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Applying expectation states theory to social media (white paper)

March 24, 2011

Expectation states theory as developed by Correll and Ridgeway (2003) offers an approach to study social inequality and the impetus for social change.  This theory seeks to explain the processes in which group members assess each other according to task-specific and diffuse status characteristics.  These characteristics are decoded explicitly and implicitly by group members through their early social interactions and have the effect of an emergence of a group hierarchy that determines the performance outcomes in accomplishing group goals in four specific ways; the persuasive influence of members during participation, the opportunities allotted for member participation, the assessment of member performance, and objective performance of members.  Previous research has demonstrated how diffuse status characteristics can diminish the optimal level of group performance because ordering of a group hierarchy becomes dependent on non-task oriented status-based factors.   As applied to the study of social action through computer-mediated communication, this study posits that computer-mediated communication offers a medium to facilitate a reduction of awareness of the diffuse status characteristics within task-oriented group users therefore focusing the groups’ attention on the task-specific characteristics.

The further development of performance expectation states (Correll & Ridgeway, 2003) identifies three distinct processes that contribute to the group process and create a systematic model for predicting the relative influence of the individual members of the group (Rashotte, et al., 2007); (1) the socially significant characteristics of the individuals in the group, (2) the social rewards delivered by the group to its members, and (3) the behavioral interchange patterns of the group members within the group process.

Group formation based on task-specific characteristics.

The first of these processes is that of the socially significant characteristics of the individuals leading to the formation of an (albeit informally) agreed upon group hierarchy (Berger, Rosenholtz, & Zelditch, 1980).  As Berger indicates, when a problem-solving group assembles around a specific task, they do not create a social organization ”de novo,”  but rather maintain many of the external social status differences inside the group.  This system then became the pervasive pro quo of the group defining a power and prestige order of importance, reliance, and accountability within the group based largely on these social characteristics which act to maintain the status of the individuals.  Correll and Ridgeway (2003) identify two key variances in the defining characteristics of group members; task-specific and diffuse characteristics.

Specific characteristics carry with them identifiable expectations about one’s ability regarding a specific task and their perceived competence towards providing assistance to the group regarding that specific, and perhaps narrow task (Correll & Ridgeway, 2003).  These can be limited in nature, but provide a point of reference for group formation based on each individual’s ability to add value to the group based on task completion.  Diffuse characteristics carry a much more general expectation of performance for the individual based on widely shared cultural beliefs[H1] .

Based on the development of the group hierarchy around these sets of characteristics, an informal understanding of group expectations is formed (Correll & Ridgeway, 2003).  Individuals of higher authority within the group are not only given, but also expected to contribute more to the group process.  In addition, their input to the group process is more readily received by the group and receives less scrutiny by the group in general.  In opposition, group members with lower perceived status characteristics are not allowed to offer as much input to the group process, are often ignored or interrupted in the group process and their submission to the outcome of the task often come under great scrutiny.

Traditional group theory indicates that [H2] the inherent weakness in task-oriented groups is the fact that group orientations, hierarchies, and expectations are developed often based largely on diffuse characteristics of the individuals.  However, in social media, I propose that these diffuse characteristics are often either muted or ignored in group formations allowing the group to develop primarily around task-specific characteristics that each individual holds within the group.  Furthermore, because the group members are likely all associated with the group based on some personal interest, it is likely they there is a higher resemblance among group members and much more involvement based on the much broader spectrum of these task-specific characteristics when compared to the somewhat superficial diffuse characteristics.  This creates an improved group with more involvement as it is likely that members are more allowed to be actively involved based on their specific characteristics rather than being held at bay for adverse diffuse characteristics such as gender.

Social rewards in the group.

Performance expectation states theory argues that this social hierarchy of expectations is further reinforced by the unequal distribution of socially significant rewards (Correll & Ridgeway, 2003).  In other words, an individual’s expectation for rewards within the group is based largely on their expectations for performance, essentially, their position within the hierarchy (Berger, Fisek, Norman, & Wagner, 1997).  Members near the top of the hierarchy are expected, and expect to receive greater rewards, whereas members lower down on the hierarchy are expected, and expect to receive lesser rewards thus reinforcing the notion of rewards based on status in the hierarchy while simultaneously reinforcing the hierarchy and the expectations therein.

However, in CMC social rewards can become viral in nature, being extended to everyone within the group regardless of status and reinforcing increased involvement rather than one’s position within the hierarchy[H3] .

Behavioral interchange patterns.

Behavioral interchange patterns occur within the group between two or more individuals when one actor engages in “assertive, high-status behavior (pg. 39) such as offering suggestions upfront, initiating a conversation, or resisting change in the face of adversity that are responded to by ensuing actors with  lower-status behaviors such as hesitating in speaking, agreement, and offering a positive evaluation of the first actors argument (Fisek, Berger, & Norman, 1991).  While this does not play a prominent role in the development of my theoretical perspective, it no doubt maintains an influence over the group formation process in computer-mediated communications.


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