The Social Penetration Theory Critical Analysis

Human relationships evolve from non-intimate and superficial dialogues to more intimate ones. For this transition, the interpersonal relationship is enhanced through various processes that have been developed subconsciously. The basic means people get to know others is through communication. However, proximity is established based on the kind of vulnerabilities disclosed between social individuals or groups.

McLean, S. (2005) in The Basics of Interpersonal Communication expressed trust as an “ability to place confidence in or rely on the character or truth of someone”. Trust applies to the form of human social association and relationship but it doesn’t establish proximity as self-disclosure of (and) vulnerabilities does. Thus, a theory emerged in 1973 which explores this concept and transcends the thresholds of trust in ordinary human relationships.

Social Penetration Theory

The Social Penetration Theory is drawn from the formulation of psychologists Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor. The theory provides a rationale for understanding the proximity of two individuals. It defines the transition of a relationship from non-intimate to intimate primarily through self-disclosure and revealing vulnerabilities.

Social penetration theory expands that association or intimacy with people is developed systematically and is predictable. However, this theory also recognizes the period of deterioration in a relationship. Social penetration theory critical analysis intensifies the basic four stages before partners evolve to having a more open relationship with intimacy at its climax.

The psychologists, Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor believe that deeper intimacy with someone occurs through mutual disclosure; this is enhanced through interpersonal interaction which features the expression of human vulnerabilities. Psychologists posit that the process of intimacy hastens up at the beginning of a relationship but reduces enormously at a stage. Therefore, those who sail through and establish a long-term association are people who already know the costs and rewards of the relationship.

Costs and Rewards

Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor’s Social Penetration Theory states that humans analyze the cost and reward of any relationship subconsciously. That is, costs and rewards are forecasted and they examine the future of an interpersonal relationship. The theory shows a layer of unique means to differentiate between relationships. The means are through the degrees of personality depth and breadth.

Further, the theory reveals that people predict the outcome of interaction before it occurs. The authors draw from the relational stability and satisfaction of the Social Exchange Theory by Thibaut and Kelly. The theory, therefore, found the notion that costs are the foundation of the relationship which have negative effects on the person. Costs can be effort, attention or time, money, etc.

The rewards are favourable values that enhance an interpersonal relationship. Rewards transcend the layers of the relational feeling of approval, companionship, affection, etc. These predict the prospects of the relationship and aid in its stability.

Social Penetration theory was developed to express the development or dissolution of interpersonal relationships through self-disclosure and information that transcend a variety of vulnerabilities. With self-disclosure, proximity is increased. Penetration can occur in a different relationship. The theory manifests itself in friendship, familial relationships, social groups, and romantic relationships (Taylor and Altman, 1975, 1987).

The theory is also regarded with the Onion as a metaphor. This elaborates on the process of peeling and how people reveal the core of themselves, and their realities through the process. However, to the partner of choice, the core of the self is known while to the public, the deeper image of the onion isn’t visible. The deeper layer is most important to the relationship than the outer layer that can be likened to the periphery communication that could establish a relationship.

A relationship develops through the exchange of vital information and the theory provides stages of social penetration and depenetration. Before further elucidation, it is essential to note the breadth and depth of intimacy. This is the degree that navigates interpersonal interaction. Breadth is the vastness of the topics partners discuss and depth is the degree of emotion they reveal while discussing them. Depth reflects on family, life ambitions, or social challenges; all of which are intimate facts about people.

Stages of Social Penetration

Taylor and Altman 1987 submit that interpersonal relationship unfolds through various phases of self-disclosure. The stages involved are regarded as the orientation stage, exploratory affective exchange stage, affective exchange stage, and stable exchange stage.

Orientation: this reveals the process of sharing superficial and peripheral information between people. This stage entails a great level of consciousness and intentionality in sieving and choosing what to share with people. The orientation stage occurs at events such as first dates, first social contact with strangers, etc. People withhold negative information or sentiments that could potentially escalate conflict due to the controversy such sentiments abound. Thus, people try to appear modest and disclose only their public self which makes them greatly intentional and cautious of each word they say. This stage features people who get to know each other.

Exploratory Affective Exchange: this witness the sharing of personal details beyond the superficial. At this stage, self-disclosure is less cautious. This process enhances the breadth of topics discussed which generally reveal the public self of such persons. At this stage, the disclosure is reciprocal; it begins the development of a relationship.

Affective Exchange: this stage often reveals casual information beyond the layers. People share more private information which commences the intimacy and more casual disclosure of vulnerability based on trust and reciprocity. This could initiate a conflict or establish a relationship.

Stable Exchange: this is defined by the openness of the depth and breadth of topics discussed. This is where most intimate realities are disclosed and the intimacy that abounds is complemented by honesty and trust. At this stage, emotions and feelings are integrated which further enhances intimacy.

Depenetration or dissolution also occurs. This is deliberate as self-disclosure is reduced. This occurs due to conflict initiated through interpersonal interaction and biases. This process can be sudden or abrupt; it prompts a breakup and the social proximity slowly drifts apart. However, the signs of dissolution can also signal the reintegration of the relationship.

The Social Penetration theory provides a rationale to understand the layers involved in developing and maintaining an interpersonal relationship. It demonstrates the social exchange that takes place in establishing intimacy in any relationship or association. The theory describes the importance of reciprocity and reveals the escalation and de-escalation that abounds in interpersonal relationships. Irwin Altman and Dalmas Taylor drew their observation and formulation based on experimental data and not individual experiences.

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