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date: 16 January 2021

Network Theory and Intergroup Approacheslocked

  • Cynthia StohlCynthia StohlDepartment of Communication, University of California, Santa Barbara


A social network consists of interactive patterns among individuals and groups that are created by transmitting and exchanging messages through time and space. A central feature of intergroup settings is that group members are embedded in multiple, previously established, as well as emerging, communication networks that vary in their structure, the nature of the relationships, and the diversity of the links.

A network perspective extends and complements traditional social scientific approaches to intergroup communication. Rather than focusing on the attributes of individuals, a network perspective focuses on the causes and consequences of relations and connections between and among sets of people and groups. A network approach invigorates intergroup theory by focusing on the dynamic structures of connectedness, treating identity, social categorization, and representativeness as fluid rather than fixed factors within interactions.

A basic principle of network theory is that behavior can best be understood socially; every social unit stands at the nexus of a multitude of constraining and enabling alignments. Structural network dynamics include, but are not limited to, density, diversity, clustering, equivalence, and centrality of the network. These structural configurations combined with the strength and multiplexity of specific network linkages strongly influence social identities, values, attitudes, experiences, and behavior. Using graph-theoretic models, network analysts are able to identify specific types of structures that are highly effective in predicting ingroup and intergroup attitudes and behaviors above and beyond individual-level characteristics. Structural dynamics can further amplify intergroup principles through exploring the degree to which ingroup boundaries are loosely or tightly connected and the types and nature of linkages and communication exchanges within and between groups. For example, network theory suggests that the greater ingroup overlap across social contexts, the more likely group members perceive higher status for that particular ingroup than for other social categories to which they belong. It is also more likely the boundary between groups will be linguistically marked. In organizations, intergroup conflict and the capacity for successful adaptation and intergroup cooperation are strongly related to the extent and the alignment of intergroup “weak” ties across traditional communication channels and online. Identifying network structures can help explain a large set of multilevel intergroup outcomes such as linguistic accommodation and stereotyping, group level conflict, organizational productivity and innovation, political attitudes, and community resilience.

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