Co-cultural theory is a framework designed to provide insight into the communication behaviors of individuals with little societal power. Generated primarily from the research of Mark Orbe, cocultural theory focuses on how culture and power affect communication. The theory focuses on various segments of society that have traditionally been described as being a part of subcultural or minority groups. This theory prefers the term cocultural group. Initially, the theory focused on people of color; women; persons with disabilities; gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons; and those from a lower socioeconomic status. More recently, researchers have used the theory to study other groups, including the homeless, first-generation college students, immigrants, and international students.

The core concepts of co-cultural theory emerged from a series of qualitative studies designed to study communication processes from the perspective of those historically marginalized in social structures. These foundational studies drew on the ideas of muted group and standpoint theories and used a phenomenological methodology to gather descriptions of everyday communication inductively. In particular, the theory is based on a specific set of assumptions and related factors that help individuals understand how co-cultural group members use different practices (strategies) that are part of a larger communication orientation.

Co-cultural theory is based on five assumptions, each of which reflects a foundational idea found in muted group or standpoint theory. The first assumption states that a hierarchy of power exists in each society whereby certain groups of people have greater access to power than others do. In the United States, dominant group members include men, European Americans, able-bodied persons, heterosexuals, and those in the middle or upper
class. The second assumption is based on the idea that dominant group members occupy most positions of power throughout society; these positions of influence are used to create and maintain societal structures that inherently benefit their interests. The third assumption of co-cultural theory explores how the reality of dominant group power impacts members of nondominant groups. In particular, it states that dominant group members’ societal structures work overtly and covertly against individuals whose cultural realities are different from the cultural realities of those in power. The fourth assumption acknowledges the differences that exist within and between different co-cultural groups; however, it simultaneously recognizes the similarities that also exist within and across groups that occupy similar social positions. The fifth, and final, assumption states that co-cultural group members will be more aware of the importance of strategically adopting communication behaviors that help them negotiate dominant societal structures. Such behaviors will vary within, and across, different co-cultural groups.

Littlejohn, Stephen W and Karen A.Floss. (2009). Encyclopedia of Communication Theory.USA:SAGE.

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Gayes Mahestu
Edwina Ayu Kustiawan