Saturday, December 6, 2008

“Similarity Begets Friendship.” – from Phaedrus

Homophily Theory

"The theory of homophily, defined by Lazarsfeld and Merton (1964), is that most human communication will occur between a source and a receiver who are alike (i.e., homophilous and have a common frame of reference). Homophily is the degree to which individuals in dyad are congruent or similar in certain attributes, such as demographic variables, beliefs and values (Touchey 1974). Gabriel Tarde (1903) also noted that social relations are generally between individuals who resemble each other in occupation and education. Hetrophily is the degree to which pairs of individuals are different in certain attributes. Thus, heterophily is the opposite of homophily.

Rogers and Bhowmik (1971) mentioned that homophily occurs frequently because communication is more effective when source and receiver are homopilous. When two individuals share common meanings, belief, and mutual understandings, communication between them is more likely to be effective. Individuals enjoy the comfort of interacting with others who are similar. Talking with those who are markedly different from us requires more effort to make communication effective. Heterophilous communication between dissimilar individuals may also cause cognitive dissonance because an individual is exposed to messages that are inconsistent with existing beliefs, resulting in an uncomfortable psychological state.

Homophily and effective communication breed one another. The more communication there is between members of a dyad, the more likely they are to become homophilous; the more homophilous two individuals are, the more likely that their communication will be effective. Individuals who depart from the homophily principle and attempt to communicate with others who are different from them often face the frustration of ineffective communication. Differences in technical competence, social status, beliefs, and language, lead to mistakes in meaning, thereby causing messages to be distorted or to go unheeded.

Homophily is the principle that contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people. The pervasive fact of homophily means that cultural, behavioral, genetic or material information that flows through networks will tend to be localized. Homophily implies that distance in terms of social characteristics translates into network distance, the number of relationships through which a piece of information must travel to connect two individuals. It also implies that any social entity that depends to a substantial degree on networks for its transmission will tend to be localized in social space, and will obey certain fundamental dynamics as it interacts with other social entities in an ecology of social forms."

Why is homophily a trap?

"The rise of the read/write web turns the problem of paying attention to the rest of the world from a supply to a demand problem. You can find Brazilian, Bengali and Bulgarian voices, but only if you bother looking for them, stumble across them or are led to them by creators and curators of content"...

"Cass Sunstein argues that it can polarize us - in Infotopia, he cites a study he helped conduct that demonstrates that deliberation of political issues with like-minded people leads subjects to a more politically polarized stance. From this, and from a close reading of political polarization in the blogosphere, he argues that the Internet may make it easier for us to share information with likeminded individuals, and that in a political context, this could be a bad thing.

While there is nothing wrong with being around others who are similar to yourself, both Smith-Lovin and Small said that people and organizations pay a price for homogeneity. In politics, for example, the fact that people rarely have friends with different views makes it difficult to seek common ground or to examine one's positions closely.

"Most of us would be hard-pressed to provide clear explanations for our political beliefs," said Small. "If you ask the average person why they believe what they believe on Roe v. Wade , you are not going to get a coherent answer. We participate in settings where we don't have to explain ourselves because everyone else agrees with us. What this means is, 'I have no reason to challenge or question my own beliefs.' "

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