Investigating the effect of oil spills
on the environment and public health.
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Funding Source: Year One Block Grant - Louisiana State University

Project Overview

The Dynamics of Social Influence: A Longitudinal Look at Socially Structured Disaster Response

Principal Investigator
Louisiana State University
Department of Political Science


On April 22, 2010, two days after exploding and leaving eleven workers dead, the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig sank into the Gulf of Mexico. Coastal communities experienced significant social and economic upheaval.  Despite the widespread relief that met the news in mid-July that the well was capped, uncertainty about the long-term ecological and economic consequences of the disaster remains high.

Scholarship to understand the way in which individuals learn about and respond to a disaster of this magnitude over time is crucial.  Despite the consequences of disasters of this magnitude, scholarship on the ways in which individuals respond over time is limited. The purpose of this project is to understand how people use social networks to obtain information and to make social and political decisions in the context of experiencing a major disaster, and to examine the extent to which emotional responses to disaster are structured by these networks of social communication.

The intellectual merit of this project is rooted in the recognition that emotions and political knowledge, attitudes and behavior take place in social context, and that the way social networks condition attitudes and behavior changes over time. Despite their devastating consequences, oil spills are relatively unique in that they do not force residents to leave their communities. They therefore provide an opportunity to assess how social networks condition the response to disaster over time.

The first phase of our overall research project was supported through the NSF Rapid Response program. We administered a survey to a sample of respondents in affected coastal communities in Louisiana to address questions concerning the socially structured nature of disaster response. It is crucial, however, to assess how social networks influence individual behavior and attitudes over time. Our second phase of the project therefore focuses on the dynamic nature of disaster, and examines how social networks that structure communication about a disaster are different from social networks that structure communication more generally. We are requesting funding to construct a second wave panel designed to address the following research questions:

  1. What is the dynamic nature of social communication during a long-term disaster? How do thebehavioral, emotional, and attitudinal reactions change over time? 
  2. How does the use of interpersonal communication networks change over time? Do the characteristics of these networks change over time? Does the reliance on them shift in important ways? 
  3. How are social networks that are constructed in response to a disaster different from networks utilized for more general interpersonal communication?

Our follow-up survey will be conducted in the early summer of 2011. The longitudinal and experimental design outlined in the proposal is well-suited to explore the dynamic nature of social communication, and to explore the difference between the discussant networks that are named in response to questions about communication more generally, with the discussant networks that are named in response to questions about communication about the disaster. Our research is tailored to help us better understand the ways in which social context shapes human reaction to catastrophe

This research was made possible by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.