In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Co-Cultural Theory and Communication

  • Introduction
  • Intellectual and Methodological Background
  • Theoretical Origins, Foundations, and Overviews
  • Racial and Ethnic Groups
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • People with Disabilities
  • International Contexts
  • Innovative Applications
  • Diverse Communicative Contexts
  • Diverse Methodological Approaches
  • Innovative Theoretical Extensions and Triangulations

Communication Co-Cultural Theory and Communication
Mark P. Orbe, Ashlee A. Lambert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0259


Co-cultural communication theory, or co-cultural theory for short, emerged from the scholarly research of Mark Orbe in the 1990s. A co-cultural theoretical approach provides a lens to understand how traditionally underrepresented group members communicate within societal structures governed by cultural groups that have, over time, achieved dominant group status. The theory’s foundation was established by Orbe and colleagues by exploring the communicative lived experiences of underrepresented group members in the United States; the earliest work engaged the communication of co-cultural groups defined through race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, disability, and sexual orientation. The theory centralizes the lived experiences of co-cultural group members and focuses on instances when cultural difference is regarded as salient. At its core, co-cultural theory explores one basic question: How do co-cultural group members use communication to negotiate their cultural identities with others (both like and unlike themselves) in a societal context where they are traditionally marginalized? Through discovery-oriented qualitative research, six factors emerged (field of experience, abilities, perceived costs and rewards, communication approach, preferred outcome, and situational context) as central to the selection of specific co-cultural practices. Since its inception, co-cultural theory has been embraced as a core theory for individuals interested in studying the intersection of culture, power, and communication.

Intellectual and Methodological Background

Co-cultural theory is built on a number of intellectual and methodological foundations. More specifically, it draws from two specific theoretical traditions: muted-group theory and feminist-standpoint theories. In terms of muted-group theory, the works of anthropologists such as Shirley Ardener (Ardener 1975, Ardener 1978) and communication scholar Cheris Kramarae (Kramarae 1981) provided a launching point for co-cultural theorizing. Orbe 2005 explains the connection between muted-group theory and co-cultural theory. This foundation, combined with works by feminist-standpoint theorists such as Sandra Harding (Harding 1991) and Nancy Hartsock (Hartsock 1983), serves as an intellectual point of synergy whereby the communicative lived experiences of traditionally marginalized group members could be understood. Phenomenology, as Lanigan 1988 describes, reflects as the primary methodological framework for the emergence of co-cultural theory. This human science approach to explore the lifeworlds of complex persons required multiple points of self-reflexivity that were pivotal in the theoretical development of individuals traditionally and problematically regarded, according to Folb 1994, as “minorities,” “subcultural,” and “nondominant.”

  • Ardener, S. 1975. Perceiving women. London: Malaby.

    This book offers foundational descriptions of muted-group theory. Written from an anthropological perspective, the text describes how dominant groups formulate communication systems that support their own perceptions of the world and define the appropriate language standards for the rest of the society. The book focuses on how subordinate groups, as a result, are made “inarticulate” or “muted” (or both) in the process.

  • Ardener, S. 1978. Defining females: The nature of women in society. New York: Halsted.

    This book, written by anthropologist Ardener, argues that a muted-group dynamic exists within each society. She argues that groups that function at the top of the sociopolitical hierarchy largely determine the dominant communication system of the entire society. In other words, in any society where asymmetrical power relationships are maintained, the language and experiences of some groups are rendered “inarticulate.”

  • Folb, E. 1994. Who’s got the room at the top? Issues of dominance and nondominance in intracultural communication. In Intercultural communication: A reader. Edited by L. A. Samovar and R. E. Porter, 119–127. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    Within the chapter, the author offers insight into the value of studying the communication strategies of “nondominant” group members, those individuals who have not traditionally had access to influence dominant culture. This early work was central to the emergence of using the descriptor “co-cultural” (as opposed to minority, subcultural, etc.) as a means to acknowledge power dynamics and the agency of individual and group communicative practices.

  • Harding, S. 1991. Whose science? Whose knowledge? Thinking from women’s lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    This book describes standpoint theory, a building block for co-cultural theory, as a feminist theoretical framework used to explore the lived experiences of women as they participate in and oppose their own subordination. Harding’s ideas provided a contextual foundation to explore specific communication strategies used by subordinate, or co-cultural, group members of a society.

  • Hartsock, N. C. M. 1983. The feminist standpoint: Developing the ground for a specifically feminist historical materialism. In Discovering reality: Feminist perspectives on epistemology, metaphysics, methodology, and philosophy of science. Edited by S. Harding and M. D. Hintikka, 283–310. Boston: D. Reidel.

    This book chapter is a primary source describing feminist-standpoint theory, one of the theoretical building blocks for co-cultural theory. Within this early writing, Hartsock explains how the theory is rooted in Marxian analysis of working-class conditions, and offers a productive lens to explore the life experiences of persons in subordinate positions.

  • Kramarae, C. 1981. Women and men speaking. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

    This book is a key source describing muted-group theory, one of the theoretical building blocks for co-cultural theory. Within this volume, Kramarae offers the most extensive application of muted-group theory in the field of communication, arguing that the role of women in a male-dominated society is often marginalized into one of second-class citizen.

  • Lanigan, R. L. 1988. Phenomenology of communication: Merleau-Ponty’s thematics in communicology and semiology. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne Univ. Press.

    This book provides an in-depth exploration of the utility of phenomenological inquiry for communication scholarship. The author draws from the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty specifically and describes the philosophical underpinnings of phenomenology in relationship to discovery-oriented, humanistic research such as that which generated the creation of co-cultural theory.

  • Orbe, M. P. 2005. Continuing the legacy of theorizing from the margins: Conceptualizations of co-cultural theory. Women & Language 28.2: 65–66.

    Based on a presentation at the Muted Group Theory Conference held at George Mason University in 2005, this short article explains how muted-group theory serves as the foundation of co-cultural theory. The author also discusses how co-cultural theory extends the legacy of theorizing from the margins across multiple disciplines.

  • Stanback, M., and W. B. Pearce. 1981. Talking to “the man”: Some communication strategies used by members of “subordinate” social groups. Quarterly Journal of Speech 67.1: 21–30.

    DOI: 10.1080/00335638109383548

    This article is significant to co-cultural theory because it approaches the study of marginalized groups with a recognition that these persons must somehow operate within the constraints imposed by their self-concepts, intentions, and awareness of dominant-group expectations. The authors identify specific strategies (e.g., tomming, passing, shucking, and dissembling) that “subordinate” social group members use.

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