Contagion Theories

explain networks members’ attitudes and behaviors

History and Orientation

Contagion theories seek to explain networks as conduits for “infectious” attitudes and behavior. Contagion theories are related to a number of theories: (e.g.) Structurational Theory, Symbolic Interaction, Gatekeeping, Network Theory and Analysis, Hypodermic Needle Theory. These theories all focus on the different aspects of the social construction process.

Core Assumptions and Statements

Contact is provided by communication networks in contagion theories. These communication networks serve as a mechanism that exposes people, groups, and organizations to information, attitudinal messages and the behaviors of others (Burt, 1980, 1987; Contractor & Eisenberg, 1990). Due to this exposure it increases the likelihood that network members will develop beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes similar to those of their networks (Carley, 1991; Carley & Kaufer, 1993). Contagion theories seek the relation between organizational members and their networks. The organizational members’ knowledge, attitudes, and behavior are related to the information, attitudes, and behavior of others in the network to which they are linked. Factors such as frequency, multiplexity, strength, and asymmetry can shape the extent to which others influence individuals in their networks (Erickson, 1988).

Contagion can be distinguished into contagion by cohesion and contagion by structural equivalence (Burkhardt, 1994). Contagion by cohesion refers to the influence of those who had direct communication. These individuals’ perceptions of self-efficacy of the new technology were significantly influenced by people who had direct communication. Contagion by structural equivalence refers to the influence of those who had similar communication patterns. These individuals’ general attitudes and the use of the new technology were more influence by people who shared similar communication patterns.

Conceptual Model

Not applicable.

Favorite Methods

Network analysis, surveys, and longitudinal data.

Scope and Application

Contagion theories are used to explain network members’ attitudes and behaviors. Networks increase in importance and therefore the influence of the relation between members and networks can be explained by these theories. Applications are very broad, since organizations, government and certain interest groups all depend on networks.


Hospital employees who communicated with one another or shared supervisory-subordinate relationships were more likely to share similar attitudes about a recently introduced information technology. (Rice and Aydin’s, 1991).

Individuals’ attitudes and use of a recently implemented distributed data processing computer network were significantly influenced by the attitudes and use of others in their communication network (Burkhardt, 1994).


Key publications

Monge, P.E. & Contractor, N.S. (2003). Theories of Communication Networks. Oxford: University Press.

Rice, R.E. & Aydin, C. (1991). Attitudes toward new organizational technology: Network proximity as a mechanism for social information processing: Administrative Science Quarterly, 9, 219-244.

Pollock, T., Whitbred, R.A. & Contractor, N. (2000). Social information processing and job characteristics: A simultaneous test of two theories with implications for job satisfaction. Human Communication Research, 26, 292-330.

Burkhardt, M.E. (1994). Social interaction effects following a technological change: A longitudinal investigation. Academy of Management Journal, 37. 868-896.

Burkhardt, M.E & Brass, D.J. (1990). Changing patterns or patterns of change: The effects of a change in technology on social network structure and power. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35, 104-127.

Contractor, N.S. & Eisenberg, E.M. (1990). Communication networks and new media in organizations. In J.Fulk & C.W. Steinfield (Eds.), Organizations and communication Technology (pp.143-172). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Burt, R.S. (1992). Structural holes: The social structure of competition. Cambrige, MA: Harvard University Press.

Carley, K.M. & Kaufer, D.S. (1993). Semantic connectivity: An approach for analyzing symbols in semantic networks. Communication Theory, 3,183-213.

Erickson, B. (1988). The relational basis of attitudes. In S.D. Berkowitz & B.Wellman (Eds.), Social structures: A network approach (pp.99-121).

See also: Structurational Theory, Symbolic Interaction, Gatekeeping, Network Theory and Analysis, Hypodermic Needle Theory.

See also Interpersonal Communication and Relations