Evolution and Diffusion of the Michigan State University Tradition of Organizational Communication Network Research

Article excerpt

Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in network analysis in the social sciences (Biggart & Delbridge, 2004; Monge & Contractor, 2003; Pescosolido & Rubin, 2000; Seary & Richards, 2003; Seary, Richards, McKeown-Eyssen, & Baines, 2005) and even the natural sciences (Barabasi, 2003; Buchanan, 2002; Newman, 2003), owing in part to the development of such heuristic concepts as social capital (Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 2000; Seibert, Kraimer, & Liden, 2001) and structural holes (Butt, 1992, 2000; Finlay & Coverdill, 2000; Taylor & Doerful, 2003). Interestingly, as this essay details, communication as a discipline had considerable "first mover" advantage in developing network research, but was never able to capitalize on it for reasons partially revealed in this history of network analysis research at Michigan State University (M.S.U.).

From 1968 to 1998 a series of Ph.D. dissertation studies in the M.S.U. Department of Communication investigated communication networks in organizations. The series began with the joint interests of a graduate student, Donald F. Schwartz, and an adjunct communication graduate faculty member, Eugene Jacobson who was an organizational behavior scholar in psychology. Communication network research at M.S.U. was nurtured over the years primarily by Jacobson and three Communication faculty members: Everett M. Rogers, who was on the M.S.U. faculty from 1964 to 1973 and served as a member of Schwartz's advisory committee; R. Vincent Farace, a faculty member from 1965 to 1987 who was joined on the faculty by Peter Monge, his former student, from the late 1970s through the early 1980s; and J. David Johnson, who completed his M.S.U. Ph.D. in 1978 and joined the M.S.U. Communication faculty in 1988, leaving in 1998. Johnson was a member of Alex Susskind's doctoral committee. Susskind's 1996 dissertation was the last in the M.S.U. series. After Johnson left M.S.U. in 1998, no one on the communication faculty taught network analysis.

Because the early studies were not immediately published, the M.S.U. network research in the late 1960s and early 1970s can be characterized as an "invisible college" (Rogers & Agarwala-Rogers, 1976). So-called invisible colleges form around a revolutionary paradigm where scholars exchange unpublished papers and "commune with each other at small select conferences and seminars" (Price, 1970, cited by Rogers & Agarwala-Rogers, 1976). Most of the "communing" about communication network analysis was within the M.S.U. Department of Communication among faculty and graduate students, but also included M.S.U. Ph.D. alumni, largely at annual International Communication Association (I.C.A.) conferences. Schwartz presented the first conference paper at I.C.A. in 1969. It wasn't until 1972 with establishment of the I.C.A. organizational communication audit project that communication network analysis began to diffuse beyond M.S.U. and the invisible college began to wane. It "went public" with the first published journal article in 1974 by Farace and MacDonald.

This article is the story of the M.S.U. communication network analysis tradition. Our purpose is to document the personal and intellectual history of that work as an illustration of the evolution of an academic innovation in a young discipline. Our narrative illuminates three past and continuing issues for network scholars generally, but it also reveals how a group of academic entrepreneurs failed to confront these problems making it difficult for them to impact larger, more mature academic disciplines. The first issue is a lack of professional reward for developing user-friendly computer programs for network analysis. The innovative work of Bill Richards at M.S.U. yielding one of the first software programs was a fortunate effort that few others attempted early on. Over the years others have accepted the challenge and low professional reward ratio of software development, but in a point-and-click era user-friendliness remains an issue. …