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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 17 Numbers 1 & 2, 2007

PRIMARY ATTENTION GROUPS:
A CONCEPTUAL APPROACH TO THE COMMUNICATIVE ECOLOGY OF
INDIVIDUAL COMMUNITY IN THE INFORMATION AGE

Mary Ann Allison
Hofstra University

Abstract: The Information Revolution has triggered substantive changes in society, including the nature of community. Using the three layer model of communicative ecologies designed by Foth and Hearn, I describe a new form of community -- "the primary attention group" -- which is centered on an individual and exists in both geographic and virtual space, using both face-to-face and electronically mediated communications. Unlike traditional community where the customs and norms are generally applicable, in an egocentric primary attention group, the individual must negotiate three distinct subsystems of relationships. The paper concludes with a description of a project in which action research is being used to document student primary attention groups with the objective of increasing student ability to facilitate and maintain relationships which support productive and happy lives.

There is a growing body of scholarship documenting the use of the concept of ecology in the study of human communications (Altheide, 1995; Lum, 2005; Meyrowitz, 1985; Nystrom, 1973, n.d.; Nystrom, Postman and Moran, n.d.; Strate, 2006). In particular, Altheide suggests that the study of the ecology of communication is key not only to understanding society and but also to understanding how society comes to see itself.

The study of social life in all disciplines can be viewed as a mapping and clarification of the process through which criteria for defining a situation emerge, are sustained, reinforced, and changed, and the consequences of such changes. What we have termed the ecology of communication is the center of this process. (italics added, 1995, p. 213)

Communicative Ecologies

A compelling application of this body of thought takes place when scholars (Berry and Hamilton, 2006; Hearn and Foth, n.d.; Slater, 2005; Tacchi, Slater and Hearn, 2003) identify and study particular communicative ecologies. Tacchi, Slater and Hearn (2003) describe a communicative ecology as an identifiable group or social system in which "there are many different people, media activities, and relationships" (p. 15). In this tradition, the principal application of communicative ecology has been the study of "people in particular places with access to many different media" (Hearn and Foth, n.d., ¶ 1; see also Foth, 2003). This is distinct from studies of groups or communities based on a use of a particular communications medium such as Internet-based online communities or groups of cell phone users as well as from studies of groups of purpose (Allison, 2005, Waddell, 2005) by which I mean groups whose boundaries are neither geographic nor bureaucratic but instead delineated by commitment to a shared purpose.

Framework: Categorizing Group Studies by Definitional Starting Point within Ecological Layers

Hearn and Foth's (n.d.) model of communicative ecologies may be used to delineate an additional method of locating, defining, and studying community communicative ecology as it is formed in the Information Age. They describe and define three layers of a communicative ecology:

  1. A technological layer which consists of the devices and connecting media that enable communication and interaction.
  2. A social layer, which consists of people and social modes of organising these people...and
  3. ...a discursive layer, which is the content of the communication, that is the ideas or themes that constitute the known social universe that the ecology operates in. (¶ 1).

There are substantial bodies of research which begin by locating, defining, and studying communicative ecologies and community groups using various points of origin which can be categorized in these three layers. Representative studies are briefly discussed below to provide context for the method of locating the new type of community proposed herein.

Many communications scholars study groups which are firstly defined by the primary communication medium employed, the first layer of communicative ecologies. In response to the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, there are substantive studies, for example, of social systems variously described as virtual communities, groups using computer-mediated communications, and online networks (Jones, 1995, 1997; Katz and Rice, 2002; Rheingold, 1993; Strate et al., 1996). In this category, scholars have also documented the interactions and capabilities of groups using cell phones as their primary means of interaction (Katz and Aakhus, 2002; Ling, 2004; Rheingold, 2002). Although these are studies of recently developed communications technology, groups characterized by a use of a particular medium are not a new phenomenon as evidenced by the much earlier communities of long-distance truckers in the United States communicating via CB radios (American Truck Historical Society, n.d.; Harp, n.d.; Woman Trucker, n.d.).

An embarkation point for the second layer of studies of communicative ecologies is the identification of the people and nature of the group to be studied. Illustrations of group types include those ranging from smaller families, clubs, and sports teams to the vast organizations which comprise governments and multi-national businesses. Once the group has been selected, communication and media studies scholars attend to the communications media, patterns, and content as well as the consequences thereof. As discussed earlier Hearn and Foth (n.d.) among others (Berry and Hamilton, 2006; Slater, 2005; Tacchi, Slater and Hearn, 2003) select groups to study by considering the people in particular places. Examples of such places--specific and definable--include an apartment complex, a business district, or a small village. Studies of groups emerging in particular places within virtual worlds with access to multiple communications media also fall in this category (Castronova, 2001, 2005; Roussos et al. 1999).

Research which begins with layer three--the layer focusing on the content of the discourse within communicative ecologies--enables scholars to identity and study groups according to the topics around which they communicate. The group may be centered locally, for example, in a neighborhood, or distributed more globally. And the communication media used may vary widely. In this category, there is a substantial body of recent research (Hesselbein et al., 1998; Saint-Onge and Wallace, 2002; Snyder and Wenger, 2003; Wenger et al., 1999; 2002) which examines groups labeled as communities of practice. For example, Wenger, McDermott, and Schneider (2002) define a community of practice as:

...groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis. ...As they spend time together, they typically share information, insight, and advice. ... They discuss their situations, their aspirations, and their needs. (italics added, p. 5)

Similar to studies of communities of practice, my research (2005, 2006, see also case studies in Waddell, 2005) documents groups of purpose which not only self organize to communicate on a topic of shared interest but also are able to take action in the world. In an interesting application of social network analysis, among others, Krebs uses an analysis of content (for example book purchases [1999, 2004] or email content [2003a and b]) to identify and describe groups sharing an interest in content in some cases where the group would not recognize its own membership without the benefit of this analysis.

The Individual: A New Starting Point for the Definition of Community in Layer Two

In addition to these starting points, I propose a new starting point in layer two (the social layer) for locating and defining a specific type of community communicative ecology--each individual person. The communicative ecological space formed around and, to some extent, by each individual--the individual's primary attention group--is, I argue, the direct descendent of the small traditional farming communities which characterized life for most of the western world [1] before the Industrial Revolution.

I want to thank the editors of this special issue of EJC on communicative ecologies for including this paper which has as its focus not a physical place but, instead, in the tradition of Anderson (2006), Said (1979), and Seton-Watson (1977), an imagined place. This paper defines and sets out a research agenda for studying the place--the field of interaction--created by people in the community formed around an individual. [2]

The fact that these individual communities may be described in sociological tradition as imagined does not make them inconsequential. We have only to consider the power and consequences of another imaged community: nation-states. Although we may think of nations a facts of geography, they are not, as Seton-Watson (1977) points out:

All that I can find to say is that a nation exists when a significant number of people in a community consider themselves to form a nation, or behave as if they formed one. (p.5)

In defining nations as imagined communities, Anderson (2006) focused on the image of shared communication which arose in an era of broadcast media.

...I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community... (italics added, p. 5)
...It is imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communication. (italics in the original, p. 6)

Although boundaries of nation-states are not indelible features of geographic fact, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, because people imagined themselves as members of a nation-state communicative ecology, their collective actions shaped the world. The power and consequences of these imagined communal nation-states was and, although diminishing, continues to be immense.

In a world mediated by ICT where individual autonomy is increasing (Friedman, 2005; Giddens, 2000; Pink, 2001), communities centered on an individual may become a world shaping force. The next section of this paper sets forth a context and structure for analyzing individual communities. The action research agenda described in the last section of this paper is designed to provide a greater understanding of the structure and dynamics of these communities.

The Dissolution of Traditional Community and the Rise of Primary Attention Groups

The idea of close relationships or intimate relationships shapes the current understanding of community. In part as a result of a 1920s romantic movement which idealized the past, agricultural communities (gemeinschaft) became the "good" form of community in much popular thinking (Deflem, n.d.). Over time certain elements of the gemeinschaft--regularly including "natural" cooperation, family ties, and face-to-face interaction, and a small, defined place (limited geographic area)--came to stand for the very idea of community (Bell and Newby, 1974). [2] In the way that nations were understood as a physical geography, so community was understood as a physical place. While geography was more constraining in gemeinschaft, both then and now community itself was instantiated in human awareness and communication. Among the hypotheses to be included in this research agenda are the questions: Is a sense of place a sine qua non element of community? Does high volume interpersonal communication in media which permit users to engage multiple senses create a sense of community as an imagined place?

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan famously helped to generate a public awareness of the idea of an imagined virtual community by predicting the emergence of a global village as a result of widespread electronic communications (both analogical and digital), saying: "as electrically contracted, the globe is no more than a village" (p. 5). The global village is a powerful metaphor; it does not, however, explain community from the perspective of the individual born in the Information Age.

The Loss of Congruence and the Limits to Community Group Size

Without at first noticing it, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (Putnam, 2000, p. 27)

Traditional villagers were born into a congruent community. By congruent community, I mean a group where everyone's community is everyone else's community. Villagers knew each other intimately and were, by means of these relationships, collectively able to maintain order within the group. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, villages grew larger and people moved more often. Most of the population lived in larger towns and cities. Everyone rarely knew everyone else living in close geographic proximity. The number of people born into a congruent community where everyone knew everyone else intimately rapidly declined. Thus a core defining element of traditional community changed. Even for neighbors in the same apartment building, one's intimates are rarely completely the same (or congruent with) one's neighbor's intimates.

This leads to the reasonable question: As people lived in larger cities, why didn't community group size (the number of congruent stable relationships) simply increase? Although the geographic size and the population grew, the size of traditional community did not. Robin Dunbar (1998; Dunbar and Hill 2003a and b) suggests that human beings can maintain an upward limit of approximately 150 close interpersonal relationships (frequently cited as Dunbar's number). He bases this on an extension of observed group size in nonhuman primates as a function of relative neocortical volume. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that group limits of approximately 150 occur frequently among a wide range of historical and contemporary human societies. That the Hutterites (explicitly; Hardin, 1988) and Amish (by tradition; Hostetler, 1993) divide their communities when they reach 150 to enable social control also reinforces the idea that there is a functional limit to human groups within which intimate ties can be maintained.

With increases in the number of friends and acquaintances, humans must rely on external aids such as electronic address books to facilitate interactions (Gergen, 1991). Though useful, such facilitated interactions do not have the same feeling of community as those interactions with the people in our lives to whom we give the bulk of our attention--our primary attention group. Due to the physical structure of the human brain and the processes it uses (Dunbar, 1998; Isaacs, 1999), the number of people with whom one person can maintain close relationships--reminiscent in some way of traditional community--rarely exceeds 150 people. While an individual living in the Information Age is likely to have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of acquaintances, no more than approximately 150 people can be the focus of that individual's primary attention and understanding and thus they form that person's individual community.

Primary Attention Groups

In the course of this research, it became appropriate to create a term to describe this group. Because primary group has specific meaning in sociology (Cooley, 1909) which includes face-to-face association--a factor often missing in Information Age groups--I propose that primary attention group be used to characterize those groups or communities to which an individual gives his or her chief attention, whether face-to-face, virtually, or, as is becoming more common, both, and which are, as they were in Cooley's primary groups, "fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of the individual" (Cooley, 1909, p. 23).

A person's primary attention group is the group with whom--by giving his or her attention to them--the individual lives his or her life. The individual and all the members of his or her group need not be located in the same physical or mediated geography. As will be addressed below, with the coming of robust ICT, lives are simultaneously conducted in both physical and virtual space. Included in the primary attention group of a scholar might be his close friends and family, his colleagues at a university and his research partners around the world, as well as several people with whom he works on environmental sustainability. As another example, those receiving concentrated and sustained attention from the scholar's niece, a ten year old girl, might include close friends and family, her primary school teacher and several classmates, as well as several friends on another continent with whom she has been online gaming for several years.

Limited to approximately 150 people--and in our initial research experience, often substantially smaller--primary attention groups are egocentric groups, the boundaries of which are determined by the individual. This is a new concept for many research subjects. Although scholars have been documenting networked individualism for some time (Boyd, 2006; Krebs 1999; Wellman, 2001, for example), individuals are accustomed to thinking of themselves as members of families and formal organizations (primarily bureaucracies) and, as discussed earlier, often associate community with a physical geography.

Younger people who use Myspace.com and Facebook.com and some older people who use social networking sites grasp the idea of a primary attention group more readily. They have already had experience with an egocentric network displayed online and on a cell phone screen. In addition, they have first hand experience of the differences in the social processes and norms that arise in traditional as contrasted with those in heavily mediated relationships. Boyd (2006) describes how young people negotiate and understand the difference between traditional friends and social network friends and create "imagined egocentric communities...through which they are able to express who they are ..." (p. 1).

For those with no Internet social networking experience, when conducting research in the field we are using three questions to help an individual decide whether a person belongs within the boundaries of his or her primary attention group:

  1. Can you think about how that person might think about a problem? (This capability arises from repeated interactions with, and close attention given to, the person in question.)
  2. How important is what this person thinks about you to your life? (This question prompts the person to create a social construction of the potential effects of the group.)
  3. Do you feel a strong sense of obligation to this person? (A feeling of obligation prompts attention.)

Selected Contextual Distinctions: As human beings are social animals, people have always had primary attention groups. However, for most of human history, these groups were congruent with comparatively isolated tribes or place-based communities. The distinction becomes more relevant as new processes and technologies enable intimate connections over time and space and the majority of human beings live in cities far too large to form a single congruent community.

Although the combination of physical and virtual geographies housing a primary attention group created an imagined place, to the extent that the people in an individual's primary attention group know each other and recognize a shared commitment to the individual, they form not an imagined but an actual community. Those who do not know each other but act in concert for the individual create an imagined community.

As discussed above, while some individuals, typically younger people, are beginning to distinguish their primary attention groups, many others do not. One reason for this research is, therefore, to provide information which will help both researchers and individuals to make this distinction. I hope that this distinction will help ground and re-orient people who feel a sense of loss for the traditional communities which have been overtaken by techno-social change at many levels.

In the next section of this paper, I use the three layers of communicative ecologies to further define and explore the characteristics of primary attention groups.

The Communicative Ecology of Primary Attention Groups

Although a descendant of traditional communities, primary attention groups are different in several important aspects. Both because potential group size is too large and because many people have access to multiple electronic ways of communicating--essentially extending the potential space in which community may be formed to the globe--community can no longer be delineated by solely geographic boundaries. In addition, as described above, primary attention groups do not feature full congruency, even among families or neighbors. Further, the social characteristics of relationships with an individual's primary attention group are not as uniform as they were in agricultural villages; instead there are three distinct subsystems.

ICT Extends Space and Feelings of Community (the First Layer)

We are in the midst of massive social changes in a number of arenas in social life. The most profound changes involve how information technology and formats of communication have altered a wide range of social activities and perspectives. (Altheide, 1995, p. 219)

Although communities were once tied to geography, primary attention groups are located in a combination of physical and virtual space. Many scholars (Kurzweil, 2005; United Nations Development Programme, 2001, as examples) have documented the development of an environment in which, with the coming of the Information Age, people are immersed in globally connected electronic media. The more closely that these electronic communication media are able to simulate all aspects of continuous face-to-face interactions, the greater is the potential for an experience of community.

Human beings are social animals and we look for relationships and feelings of community in our lives. Although these relationships originally developed in face-to-face interactions, now many close relationships are reinforced or even initiated using ICT. Feelings arising in mediated conversations are, perhaps unconsciously, compared with those arising from the imagined memory of traditional village life. If the mediated experience "feels" like the remembered experience, people are likely to equate the two as they have in small town American life (Timmins, 1998; Vidich and Bensman, 1968). As ICT increase in fidelity and speed, and engage more human senses, the potential for experience of community with people in distant geographies increases. Table 1 is a summary of the communications dimensions experienced most frequently by human beings in traditional communities along with the implications for the idea and experience of community mediated by ICT.

Table 1. Dimensions of Communication Media and Their Implications for the Idea and Experience of Community Despite ICT Mediation

Communication Media Dimension

Dimension Experienced Most Often in Traditional Villages

Implications for the Idea and Experience of ICT-Mediated Community

Senses engaged

- all primary human senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste--with taste being engaged least often)

- The more senses engaged, especially the primary senses, the greater the sense of community.

Quality of sense data

- high for the primary means of transmission (face-to-face)

- The higher the fidelity, the greater the experience of virtual community.

Discursive (digital) or nondiscursive (analogical)

- nondiscursive (analogical)

- The higher preponderance of nondiscursive (analogical) messages, the greater the sense of community.

Speed

- almost instantaneous (sound waves)

- The faster the transmission speed, the greater the sense of community.

Education required

- oral language almost universal

- The more nearly approaching universal the education covering the skills required by the medium, the greater the sense of community.

- In addition, the more communications media which require little education, the larger the inclusion of less educated human beings.

Synchronous or asynchronous

- both synchronous and asynchronous (memory and messages "passed along")

- The higher the preponderance of synchronous communications, the greater the sense of community.

One-way or interactive

- interactive

- The higher the preponderance of interactive media, the greater the sense of community.

Cost

- no technological costs

- The lower the cost of the medium, often the greater its use and, therefore, the greater the sense of community.

Distribution and access

- close to universal

- The closer to universal access, the greater the sense of community.

Size and portability of requisite receiver

- no technological receiver required (all receivers included in biological body)

- The smaller and more portable the receiver, the more frequently carried and the less noticed, hence the greater the sense of community.

Connectivity

- no connectivity required (air and space the medium through which messages are transmitted)

- The more ubiquitous the means of connectivity, the greater the sense of community.

Topology

- both broadcast and peer to peer

- The more intra-nodal communication, the greater the sense of community.

Although continued development in ICT will continue to improve their ability to reproduce the conditions of face-to-face interactions, I contend that they have already reached a point such that mediated communication in primary attention groups may indeed generate the feelings associated with traditional community.

Further, as the characteristics of the ICT used by an individual--especially ease of use, low cost, and quality of sense data--enable frequency of interaction similar to that which took place in traditional communities (for example, communicating several times a day or week), the strength of an individual's use of that group as a community increases.

Primary Attention Group Organization (the Second Layer)

Unlike in traditional community where the customs and norms are generally applicable, in the second layer of primary attention groups, the individual must negotiate three distinct subsystems (Allison, 2005):

  1. relationships with friends and family
  2. bureaucratic relationships
  3. relationships with people in groups of purpose--a newly emerging form of group organization, in which the group members are not organized by geography nor by bureaucracy.

Relationships with friends and family (Allison, 2005) are similar to--but not exactly the same as--those experienced during the Agricultural Age in traditional communities (described earlier). In illuminating the nature of new media, Bolter and Grusin (2002) use the term remediation to define the ways in which newly developing media refer to and re-present conventions from already-existing media. Older media are also reinvented or remediated using newer media fashions. I apply the concept of remediation to changing social systems. When major changes take place in society, the older ways of forming groups and interacting do not disappear but are remediated and incorporated in the new systems. Traditional village culture is incorporated in primary attention groups and remediated by changes in communication and transportation technologies. Although we relate to our friends and family in ways that are akin to traditional village society, we rarely live in close geographic proximity with all of them. Our village-style relationships are mediated by electronic communications technology and lower-cost rapid travel.

Within their primary attention groups, individuals (Allison, 2005) also have bureaucratic relationships. Because the Information Age is not mature, some of these relationships will be traditional bureaucratic relationships, while other are better characterized as remediated bureaucratic affiliations.

The nature of bureaucratic relationships has been well documented by sociologists (Tönnies, 1996; Durkheim, 1960, 1982, 1994; Weber, 1930, 1947, 1968) and may be characterized by thinking of the group organization as a factory. Roles are formal, carefully defined and restricted to the respective bureaucratic organization (for example, a business has no claim on the individual as a father). Rather than relying on the decisions of village and family elders and using tradition and customs to make decisions, in the Industrial Age, groups use the rule of law and scientific analysis. Society coheres not because we are all the same but because we are interdependent.

As with remediated village ties, remediation of bureaucratic relationships is in large part generated by electronic communications and our immersion in flows of information. For example, Pink (2001) has documented the rise of independent workers who no longer work within bureaucracies but perform, as independent contractors, the same jobs they might have performed as employees of businesses organized as bureaucracies. People living during the Information Age remediate bureaucracies by living and working with federations defined by purpose and concentrated in geographic hub locations well connected by flows of communication media, energy, and shipping and transportation facilities.

Finally, and a new feature of society in the Information Age, an individual (Allison, 2005) may include in his or her primary attention group individuals whom he or she has met in the context of addressing a shared purpose. Unconstrained by geography, groups of purpose typically arise among people who use traditional or remediated bureaucracies to provide for their basic needs (monetary income to be exchanged for food and shelter, etc.) and thus have the capacity to form groups around the achieving of a shared purpose. As this new social form is recent, there are many individuals whose primary attention groups do not yet include people in this category.

Just as relationships in village communities and bureaucracies are distinct in their characteristics, groups-of-purpose relationships have unique characteristics. Groups of purpose (Allison, 2005; Waddell, 2005) [3] are characterized by flexible and rapidly changing, context-based roles. Rather than a top-down hierarchy, groups of purpose are primarily organized as distributed peer networks (Barabási, 2002; Castells, 2002; Watts, 2003). In addition to networks, during this time of transition, groups of purpose typically employ limited and shifting hierarchical roles. Communications are conducted through multiple media. Interactions are characterized by multi-tasking and the inclusion of multiple points of view. Unlike villages and bureaucracies, the group exists only as long as the purpose is appropriate and there is sufficient energy to support it.

Communications Content in Primary Attention Groups (the Third Layer)

It is my hypothesis that the majority of the message content between the individual and members of his or her primary attention groups will be dictated by the characteristics of the relationship and consistent with the characteristic purposes of the group type (as examples, belonging and individual support in friends and family or profit and governance in bureaucracies) as well as, of course, the wants and needs of the respective individuals who are communicating. Although there is abundant research on the content of communication in the Information Age, it has not been organized and analyzed in a model which distinguishes the three subsystems and projected concomitant differing types of content in communications between the individual and members of his or her individual community. Such organization and analysis would offer new insights into the communicative ecology of primary attention groups.

To reap the full value of models, however, we must apply them in practice and it is to this task that I turn for the conclusion of this paper.

Action Research: Enabling Individuals to Visualize and Develop Primary Attention Groups

Social power resides in the ability to define a social situation. The capacity to define and sustain definitions of situations for self and others is the capacity to construct social reality. (Altheide, 1995, p. 213)

A central thesis of this book is that more social activities are influenced by knowledge considerations than wealth and force. (Altheide, 1995, p. 214)

Those born in the Information Age may as a part of their acculturation come to assume without further reflection that they are born into communities of support which require little action on their part. Although the idea that networking is valuable is common (see Uzzi and Dunlap, 2005, for example), because there is no precedent, the idea of developing and maintaining an individual community with three distinct subsystems is not part of the formal or informal curriculum.

Yet such development is essential to both individual and societal prosperity. Putnam (1995, 1996, 2000) concludes that social capital ("the way in which our lives are made more productive by social ties" [2000, p. 19]) has salutary effects on individuals, communities, and nations, and argues that, at the group level, social capital facilitates collective problem solving, fosters business and social progress (generally defined as high levels of education, public safety, economic prosperity, and some form of democratic governance) and generates a wider ecological awareness. On an individual level, Putnam and others (Real Partnership, n.d.; Sloan et al., 1996, as examples) have demonstrated that strong individual networks increase individual mental and physical health as well improving knowledge, skills, productivity, and economic prosperity.

Action research (Argyris et al., 1985; Foth, 2006; Tacchi, Slater and Hearn, 2003) incorporates the discipline of scientific research--which has typically taken place from the stance of a distanced external observer--with the immediate and active participation of those being studied. The intent of this design is that, by participating, those being studied receive the benefit of rigorous research methods and then use the resulting information to improve their understanding and the effectiveness of their actions. Research results coupled with critical reflection alternate with action, with each new action informed by the results of the prior activity.

Developmental action research studies of primary attention groups are now being conducted at Hofstra University (Hempstead, New York, USA). [4] This program is broken into three phases:

  • Phase One: documenting primary attention group structures
  • Phase Two: analyzing, diagramming, comparing, and understanding the dynamics of primary attention groups
  • Phase Three: for researchers working with their own primary attention groups, conscious co-evolution of the group

Phase One consists of case histories and data collection. This is a labor intensive process, typically ranging from three to four hours for each research subject and another two to three hours to prepare the case study. Wellman (n.d.) has suggested that such research is too costly. I argue, on contrary, that in an age of increasing individual autonomy, it is appropriate to reframe selected research agendas to actively support the individual. This is particularly appropriate in action research where we may ultimately seek to distribute much of the work as well as the learning to individuals. Working within a research network (Foth, 2006) and documenting others' primary attention groups will not only contribute to the body of research but also provide action researchers with various examples and contexts for considering the structure, shape, and efficacy of their own primary attention groups.

In Phase Two, we will be analyzing the properties and dynamics of primary attention group networks. A preliminary list of properties to be examined include: number of nodes (absolute and by relationship type), number, distribution, and clustering of weak and strong links [ties] (absolute and by relationship type); link to node ratio (absolute and by relationship type); bridging and bonding links, node similarity; and clustering coefficient. I anticipate that students who are enabled to document, diagram, and study their own and others' primary attention groups will develop a rich understanding of their own and others' individual community networks.

All of Phase One and the first part of Phase Two of this agenda consist of descriptive documentation. In the later stages of Phase Two, we expect to be developing tools--both process skills and software support--which, by their very nature, will cross the boundary from descriptive to become prescriptive. Although I have a preliminary framework, design for the later stage of Phase Two and all of Phase Three will be based on the results of the preceding work.

Phase Three of this research plan calls for developing and testing software and process tools to support individuals in co-evolving effective primary attention group performance. In an age where hierarchy is decreasing and participation is increasing and where the diffusion of tools formerly supplied only to those with substantive power is pervasive, it is my hope that individuals may be empowered not only to understand but also to use skills and tools to enhance the effectiveness of their primary attention groups. Just as millions of people now produce and distribute music, videos, books, blogs, and other media formerly produced and distributed primarily by bureaucracies, individuals may come to use tools similar to those now used by businesses (Borgatti, 2005), governments (Department of Homeland Security; 2006), and the military (Cares, 2005) to increase their respective group effectiveness. Cares (2005), for example, suggests that distributed military networks of people may be formed in ways that promote such capabilities as mobility, flexibility, persistence, stealth, and recombination.

Surely with training and tools in hand, individuals would wish to consciously build on the self-organizing nature of their primary attention groups to enhance network characteristics such as resilience, reach, learning, and adaptability. It is my hope that by viewing changes in their individual communities over time in response to their actions, student researchers will learn to facilitate personal primary attention groups which stand powerfully in the place of the traditional communities which once might have been considered their birthright.

The author wishes to thank the student action researchers working on this project, especially Erin McDowell and Laura Toledo, and the reviewers, especially Mark Latonero, for their contributions to this work.

Endnotes

[1] Although this may very well describe other parts of the world as well, I have not studied this history and do not, therefore, want to imply that this is the case.

[2] Although one might argue that there is an actual physical field--or region throughout which a force may be exerted--it is outside the scope of this paper and my qualifications to argue this point.

[3] Outside the scope of this paper, my dissertation (Allison, 2005) provides a robust delineation of these changes in society.

[4] Scholars wishing to participate in similar studies are invited to contact the author.

References

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Allison, M. (2006). A case study of two groups of purpose with a focus on control and dissent. Paper presentation at the New York State Communications Association, October 21.

Altheide, D. (1995). An ecology of communication: Cultural formats of control. New York: Aldine Transaction.

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