A Social Network Contagion Theory of Risk Perception

Authors


*Address correspondence to Clifford W. Scherer, Department of Communication, Social and Behavioral Research Unit, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853; tel.: 607-255-7498; CWS4@Cornell.edu.

Abstract

Risk perceptions have, to a great extent, been studied exclusively as individual cognitive mechanisms in which individuals collect, process, and form perceptions as atomized units unconnected to a social system. These individual-level theories do not, however, help explain how perception of risk may vary between communities or within a single community. One alternative approach is based on a network theory of contagion. This approach, emerging largely from organizational and community social network studies, suggests that it is the relational aspects of individuals and the resulting networks and self-organizing systems that influence individual perceptions and build “groups or communities of like-minded” individuals. These social units, it is argued, behave as attitude, knowledge, or behavioral structures. The study reported in this article tests one aspect of this theoretical perspective. The central hypothesis proposes the existence of risk perception networks—relational groupings of individuals who share, and perhaps create, similar risk perceptions. To test this idea, data were collected from individuals involved in a community environmental conflict over a hazardous waste site cleanup. The statistical analysis used a matrix of relational social linkages to compare with a matrix of individual risk perceptions. The analysis confirmed the hypothesis suggesting that social linkages in communities may play an important role in focusing risk perceptions.

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