COM 611
Theoretical Review Assignment

This assignment, which may also be described as a "conceptual review" if you choose to focus on a theoretical concept instead of a whole theory as the unit of analysis, will entail a written paper and a class presentation. The paper should be written in the style of a formal "literature review," whereas the class presentation leaves you plenty of room for creativity.

Relevant Syllabus Objectives

Written Paper

The written paper should offer a review of a theory or concept. Littlejohn & Foss offer brief reports on scores of communication theories. Your job is to write an expanded report on one theory. Much like a book report describes a book or a biography describes a person's life, this paper should, above all, describe a theory or a concept. Once you've described the theory, you'll then need to elaborate on how the theory works, how it has been tested, how it has been applied, and what shortcomings have been identified.This will require that you research several sources, which may include books, book chapters and scholarly journal articles. Finding primary research - reported results of original studies - is really important so that you can see how researchers have developed and tested the theory first-hand.

Finding the literature (and limiting your search, if necessary)
In class, we'll discuss how you might find your basic topic, but once you have identified a theory of interest, you might face an unexpected problem - narrowing your resources to a manageable body of literature.

Many of the theories we discuss in COM 611 have generated volumes and volumes of research and literature. If this is the case for the theory you choose, you will need to be selective in deciding which sources to cite in your paper. I recommend first finding a chapter in a recent communication theory book, a whole book on your theory, or even a recent in-depth journal article that offers a broad overview of the history and scope of the theory you're interested in. Use that source to find early key works that you can review directly to see how the theory was originally developed, and to choose a subset of the literature that will most likely lead you to your destination (a thesis topic?).

Then bring your search "up to date" by following recent studies that lead to your current area of interest. This may require finding a limited number of recent articles or papers that closely relate to your research interests and working backward from the references in these recent works until you feel like you have outlined the path of the theory or concept from its first widely cited introduction to recent applications in your area of interest.

Outlining the paper
Here's a sample outline for a theoretical review:

  1. Introduction/overview of the theory -- This might be similar to the sections in the Littlejohn & Foss book that briefly cover the "big picture" of a theory. If you are focusing on a subset of research stemming from a broad theory, describe the area you have chosen. Be sure to review the original works yourself, and not just paraphrase someone else's work.
  2. Definitions of concepts -- What are the main concepts and how have they been defined? This should include nominal definitions (working definitions used in research to date) and examples of operational definitions if possible (how the concepts actually have been measured). Again, cite primary research.
  3. Relationships among concepts -- How do the concepts defined above affect, mediate, or interact with one another? What other factors have come into play in the literature you have reviewed?
  4. Critique -- What are the limitations of the theory? What are proponents and critics concerned about? This likely will include issues of conceptualization, measurement, and general usefulness of the theory.
  5. Implications for your area of interest -- Here you may start to discuss the concepts within the context of your research interests. For example, if you are interested in health communication campaigns, you might look at how the key concepts of your theory fit together within the context of the prevention of risky health behaviors. If you were to use this theoretical review as part of a literature review for a thesis, this section would be where you start to find ways to apply the theory in developing your own research questions.

Technical details for the paper

Due date - December 4, but I will ask you to bring evidence of steps along the way as we go this semester. These include a list of references by October 16 and a typed outline by November 6.

Length - As with the event analysis assignment, I'm more concerned with how well you organize your thoughts and cover the material than with how long the paper is. I'm guessing it will take somewhere between 15 and 25 pages to get the job done.

Style - Please use APA style. I do expect your paper to be edited carefully for grammar and clarity - more so than weekly response papers. Also, please make sure to cite your sources properly. To avoid even the perception of plagiarism, please just ask in advance if you have any questions about proper attribution.

Theoretical Review - Class Presentation

Here you have three basic criteria:

  1. Explain and discuss the theory with your classmates in a 20-30 minute, in-class format.
  2. Provide your classmates with some background material at least eight days in advance, so that we can all come to class on the day of your discussion ready to participate.This material may be a draft of your paper, a copy of a key article, a Web site, whatever - as long as you clear it with me first (see technical details below).
  3. Be creative. You've seen me try (and maybe even succeed on occasion) to come up with ways to discuss theory that make the material interesting. Basic information can be disseminated with handouts and/or advance readings, but if you can get your classmates actively discussing your topic, I'll be impressed!

Technical details for the presentation

Date - Once you have confirmed your topic with me (including a list of references for your paper) and have chosen a reading or other form of background material to distribute to your classmates prior to the presentation, you may sign up for a date and time to lead the class. The available dates are November 20, November 27 and December 4. If you haven't signed up for a time by October 30, I will assign you a date and time based on what's available.


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