Theoretical dimensions of applied communication research

Gerald R. Miller, Michael J. Sunnafrank

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


This paper argues that applied research is best carried out within the context of a sound theoretical foundation. It explores three general ways that applied research programs can contribute both to testing and to refining communication theory: (1) by providing an opportunity to plan and to conduct theoretically-oriented investigation which also addresses applied issues; (2) by providing the resources to permit conducting research in more realistic settings; and (3) by encouraging "spin-off" studies that test tangential issues of theoretical concern. Examples are drawn from the authors’ research dealing with the effects of videotaped trial materials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)255-263
Number of pages9
JournalQuarterly Journal of Speech
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1984

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
1 ThiskindoforganizationalresearchisakintothepracticesbemoanedbyDonaldEllisinhiscontroversial,"The Shame of Speech Communication," Spectra, 18 (March 1982), 1-2. We certainly agree with Ellis that most organizational research is grounded in theory and is not subject to this indictment. 2An interesting aspect of this example is that skepticism about subliminal persuasion claims stems from an absence of rigorous theory that can provide a coherent explanation for such "unconscious"effects ofmessages. 3The term "ecological validity" refers to the extent to which research findings can be generalized to real-world settings. See Egon Brunswik, Design of Psychological Experiments with Results in Physical and Social Perception (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1947). 4The research discussed was supported by NSF Grant #GI 38398, Gerald R. Miller and Fredrick S. Siebert, Principal Investigators;and by NSF Grant #APR75-15815, Gerald R. Miller, Principal Investigator. 5Consider an area where considerable applied research is conducted, namely, mass communication. If a sponsoring agency were to request research proposals dealing with the possible effects of media content on media audiences, applicants would have considerable latitude in developing proposals. 6 Returning to our previous example involving mass communication, it is more common for sponsoring agencies to ask for proposals on, say, the effects of televised beer and wine advertising on adolescent drinking behavior. Such specificity sometimes restricts the opportunity for theoretical diversity; indeed, critics of this kind of applied mass communication research contend that the level of abstraction is pitched too low, thereby discouraging theoretical ventures into the problem. 7 The best comprehensive summary of the entire research program is Gerald R. Miller and Norman E. Fontes, Videotapeon Trial: A Viewfrom the Jury Box (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1979). 8Use of the entire pre-recorded videotaped trial has been limited largely to Ohio, particularly in the jurisdiction of Judge James McCrystal, Erie County Court of Common Pleas. By contrast, use of videotape to obtain depositions of individual witnesses has been approved by a number of states and seems to be growing increasingly popular. 9 See Miller and Fontes, pp. 87-100. See also Gerald R. Miller, David C. Bender, Franklin J. Boster, B. Thomas Florence, Norman E. Fontes, John E. Hocking, and Henry E. Nicholson, "The Effects of Videotaped Testimony in Jury Trials," Brigham Young University Law Review, (1975), 331-73. 10See Miller and Fontes, pp. 173-205. 11 For a more comprehensive discussion of this issue, see Gerald R. Miller, "On Rediscovering the Apple: Some Issues in Evaluating the Social Significance of Communication Research," Central States SpeechJournal, 30 (1979), 22-24. 12Miller, pp. 20-22. 13 Miller et al., 1975. 14 For a comprehensive discussion of many of these procedural issues, as well as a description of the various populations sampled in the studies, see Miller and Fontes, pp. 31-55. 15These kinds of frank discussions about resources are seldom carried on in communication, or, for that matter, in most of the social sciences. Certainly, advocates of the physical and biological sciences are not reluctant to ask for resources, nor do they consider it "bad manners" to carry on dialogue about the economics of research and scholarship. We are inclined to agree with Hans Eysenck, who once observed that if the social and behavioral sciences received even a fraction of the money spent on physics and biology, much more would be known about individual and collective social behavior, including symbolic behavior. 16Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen, "Nonverbal Leakage and Clues to Deception," Psychiatry, 32 (1969), 88-106; Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen, "Detecting Deception from the Body and the Face," Journal of Personality and SocialPsychology,29 (1974), 288-98. 17I will not list all of these papers here. Summaries of most of them can be found in Gerald R. Miller and Judee K. Burgoon, "Factors Affecting Assessments of Witness Credibility" in The Psychologyof the Courtroom,ed. Norbert L. Kerr and Robert M. Bray (New York: Academic Press, 1982), pp. 169-94; or Gerald R. Miller, "Telling It Like It Isn't and Not Telling It Like It Is: Some Thoughts on Deceptive Communication" in The Jensen Lectures: Contemporary Communication Studies, ed. John I. Sisco (Tampa: University of South Florida, 1983), pp. 91-116. 18In addition to the Miller and Burgoon chapter cited previously, a second example is Gerald R. Miller, Joyce E. Bauchner, John E. Hocking, Norman E. Fontes, Edmund P. Kaminski, and David R. Brandt, " '... And Nothing but the Truth': How Well Can Observers Detect Deceptive Testimony" in The Trial Process, Vol. II ofPerspectives in Law and Psychology,ed. Bruce Dennis Sales (New York: Plenum, 1981), pp. 145-79. 19 One example is Gerald R. Miller and Norman E. Fontes, "Trial by Videotape," Psychology Today, 12 (May 1979), 92-100+ 112. 20In addition to the Brigham Young Law Review paper cited earlier, a second example is Gerald R. Miller, Norman E. Fontes, and Gordon L. Dahnke, "Using Videotape in the Courtroom: A Four Year Test Pattern," University of Detroit Journal of Urban Law, 55 (1978), 655-98. 21See Miller and Burgoon, 1982, and Miller, 1983, for summaries of many of these papers.

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