Identities, Opinion Leadership, And Risk Information Seeking: A Case Study Of Proposed Natural Gas Drilling In New York's Marcellus Shale

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This dissertation proposes a theoretical connection involving identity theory, opinion leadership, and risk information seeking and sharing. Using this connection, it investigates the role identities (specifically, opinion leadership) play in motivating risk-related communication behavior about a controversial risk issue: proposed natural gas drilling in New York State's Marcellus Shale. In the process, it addresses two significant gaps in existing research. First, it elucidates how identities help people negotiate a potentially complex risk information environment. That is, people may encounter a variety of information about potential economic, health, social, and environmental impacts of gas development. How do they choose to become informed and seek and share information about specific impacts over others? Second, it elucidates how identities help determine whether and, if so, how people engage in such behavior over time, especially as development progresses through different stages and different impacts emerge and gain attention. The central argument is that an opinion leader identity, emerging in group, role, and personalitybased identity dimensions, functions as important determinant of communication behavior about gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Within these dimensions, opinion leadership (1) shapes identity meaning in terms of drilling-related impacts about which people perceive social and personal pressure to remain informed as well as perceptions of referent groups believed to hold these expectations; (2) motivates people to seek and inform others about specific impacts based on this meaning; and (3) guides communication behavior over time based on one's ability to fulfill these expectations. To further examine these arguments, 36 in-depth interviews were conducted with opinion leaders in three upstate New York counties. Opinion leadership, as an identity, emerged as a function of group affiliation (i.e., membership in a landowner coalition); role-based positions (i.e., elected official); and personality characteristics (i.e., being the type of person who is knowledgeable about issues like gas drilling). Interestingly, while these identity dimensions were associated with specific impacts of drilling about which people perceived social and personal pressure to remain informed, in many instances interviewees endeavored to remain as knowledgeable about as many impacts as possible. This sentiment was prominent in situations where they felt that being an opinion leader was simultaneously related to multiple group, role, and personality-based identity dimensions. Over time, however, some interviewees felt difficulty fulfilling identity-related expectations related to remaining informed and saw themselves less as leaders. Theoretical and practical implications of this research are discussed in regard to identity theory, opinion leadership, and communication behavior. Areas of emphasis include (1) measuring how people look for and exchange information about complex, multi-faceted, and dynamic risk issues and (2) further harnessing the power of opinion leaders to encourage communication behavior about contentious risk issues as part of public participatory processes.

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risk information seeking; risk communication; natural gas drilling


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McComas, Katherine Anne

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Niederdeppe, Jeffrey D. H.
Scherer, Clifford Wayne
Stedman, Richard Clark

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Ph. D., Communication

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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