In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Developmental Communication

  • Introduction
  • Influential Works
  • Core Texts and Articles
  • General Readings
  • Aging and Health-Focused Readings
  • Theory
  • Methods

Communication Developmental Communication
Carla L. Fisher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0150


Developmental communication is a relatively new perspective used to study interaction. Adopted in the 1980s and referred to as “developmental” or “life-span” communication, on a most basic level, such research mirrors its sister disciplines (psychology and sociology) in its focus on change across time. Communication scholars first reflected on this perspective after a 1979 National Communication Association Convention, which included a caucus on communication and aging, led by Carl Carmichael and Robert Hawkins. Over the next decade, notable scholars (e.g., Nikolas Coupland, Howard Giles, John Wiemann, Jon F. Nussbaum, Mark Knapp) further advocated the value of this perspective via a Fulbright International Colloquium and numerous books. These scholars heightened the value of a developmental approach to understanding communication. Jon F. Nussbaum’s groundbreaking book, Life-Span Communication: Normative Processes, was published in the late 1980s. Known as one of the most revolutionary developmental communication scholars, Nussbaum proposed that researchers use a life-span lens to better capture complexities of communication across an individual’s entire life. A developmental lens appreciates the notion that communication is not a singular event or object separate from time. Rather, “Communication is a primary skill to be mastered . . . Communication is best viewed as a flow of events across time rather than a static occurrence . . . Communication events are continuously unfolding and impacted by a wide range of individual characteristics and factors as well as previous experiences . . . As the communication process unfolds within human interaction, changes occur on numerous levels that may be manifested in different ways at various points in the life span . . . An individual’s capacity to communicate must continuously develop for that individual to master his or her environment and to interact effectively throughout the transitions, adaptations, and new challenges that arise over the life span” (Pecchioni, et al. 2005, pp. 10–11, cited under General Readings). A developmental lens illuminates that change is an inherent part of human interaction. Life-span research is known for focusing on “real-world” issues, being applied or translational, and interdisciplinary. Therefore, developmental communication scholars are known for engaging with the community and crossing disciplinary boundaries with fields such as psychology, sociology, gerontology, family studies, health, mass communication, and cultural studies. Today, developmental communication research is growing in abundance. Such scholarship has resulted in the production of significant knowledge about individual, relational, and societal levels of how communication evolves over time.

Influential Works

The developmental or life-span perspective of communication is grounded in the discipline of life-span developmental psychology. Put forth in Baltes 1987 and Baltes, et al. 1988, research from this perspective centers on the “description, explanation, and modification (optimization) of intraindividual change in behavior across the life span and interindividual differences (and similarities) in intraindividual change” (Baltes, et al. 1988, p. 4). Likewise, (Hagestad and Neugarten 1985) outlines how a life course perspective of behavior highlights the interconnected nature of behavior and sociocultural historical experiences. Several key publications are known for providing a basis for appreciating communication as a developmental phenomenon.

  • Baltes, P. B. 1987. Theoretical propositions of life-span developmental psychology: On the dynamics between growth and decline. Developmental Psychology 23.5: 611–626.

    DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.23.5.611

    Baltes’s presents five assertions of the life-span perspective. First, Baltes rejects the idea that aging equals decline. Second, development is not predetermined. It is impacted by a number of variables, such as life events. Third, development is characterized by both gains and losses. Fourth, diversity must be recognized. Behavior varies intra- and inter-individually over time. Finally, one’s environment influences behavior change.

  • Baltes, P. B., H. W. Reese, and J. R. Nesselroade. 1988. Life-span developmental psychology: Introduction to research methods. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Founding scholars offer an overview of the life-span, developmental perspective of the study of psychology and provide instruction on important methodological concerns (e.g., method choice to capture change, analysis and interpretation, longitudinal research design) when conducting developmentally focused research.

  • Hagestad, G. O., and B. L. Neugarten. 1985. Age and the life course. In Handbook of aging and the social sciences. 2d ed. Edited by E. Shanas and R. Binstock, 33–61. New York: Van Nostrand and Reinhold.

    A life course perspective is often discussed in conjunction with a life span or developmental framework and addresses the normative and non-normative trajectory of life that individuals might encounter. A life course perspective is not focused on sequential age progression; rather, it highlights the influence of sociocultural historical context on time. This perspective entails a heightened focus on social events, ties, and roles across the life span.

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