Time Dependence in Micro Social Interaction: An Elaboration of Information Exchange Theory and Initial Empirical Test

Article excerpt

Many micro sociological theories describe social interaction as a process, implying the importance of time. Yet, time is seriously undertheorized and underanalyzed in micro social interaction. We show that time plays a conceptually relevant role in information exchange theory. According to this theory, when actors contribute some types of information (like ideas) to a group, they are more likely to be negatively evaluated than if they contribute other types (like positive evaluations). Information exchange theory conceptualizes information types that are more prone to be met with negative evaluation as more socially risky than those less prone to negative evaluation, since negative evaluations engender status loss for recipients. The theory posits that actors manage interaction to reduce social risk by avoiding more risky information initiations, especially when conditions are such that the likelihood of negative evaluations occurring in a group is particularly high. We propose that when higher risk information types are dense in the temporal space of interaction, then the likelihood of negative evaluation is higher, exacerbating the risk of these information types (and consequently, the likelihood of their occurrence declines). When lower risk information types are sparse in the temporal space of interaction, the likelihood of their occurrence increases as actors try to reduce the potential for conflict in social interaction. We use event history methods to test these claims on the role of time. Results not only support our contentions regarding the importance of time but also show that it is a crucial regulator of social interaction.

The notion of social processes lies at the core of a wide range of micro sociological theories. For instance, exchange theories assert that stable exchange patterns emerge over time as a function of sttuctural ties between actors (e.g., Cook and Emerson 1978; Markovsky, Wilier, and Patton 1988); expectation states theory describes how status hierarchies evolve through interaction patterns that become crystallized over time (e.g., Berger, Conner, and McKeown 1974; Fisek 1974; Skvoretz and Fararo 1996); structural identity theorists note that a sense of self is derived over repeated role enactments (e.g., Stryker 1989). Thus, social processes and outcomes imply an identifiable cadence. That is, social interactions (1) occur in a continuous dimension, most notably time, and (2) are systematically affected by the exchanges that occur between individuals in a temporal dimension. Despite the seemingly obvious role of time, however, few micro sociological theories have explicitly conceptualized this potentially important variable. Furthermore, there are few fine-grained analyses of social interaction that examine time-related effects in micro social interaction (for exceptions, see Drass 1986; Gibson 2005; Griffin and Gardner 1989; Robinson and Smith-Lovin 1990; Shelly and Troyer 2001; Smith-Lovin and Brody 1989). We demonstrate how micro sociological theory can be extended to theoretically and analytically incorporate time as a central variable.

Our demonstration involves elaborating information exchange theory (e.g., Cohen and Silver 1989; Silver, Cohen, and Rainwater 1988) to suggest how time affects social interaction. We examine the claims derived from this elaboration in an empirical investigation of interaction among members of two organizational decision-making teams and suggest directions for further theoretical and empirical work on the study of time patterns in social interaction.


Information exchange theory (e.g., Cohen and Silver 1989; Silver, Cohen, and Rainwater 1988) casts group decision making as a process of information trading among individuals that is driven by both task and social considerations. On the one hand, individuals are motivated to participate in social interaction by contributing information (e. …


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