at the relationship between teachers and how it develops while Dickson and Walker in 2001 looked at marriages. The theory can thus be regarded as empirical as it has produced a lot of studies on self-disclosure as well as relationship development (Myers& Johnson, 2004).
The theory has received its fair of critique from a number of scholars. Some writers believe that the theory has not interpreted self-disclosure fully (Myers& Johnson, 2004). They consider self-disclosure to be dependent on a variety of factors and not just the want to show and relate to people. The scholars argue that people change regularly and therefore self-disclosure will depend on the behavior of the two parties concerned. Other scholars believe that relationship development is not direct but one that is established and dependent on a grid of different social relationships which have an effect on how partners express their communication patterns(Green et al., 2006). In short, other people may dictate the direction that a relationship may take.
Moreover, some critique disregard the notion that when relationships weaken relationships fail to grow and believe that relationship breakups is attributed to a numbers of factors and not just withdrawal as portrayed by Altman and Taylor(Jiang et al., 2013).The emphasis portrayed by the theory about self-disclosure is ill-advised and not appropriate. When relationships grow and establishes fully, self-disclosure ceases in many scenarios to play a key role compared to the initial phases of relationship building. On the contrary, expressions of intimacy are often accompanied by sessions of conflict, emotional abysses as well as communication awkwardness(Dunleavy & Booth-Butterfield,2009).

The theory has helped people to understand better the framework that is used in developing relationship starting from the point where two people sight each other to the point at which they start building relationship between them(Gibbs et al., 2006). Factors such as ethnicity, gender and race ought to have been captured to help understand how they influence building of relationship.
Future research ought to increase the scope of study so as to cater for allvariables that may affect the nature of relationship to be expected. More work need to be done in order to generate enough data which can be used to comprehensively compare the finding obtained between different topics so that issues can be fully supported for or against based on available data(Jiang et al., 2013).
Self-disclosure should be viewed from two angles, from the point of being open and revealing information about oneself and from the point of being private and reserved. As much as people tend to share information about them, there are some issues that they will tend to keep to themselves(Gibbs et al., 2006). All in all, the theory plays a significant role in helping understand how human relationships develop.


Myers, S.& Johnson, A. (2004). Perceived solidarity, self- disclosure, and trust in organizational
peer relationships. Communication Research Reports, 21(1), 75-83.
Gibbs, J., Ellison, N. &Heino R. (2006).Self-Presentation in Online Personals.The Role of
AnticipatedFuture Interaction, Self-disclosure, and Perceived Success in Internet Dating.
Communication Research, 33(2), 152-177.

Dunleavy, K. & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2009).Idiomatic Communication in Stages of Coming
Together and Falling Apart. Communication Quartely, 57(4), 416-432.
Jiang, L., Bazarova, N. & Hancock, J. (2013). From Perception to Behavior: Disclosure
Reciprocity and the Intensification of Intimacy in Computer- Mediated Communication.
Communication Research, 40(1), 125-143.

Green, M., Garst, J., Brock, t. & Chung, S. (2006). Fact Versus Fiction Labelling: Persuation
Parity Despite Heightened Scrutiny of Fact. Media Psychology, 8(3), 267-285.

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