Thursday, May 19, 2005

"Find an opinion leader and you find a conversation."

My university library sent me an e-mail today saying that one of the books I had checked out -- Gabriel Weimann's The Influentials: People Who Influence People -- needed to be returned. As I was on my way to the library I noticed a post-it note next to a sentence I had marked off. The sentence was written by Elihu Katz, a pioneer in researching the concepts of personal influence and opinion leaders. The quotation was:

"Find an opinion leader and you find a conversation."
I find this quotation most relevant given my last posting about the importance of understanding communication and relationship processes rather than just identifying types of individuals. However, Katz is not necessarily referring to everyday, routine forms of communication with friends, family, and coworkers in this sentence; rather, he is talking about conversation as a term for public and institutional dialogue. Katz's larger, optimistic argument is that conversations are valuable because they will lead to better and more informed discussion and actions, thus serving as a check on what many see to be powerful media forces (I write optimistic because the conversations could equally likely lead to reinforcing stale, unproductive views of the world). Here's more context for the excerpt (from the Foreword to Weimann's book, written by Katz in 1993):

"Opinion leadership research continues this argument [Paul Lazarsfeld's modest optimism for a 'participatory democracy'], even if its main stream remains (overly) occupied with the characteristics of opinion leaders. Opinion leaders are interesting, in my view, because they imply that media influence is being intercepted and examined in conversation. Find an opinion leader and you find a conversation. Find a conversation and you find more considered opinions and better informed actions, and thus a brake on media power. Lazarsfeld's legacy, like Tarde's of a century ago and Habermas's today, directs us to keep watch on the changing prevalence, forms, and functions of conversation in the various institutional contexts in which it takes place. Inevitably, one is led to wonder what will happen to conversation and to public space in the era of individuation now being thrust upon us by the new media technology."
While it's arguable whether or not new media technologies have made us more isolated or created new avenues for public discussion (it's probably both/and rather than either/or), or if the technologies have been "thrust upon us," we should not underestimate the power of conversation in its everyday, routine form. Indeed as I argued in my last post, and as increasing research in the field of Communication Studies is finding, it is in these mundane interactions where the basis for opinion leadership, or influenceability, is formed.