Dialectical Theory

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Dialectical Theory

The fundamental assumption of social dialectical theorists is that all relationships—friendships, romantic relationships, family relationships—are interwoven with multiple contradictions. Social dialectics is not a single theory but a family of theories (Montgomery and Baxter 1998). Like any family, the various dialectical approaches share some features in common yet differ in others. This entry emphasizes the common features.

Relating as a Process of Contradiction

The central concept of dialectical theorists is the contradiction. A contradiction is the dynamic interplay between unified opposites. Three terms are important in understanding this definition: opposites, unified, and dynamic interplay.

Central to the notion of opposition is mutual negation: Semantically, opposites are the antonyms of one another and function to nullify, cancel, undo, or otherwise undermine one another. Barbara Montgomery (1993) has identified three kinds of oppositions: (1) oppositions that are mutually exclusive and exhaustive (e.g., openness versus non-openness); (2) oppositions that are mutual exclusive but not exhaustive (e.g., connection versus autonomy); and (3) oppositions that are complementary (e.g., dominance versus submissiveness).

Opposites are unified if they are in some way interdependent. Interdependence can take two basic forms, which Irwin Altman and his colleagues (1981) referred to as the unity of identity and interactive unity. The unity of identity is semantic or definitional unity. For example, we understand what "night" means only because we have a concept of "day." With interactive unity, the opposing phenomena are united in practice or in function as part of the same interacting system. For example, marriages require both similarities and differences between the partners. Partners must be similar to some extent in order to establish and sustain a common bond. However, partners must also be different from each other in order to sustain autonomous identities.

Contradictory phenomena are yoked together at the same time that they negate one another. This simultaneous "both-and" dynamic produces an ongoing dialectical tension or interplay between opposites. To dialectical theorists, dialectical tensions keep the relating process vibrant and alive, as parties navigate the unity of opposites in an ongoing manner. Therefore, contradictions are not a sign of trouble for a relationship, but are inherent in the process of relating.

Leslie Baxter and her colleagues (Baxter 1993; Baxter and Montgomery 1996; Werner and Baxter 1994) have described three clusters of contradictions that have been identified by several dialectical scholars: the dialectic of integration-separation, the dialectic of expression-nonexpression, and the dialectic of stability-change. The dialectic of integration-separation is a family of related contradictions, all of which share the family resemblance of necessitating both partner integration and partner separation in relationships. A relationship is a union of two distinct individuals. Without union or integration, a relationship ceases to exist. But in the absence of separate individuals, there is nothing to integrate. Relating partners, therefore, face the ongoing challenge of negotiating the united opposition of integration and separation. Several different terms have been used to capture contradictions that can be located in this integrationseparation cluster including: connection versus autonomy, interdependence versus independence, integration versus differentiation, intimacy versus autonomy, intimacy versus identity, the communal versus the individual, intimacy versus detachment, involved versus uninvolved, the freedom to be dependent versus the freedom to be independent, intimacy versus freedom, and stability versus self-identity (Werner and Baxter 1994). Although some of these labels are mere synonyms of one another, the variation in terms often captures subtle, situation-specific differences in the interplay of integration and separation. The negotiation of integration-separation can be experienced by relationship parties at the mundane level of how much time to spend together versus how much time to spend alone or in activities with others. It can also be experienced as a dilemma of rights and obligations; for example, the right to have one's own needs fulfilled versus the obligation to be responsive to the needs of the other person. This dialectic could also be experienced as a dilemma of identity: sustaining a distinct "I" at the same time that a "we" identity is constructed. In short, the dialectic of integration-separation can be experienced in many ways by relating partners.

The dialectic of expression-nonexpression refers to a cluster of contradictions that revolve around the united opposition of candor and discretion. Relationship intimacy is built on a scaffold of openness, honesty, and complete disclosure. Yet, at the same time, intimacy also involves respect for each person's right to privacy and the obligation to protect one's partner from the hurt or embarrassment that can result from insufficient discretion. The dialectic of expression-nonexpression requires an ongoing negotiation of revelation and concealment, both in interactions between the two partners and in their interactions with others outside the relationship.

The dialectic of expression-nonexpression can be experienced in many different ways by relationship parties (Baxter and Montgomery 1996). For example, parties can frame the dialectic as a matter of individual rights: the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression (Rawlins 1983). Alternatively, parties might frame the dialectic around issues of protection, in which the decision to disclose or not revolves around a desire to protect oneself from hurt or embarrassment versus a desire to protect the partner from hurt (Dindia 1998).

Finally, the dialectic of stability versus change refers to a family of contradictions that revolve around the unified opposition of predictability, certainty, routinization, and stability, on the one hand, and unpredictability, uncertainty, spontaneity, and change, on the other hand. Relationships require both stability and change to establish and sustain their well-being (Bochner and Eisenberg 1987). Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery (1996) use the metaphor of jazz in discussing the dialectic of stability-change in relationships. Jazz artists follow a basic melody which functions as the predictable center of a given artistic performance. This backdrop of certainty enables wildly spontaneous and unpredictable musical departures. Similarly, relationship parties tack back and forth between the stable "givens" of their relationship and unpredictable "new" demands and experiences.

This discussion of commonly identified contradictions does not exhaust the list of possible unified oppositions that face relationship pairs, but it provides an introduction to at least some of the dialectical tensions that friends, romantic partners, marital couples, and families face as they conduct their everyday relating (Brown, Werner, and Altman 1998; Conville 1991; Rawlins 1992).

Contradictions and Change

Social dialectical scholars agree that the dynamic interplay of unified opposites results in ongoing and inevitable change for relationship partners. Although the ongoing tension of oppositions can be negotiated in temporary moments or periods in which all oppositions are responded to at the same time, it is much more common to see an ongoing pattern in which one pole is temporarily responded to at a cost of negating the other pole. The communicative actions that parties enact at a given moment change how a contradiction is experienced at a later point in time. For example, if parties embrace spontaneity and abandon planning, this will create pressure at some point for greater certainty and predictability in their lives.

The most common conception of this change process among dialectical scholars is a helical model, in which responsiveness to one dialectical pole, or opposite, creates pressure to attend to the opposite dialectical pole (Conville 1991). Over time, a relationship pair cycles back and forth between responsiveness to the opposing demands. For example, a parent and child may cycle back and forth between autonomy and interconnection throughout their lives. However, each time a pair cycles back, it is never exactly to the same place they were before—the parties have acquired additional experiences and perspectives. Thus, relating is like a helix.

Over time, the very meaning of a given contradiction is likely to shift. For example, Daena Goldsmith (1990) found that among romantic couples, issues of connection versus autonomy took on different meanings depending on where a couple was in their relationship's development.

Several dialectical scholars (e.g., Baxter and Erbert 1999; Conville 1991; Pawlowski 1998) have argued that relationship change is an erratic, up-and- down motion propelled by pivotal turning point events. Turning points are often moments of heightened dialectical struggle that are negotiated by the parties with varying degrees of effectiveness, thereby resulting in a negative or a positive effect on the relationship. Existing research suggests that not all contradictions are equally important in turning-point relationship change. The integrationseparation dialectic consistently appears as the most significant family of contradictions (Baxter 1990; Baxter and Erbert 1999; Pawlowski 1998). Further, the salience of various contradictions appears to vary depending on whether the change takes place early or later in a relationship's development (Baxter 1990; Pawlowski 1998).

Arthur VanLear (1998) has argued that dialectical change can function more modestly than the major moments of change captured in turning points of relationship development. In examining the cycles of openness and non-openness behavior in relationship pairs, VanLear found that cycles can vary in amplitude, with large or small swings between dialectical poles. Turning points capture only the dialectical cycles that are large in amplitude. In addition, he found that shorter cycles of change can be nested within longer cycles of change. For example, as part of a general upswing in openness, smaller cycles of candor and discretion can be identified.

Communication and Contradictions

Dialectical contradictions are constituted in the communicative practices of relationship parties. It is through communication that contradictions are given a social life. How parties constitute a given contradiction at Time 1 affects how that contradiction will be experienced at Time 2. Several kinds of communicative practices have been identified in existing dialectical work (Baxter and Montgomery 1996).

Because of the helical pattern that frequently characterizes dialectical change, it is not surprising that researchers have found two dominant communication practices in the negotiation of contradiction. In enacting spiraling inversion, relationship parties tack back and forth through time, alternating an emphasis first on one dialectical pole and then on the other dialectical pole. For example, a long-distance marital couple trying to negotiate the dialectic of integration and separation could alternate their week-ends between those spent together and those spent apart. In enacting segmentation, relationship parties negotiate by topic or activity domain, agreeing that in domain A one dialectical pole will be emphasized whereas in domain B the other dialectical pole will be emphasized. The long-distance couple may decide that Monday through Friday are the days in which their individual lives will take priority, whereas Saturday and Sunday are the days in which their relationship will take priority. Both spiraling inversion and segmentation allow a relationship pair to move back and forth between oppositions, but in different ways.

Although it is less common for relationship parties to be responsive to both dialectical poles simultaneously, three communication practices have been identified to accomplish this both/and simultaneity. When parties enact balance, they basically strive for a compromise response; that is, a response in which both dialectical poles are fulfilled but only partially. For example, family members struggling with the dialectic of expression-nonexpression might compromise by revealing partial, not full, truths to one another. Such a compromise would be neither fully open nor fully closed but somewhere in the middle.

The next practice, integration, involves a complete instead of a partial response to both dialectical poles at the same time. Given that the poles negate each other, this practice is a complex one. Several dialectical scholars have argued that communication rituals exemplify integration practices (e.g., Braithwaite, Baxter, and Harper 1998). Rituals hold both sides of a contradiction at once through their multiple layers of symbolism. For example, the marriage ritual at once celebrates the uniqueness of the particular marital couple at the same time that it celebrates the conventions and traditions of marriage as an institution.

The third practice, recalibration, occurs when a relationship pair is able to symbolically reconstruct a contradiction such that the dialectical demands are no longer experienced as oppositional. For example, a marital pair might take a break from their marriage—separate vacations, for example—in order to enhance closeness. Such a transformation of the integration-separation dialectic would produce a paradoxical recalibration in which separation enhanced integration rather than negating it.

Common to all five of these dialectical practices—spiraling inversion, segmentation, balance, integration, and recalibration—is an appreciation of the dialectical nature of relating. However, Baxter and Montgomery (1996) also have described two communicative practices that they regard as less functional in negotiating the dialectics of relating. In communicative denial, relationship parties attempt to extinguish one opposition of a given dialectic, ignoring its existence by wishing it away. A pair may say that they are "totally open" with one another, but such a declaration belies the importance of discretion. In enacting disorientation, parties construct contradiction as a totally negative problem which overwhelms them and brings them to a nihilistic state of despair. A disoriented partner might say something like "Why bother to make the marriage work, anyway? No matter what you do, you'll be unhappy."


A social dialectical perspective has been employed in understanding a wide range of relationship types, including platonic friendships, polygamous families, abusive families, stepfamilies, friendships among coworkers, marital couples, romantic pairs, couple relationships with their social network, the relationships between parents and their adolescent children, the post-divorce relationship between exspouses, and families who face a dying member.

Dialectical researchers have used a variety of methods studying contradictions. Some scholars have used in-depth interviews in which relationship parties are asked simply to talk about the details of their relationship without explicit attention focused on contradictions; these interviews are subsequently analyzed by the researcher for evidence of contradiction. Other scholars have used in-depth interviewing to probe relationship parties explicitly about their awareness of, and reactions to, contradictions. Sometimes, dialectically oriented researchers have employed narrative analysis of stories of relating told by participants. Other dialectically oriented researchers have employed traditional survey methods to solicit parties' perceptions of the extent to which they experience dialectical tensions. Field-based ethnography has also been employed by dialectically oriented researchers. Finally, some dialectical researchers have coded the communicative behaviors of interacting partners for dialectical oppositions. Clearly, there is no single way to study the contradictions of relating.

Social-dialectics theories are not traditional deductive, axiomatic theories that attempt to explain cause-and-effect relations in the world, nor are they suitable for traditional hypothesis-testing. Social-dialectics theories instead typify what Jonathan Turner calls descriptive/sensitizing theories; that is, "loosely assembled congeries of concepts intended only to sensitize and orient researchers to certain critical processes" (1986, p. 11). Thus, the evaluative question to ask about social-dialectics theories is not whether their explanations are correct but whether they are useful in rendering relationships intelligible.

See also:Communication: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Family Theory; Nagging and Complaining; Relationship Initiation; Relationship Maintenance; Relationship Theories: Self-Other Relationship; Renewal of Wedding Vows; Transition to Parenthood


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leslie a. baxter

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