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Social Networks

Social Networks

Married couples and families do not exist in isolation, but are embedded in a network of social relationships and culture. Even prior to marriage, relations with family members, friends, and acquaintances can influence dating activities and romantic relationships. When individuals become a couple, they must deal with the demands of both their own social ties and those of their spouses. Couples informally negotiate the degree to which they will maintain separate friendships, balance their own and their partner's family relationships, and engage in social activities as a couple. Relationships with marital partners, friends, and families change as individuals and couples age. It is increasingly clear that social relationships help to shape the basic nature of married life. In examining social relationships, some researchers use the terms social network and social support interchangeably (Schonauer et al. 1999).

Defining Social Networks

Personal social networks are typically defined as "a collection of individuals who know and interact with a particular target individual or couple" (Milardo 1988, p. 20). Researchers can assess the structural characteristics of an individual's network such as network size, role composition (the number of individuals, including family, friends, or work associates, in the network), or network density (interconnectedness among members). Content characteristics of networks describe the nature of linkages between the individual and network members such as relationship satisfaction, feelings of closeness, or reciprocity. Functional characteristics of networks describe linkages in which a given person serves some function for the focal individual, such as providing social support or informal help (Laireiter and Baumann 1992).

The social networks of couples have been investigated in three major ways. Using an individual perspective, researchers have defined a couple's social ties in terms of the separate personal networks maintained by each partner. At the dyadic level, a couple's network has been viewed as those network members jointly shared by the couple. A configural approach conceptualizes a couple's network as a composite of the shared and separate ties contributed by both partners. Individual, dyadic, and configural perspectives differ in their assumptions about the role of network structure for couples, and each perspective has certain advantages and limitations (Stein et al. 1992).

There is no one correct definition of a social network, but rather different network delineation strategies yield different data about social relationships. In studying the social context of marital and family life, researchers distinguish between the structure, content, and function of social network relationships. Researchers who study married couples must also decide if they are interested in the separate networks of marital partners, the degree of overlap between the partners' social ties, or some composite picture of the couple's network relations.

Social Network Structure: Relationship Opportunities and Constraints

The structure of social networks is critical for understanding opportunities and constraints in the development and maintenance of social relationships. Friends and family can introduce an individual to others who may have the potential for friendship or romantic involvement. Existing network ties can also limit opportunities to form new relationships, given that a person has only a finite amount of time and energy to engage in social relationships. Researchers typically acknowledge the reciprocal influence of married couples and their social networks—namely, that network ties influence the development and maintenance of a couple's relationships and that being "a married couple" affects the nature of their social network ties.

Some individuals withdraw from network relationships as they become romantically involved, but network withdrawal is probably not a universal phenomenon. Instead, different types of networks (e.g., interactive versus close associates) and different network sectors (e.g., family, close friends, peripheral friends) undergo various changes as partners become more involved in a dating relationship ( Johnson and Leslie 1982). For example, to assess the interactive networks of college-age dating couples, Robert Milardo, Michael Johnson, and Ted Huston (1983) had respondents keep daily logs for two ten-day periods separated by a ninety-five–day span. Respondents in later stages of couple involvement reported that they interacted with fewer total network members than respondents in earlier stages of involvement. However, longitudinal data results found no significant differences in total network size between respondents whose dating relationships had become more involved and respondents whose dating relationships had deteriorated. In fact, there was an increase in the number of family members and of intermediate friends in the network of dating couples who increased in romantic involvement.

As couples become increasingly interdependent in their personal lives, they develop increasingly interdependent social networks (Milardo 1982). Studies investigating couples' networks have assessed the degree of overlap between network members listed by both husbands and wives. Shared networks of family were found to be a particularly valuable source of support (Veiel et al. 1991). However, husbands and wives in the study rarely shared the same network member as their closest confidant. These findings suggest the importance of both individual and shared network ties as supportive resources for married couples.

Catherine Stein and her colleagues (1992) found that couples with different types of networks reported significantly different levels of marital satisfaction and individual well-being. For example, couples whose conjoint networks featured a relatively large number of friends for both husbands and wives also reported significantly higher levels of marital satisfaction than couples in some of the other network types. However, husbands reported significantly higher levels of depression than wives in this type of network. Postulating a direct relationship between separate friendships and individual well-being would suggest that friends might help wives with feelings of depression in a way that men's separate friendships do not. Such findings suggest that conjoint network structure may have different implications for the marital relationship and the psychological wellbeing of individual partners.

Gender Differences in Social Networks

Developing and maintaining network ties requires a set of interpersonal skills and the desire and opportunity to use those skills. Men and women often differ in the nature of their interpersonal exchanges and in their opportunities for social inter-action (Dykstra 1990). Research indicates that men and women structure their personal networks differently and that networks may serve different functions for husbands and wives. For example, wives generally report larger networks of kin and greater network interconnectedness than husbands (Antonucci and Akiyama 1987).

Claude Fischer and Stacey Oliker (1983) suggest that age and lifestyle stage account for network differences, with young married men having larger networks than their wives, and the reverse being true for older married couples. Studies of middle-aged and older adults indicate that married men are more likely to report their wives as their primary confidants and sources of support, whereas women are more likely to report confidants other than their husbands and to rely on friends and children as sources of support (Antonucci and Akiyama 1987). Women are more likely than men to request assistance from network members in general (Butler, Giodano, and Neren 1985).

Network composition may affect women's opportunities for social contact outside of the home, such as participation in the labor force. Although a number of factors influence work force participation, social network connections can play a critical role in finding and securing paid employment. As women's networks tend to have larger proportions of kin compared to their male counterparts, the networks of women may lack the heterogeneity of members needed to provide unique information and help in finding a job (Wellman and Wortley 1990). Research has shown that women who have large, diverse social networks are more likely to be working for pay as compared with women whose networks are less diverse (Stoloff, Glanville, and Bienenstock 1999).

Cultural Differences in Social Networks

Ethnicity, race, and culture have also been shown to shape social network ties. Network characteristics such as network size, composition, frequency of contact, and interconnectedness among members have been found to differ for people from different ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. However, overall research findings in this area tend to be inconsistent. Recent studies compare the social networks of minority populations with those of Caucasians with little attention given to comparisons across a variety of ethnic or cultural groups.

In his overview of the features of social networks of people in the United States, Peter Mardsen (1987) found that whites had the largest networks, Hispanics had intermediate-sized networks, and African Americans had the smallest networks. This study also found that African Americans had a smaller proportion of kin and less gender diversity in their networks than white respondents.

Other studies support the findings that African-American social networks tend to be smaller than those of whites or other non-European groups (Pugliesi and Shook 1998). However, some research has shown that African Americans have more kin members in their networks and that their networks often include members from church and religious communities (Ajrouch, Antonucci, and Janevic 2001; Kim and McKenry 1998; Roschelle 1997). It may be that differences in assessing social network ties account for some of the inconsistent findings.

There is evidence to suggest that Hispanics have highly interconnected networks that include kin and friends and have strong church and school ties (Wilkinson 1993). For example, Thomas Schweizer and his colleagues (1998) found that both Euro-American and Hispanic participants had networks that were homogenous with regard to ethnicity. In addition, when compared to Euro-American networks, the networks of Hispanic participants were dominated by family ties, with most kin members living in the same neighborhood.

Relationship Processes in Social Networks

Family theories such as the Double ABCX Model (McCubbin and Patterson 1983) underscore the importance of social networks in helping individuals cope with family crises. Network relationships are not only important sources of support in times of stress, but the nature of family crises may themselves necessitate changes in the structure and quality of network ties. For example, social network members provide emotional and instrumental support during times of bereavement following the death of a family member (Suitor and Pillemer 2000). Structural characteristics, such as network composition and the interconnectedness among network members, are thought to play a role in mourning and adjustment to the death of a spouse (Blackburn, Greenburg, and Boss 1987).

How do networks of family and friends shape the nature of relationships between couples and families? Couples and families typically have regular and frequent contact with relatives and friends. Friends and relatives provide couples and individual partners with both emotional support and a variety of different kinds of tangible assistance (Stein and Rappaport 1986). However, there may be some negative outcomes when couples use their networks to help them deal with marital distress.

Danielle Julien and Howard Markman (1991) examined associations among spouses' problems, the support partners sought within and outside of marriage, and levels of individual and marital adjustment. Husbands' support was a particularly relevant component of wives' marital satisfaction, and marital distress was associated with less mobilization of spouses' support. Mobilization of support from network members was associated with greater marital distress. Discussing marital problems with outsiders was associated with low marital adjustment. The authors speculated that network members may provide alternative resources, reducing spouses' motivation to address each other to solve personal problems.

Contact with close network ties can also lead to social comparisons about the nature of relationships and marriage. People can use information and observations of other couples or individual partners to evaluate their own feelings, behaviors, and expectations for couples and marital relations. Social comparisons can provide information about the equity of one's relationship relative to others, validate the correctness of one's attributions or expectations, or reduce uncertainty.

In an exploratory study, Sandra Titus (1980) found that more than half of the thirty married couples in her sample reported explicitly comparing their own marriage with friends' marriages during interactions with friends or their spouses. Social comparisons were more common in younger couples with children less than five years of age and more common among wives than husbands. Social comparisons seemed to establish a frame of reference for marital expectations, helped couples identify issues to discuss in their own marriages, and helped couples to evaluate or affirm the quality of their marriages.

Renate Klein and Robert Milardo (2000) examined the role that network members play in couples' perceptions of how they manage relationship conflict. After identifying one controversial issue in their relationship, partners were independently asked to delineate their social networks in terms of members who they thought would approve of their point of view (supporters) and those who would disapprove of their position (critics). The number of perceived supporters identified by respondents was positively related to their belief that their position in the conflict was legitimate, justified, and reasonable (self-legitimacy). The number of perceived critics was related to a decreased sense of self-legitimacy for men, but not for women. These preliminary findings suggest that the social comparison process may be different for men and women as they manage relationship conflict. It may be that men's sense of legitimacy in relationship conflict is related to a lack of network critics, whereas women's feelings of conflict legitimacy are related to having supporters to validate their point of view.

Social Networks and Aging

Changes in social networks as a function of the aging process have been the focus of research. There is evidence to suggest that as people age, their social networks tend to grow smaller and are composed largely of kin (Lang 2000; Sluzki 2000). As individuals age and view their future as time-limited, they are likely to seek relationships that provide the most emotional impact and short-term benefits and discontinue those relationships that are less satisfying (Carstensen, Isaacowitz, and Charles 1999). Thus, the motivation to seek and maintain social contacts is thought to be linked to an individual's perceptions of their future.

The gerontological literature documents the importance of families, particularly adult daughters, in caring for elders (see Dwyer and Coward 1992). However, as more couples in the United States choose not to have children, the family members available for support and care become more limited. In a study by Melanie Gironda, James Lubben, and Kathryn Atchison (1999), elders without children generally reported less contact with other relatives and family members than those elders with children. It appears that elders without children may renew old friendships or relations with distant kin in later life if geographic location permits (Sluzki 2000). Thus, the social networks of some elders may largely consist of recycled or renewed relationships with people who share a long personal history, if not an extended period of sustained interaction.


Social network analysis has helped researchers to more systematically describe different kinds of social relationships that exist and develop within the context of marriage and family life. Yet, researchers are only beginning to examine the complex, reciprocal influence of network forces on family relationships and marital ties. More methodological and conceptual work is needed to understand the network conditions that best help to nurture and support the many aspects of marriage and the family.

See also:Communication: Couple Relationships; Dating; Elders; Family Roles; Fictive Kinship; Friendship; Infidelity; Marital Quality; Neighborhood; Relationship Dissolution; Relationship Initiation; Relationship Maintenance; Renewal of Wedding Vows; Singles/Never Married Persons; Stress


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Social Networks and Social Support


It is widely recognized that social relationships and affiliations have powerful effects on physical and mental health. Although many social scientists from Emile Durkheim on have written about the critical role of social relationships in health outcomes, it was not until the 1970s that epidemiologists turned their attention to this issue.

In the first of these studies, in Alameda County, California (Berkman et al., 1979), men and women who lacked ties to others were 1.9 to 3.1 times more likely to die than those who had many contacts. A 1982 study in Tecumseh, Michigan (House et al., 1982), showed a similar association for men, but not for women, between social connectedness and participation and mortality risk. In the same year, D. Blazer reported similar results from a sample of elderly men and women in Durham County, North Carolina.

Schoenbach et al. (1986), in a study in Evans County, Georgia, used a measure of contacts modified from the Alameda County study and found risks to be significant in older white men and women even when controlling for risk factors, although some racial and gender differences were observed. In Sweden, the Goteborg study (Welin et al., 1985) showed that, in different cohorts of men, social isolation proved to be a risk factor for dying, independent of biomedical risk factors. A 1987 report by Orth-Gomér and Johnson reported significantly increased risks for men and women who have been socially isolated. Finally, in a study of men and women in eastern Finland, Kaplan and associates (1988) demonstrated that an index of social connections predicts mortality risk for men but not for women, independent of cardiovascular risk factors.

Several more recent studies, including the Established Populations for the Epidemiologic Study of the Elderly (EPESE) studies, confirm the continued importance of social relationships into late life. Furthermore, studies of large cohorts of men and women in a large health maintenance organization (Vogt et al., 1992) and male health professionals (Kawachi et al., 1996) suggest that social networks are, in general, more strongly related to mortality than to the incidence of disease. Studies in Danish men (Pennix et al., 1997) and Japanese men and women (Sugisawa et al., 1994) also indicate that social isolation and social support are related to mortality. Social networks and support have been found to predict a broad array of health outcomes, from survival after heart attacks to disease progression, functioning, and the onset and course of infectious diseases.


Conceptually, social networks are embedded in a macrosocial environment in which large-scale social forces may influence network structure, which in turn influences a cascading causal process. Serious consideration of the larger macrosocial context in which networks form and are sustained is almost completely absent, and such consideration is needed in studies of social network influences on health.

Networks may operate through at least five primary pathways: (1) provision of social support, (2) social influence, (3) social engagement, (4) person-to-person contact, and (5) access to resources and material goods. These psychosocial and behavioral processes may influence even more proximate pathways to health status, including direct physiological stress responses, psychological states and traits, health-damaging or healthpromoting behaviors such as tobacco consumption or physical activity, and exposure to infectious disease agents.

Most obviously, the structure of network ties influences health via the provision of social support. This framework immediately acknowledges that not all ties are supportive. Social support is typically divided into subtypes, including emotional, instrumental, appraisal, and informational support.

Perhaps even more important than social support are the ways in which social relationships provide a basis for intimacy and attachment. Intimacy and attachment have meaning not only for relationships that traditionally are thought of as intimate (e.g., between partners, between parents and children) but for more extended ties. For instance, when relationships are solid at a community level, individuals feel strong bonds and attachment to places (e.g., a neighborhood) and organizations (e.g., voluntary and religious organizations).

Social networks may also influence health via social influence. Shared norms about health behaviors (e.g., alcohol and cigarette consumption, treatment adherence) might be powerful sources of social influence with direct consequences for the behaviors of network members.

A third, and more difficult to define, pathway by which networks may influence health status is by promoting social participation and social engagement. Getting together with friends, attending social functions, group recreation, and church attendance are all instances of social engagement. Several studies suggest that social engagement is critical in maintaining cognitive ability (Bassuk et al., 1999) and reducing mortality (Glass et al., 2000).

Another pathway by which networks influence disease is by restricting or promoting exposure to infectious disease agents through person-to-person contact. What is perhaps most remarkable is that the same network characteristics that can be healthpromoting can at the same time be health-damaging if they serve as vectors for the spread of infectious disease.

Little research has sought to examine differential access to material goods, resources, and services as a mechanism through which social networks might operate. This is unfortunate, given the existing work showing that social networks operate by regulating an individual's access to life opportunities by virtue of the extent to which networks overlap with other networks. In this way, networks operate to provide access, or to restrict opportunities, in much the same way that social status does.

Lisa F. Berkman

(see also: Community Health; Cultural Identity; Inequalities in Health; Marginal People; Medical Sociology; Psychology, Health; Social Determinants; Sociology in Public Health )


Bassuk, S.; Glass, T.; and Berkman, L. (1999). "Social Disengagement and Incident Cognitive Decline in Community-Dwelling Elderly Persons." Annals of Internal Medicine 131:165173.

Berkman, L., and Syme, S. (1979). "Social Networks, Host Resistance, and Mortality: A Nine-Year Followup of Alameda County Residents." American Journal of Epidemiology 109:186204.

Berkman, L. F. (1995). "The Role of Social Relations in Health Promotion." Psychosomatic Medicine 57: 245254.

Blazer, D. (1982). "Social Support and Mortality in an Elderly Community Population." American Journal of Epidemiology 115:684694.

Cohen, S.; Underwood, S.; and Gottlieb, B. (2000). Social Support Measures and Intervention. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glass, T.; Dym, B.; Greenberg, S.; Rintel, D.; Roesch, C.; and Berkman, L. (2000). "Psychosocial Intervention in Stroke: The Families in Recovery from Stroke Trial (FIRST)." American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 70(2):169181.

House, J.; Robbins, C.; and Metzner, H. (1982). "The Association of Social Relationships and Activities with Mortality: Prospective Evidence from the Tecumseh Community Health Study." American Journal of Epidemiology 116:123140.

Kaplan, G.; Salonen, J.; Cohen, R.; Brand, R.; Syme, S.; and Puska, P. (1988). "Social Connections and Mortality from All Causes and Cardiovascular Disease: Prospective Evidence from Eastern Finland." American Journal of Epidemiology 128:370380.

Kawachi, I.; Colditz, G. A.; Ascherio, A.; Rimm, E. B.; Giovannucci, E.; Stampfer, M. J. et al. (1996). "A Prospective Study of Social Networks in Relation to Total Mortality and Cardiovascular Disease in Men in the U.S.A." Journal of Epidemiological Community Health 50:245251.

Orth-Gomer, K., and Unden, A. (1987). "The Measurement of Social Support in Population Surveys." Social Science Medicine 24:8394.

Pennix, B. W.; van Tilburg, T.; Kriegsman, D. M.; Deeg, D. J.; Boeke, A. J.; and van Eijk, J. T. (1997). "Effects of Social Support and Personal Coping Resources on Mortality in Older Age: The Longitudinal Aging Study, Amsterdam." American Journal of Epidemiology 146:510519.

Schoenbach, V.; Kaplan, B.; Freedman, L.; and Kleinbaum, D. (1986). "Social Ties and Mortality in Evans County, Georgia." American Journal of Epidemiology 123:577591.

Seeman, T. (1996). "Social Ties and Health: the Benefits of Social Integration." Annuals of Epidemiology 6:442451.

Seeman, T., and Berkman, L. (1988). "Structural Characteristics of Social Networks and Their Relationship with Social Support in the Elderly: Who Provides Support." Social Science Medicine 26(7):737749.

Seeman, T.; Berkman, L.; Kohout, F.; LaCroix, A.; Glynn, R.; and Blazer, D. (1993). "Intercommunity Variation in the Association between Social Ties and Mortality in the Elderly: A Comparative Analysis of Three Communities." Annals of Epidemiology 3:325335.

Sugisawa, H.; Liang, J.; and Liu, X. (1994). "Social Networks, Social Support and Mortality among Older People in Japan." Journal of Gerontology 49:S3S13.

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Social Networking

Social Networking

In Internet parlance, a social network is an online community of people interacting over such topics as business, culture, and friendship. Social networks are similar to

forums, but they are more selective in membership and have a clear structure, with each participant usually governing their own online portfolio of personal information and tastes. Online social participants develop relations with other members on the network and create channels of communication between each other, thereby setting up a complex structure. Social networks can be defined by geographic areas, age groups, business interests, informational needs, or other parameters.

Many of the largest social networkssuch as Face-book, MySpace, and LinkedInallow participants to create their own profiles using pictures, videos, links, and other forms of rich media. These types of rich media can also be transferred across the network to friends or associates, making social networks an important, emerging communication tool. While businesses are examining social networks for their marketing and recruitment possibilities, several distinct difficulties have arisen that have affected the profitability of social networks for their owners. Due to these problems, many companies are investing in private social networks designed specifically for business use.


Social networking can be used by companies within their organizations, by establishing the networks over intranet systems. These networks are available only to employees, have safeguards against security threats, and can be used in many different ways. Some businesses may wish to integrate a social network with their company directory so that lists of employee names become profiles through which employees can exchange information and show their interests and expertise. Other businesses may wish to establish intranet forums so that their employees can collaborate in solving specific problems or tackling certain departmental goals. This is especially effective when company departments are centralized and employees cannot see each other face to face.

Businesses are attracted to these company held social networks because of the opportunities for collective problem solving and creative thinking. Employees who are able to discuss options and share information are much more likely to produce innovative solutions to shared problems. Natural teams are often born over such networks, united by needed skills and similar interests. As people become more comfortable communicating in online channels, companies can implement more connecting networks as a form of project management.

Wikis are one of the most popular types of social networks used by businesses. These collaborative networks allow multiple users to edit the same piece of information, contributing other facts or deleting unnecessary content. Online wiki Web sites are considered unreliable due to their free access by all users, but a private wiki can help companies direct teamwork, organize events, update research, and take notes.


In addition to internal networking, companies are also eager to make use of well-established social networks available to other users of the Internet. Certain social networks are directed toward specific industries or certain professionals, designed as problem-solving and research-sharing Web sites. For the more widely available social networks, business interests fall into three main categories:

  • Marketing. Many businesses implement marketing efforts through social networks. Advertisements can be placed in the network Web sites, usually featuring rich media applications involving sound, animation, and interactivity. A company interested in analysis can also embed code in their advertisements that keeps track of how many online users click on their ads, interact with them, and ultimately follow them to company Web sites or online stores.
  • Recruitment. Other companies create their own profiles on such social networks as MySpace so that prospective employees and customers can access a more personalized version of the company Web site where jobs and updates can be posted. Many companies hope to find new employees more quickly through social networking than through job boards, and some social networks such as LinkedIn are based around recruitment possibilities. There have been attempts at creating a resume application by some social networks such as Facebook, but none have been remarkably successful.
  • Communication. Some companies may prefer to communicate to their departments and employees over social networks, updating their social profiles with important information and sending messages to other users. It is more common, however, to do this with private intranet applications.


External social networks, however, have several problems. Those invested in large social networks, such as MySpace and Facebook, are finding it difficult to make a profit with the massive amount of maintenance social Web sites require and the small amount of income so far obtained from advertisement. For others, marketing techniques have proved unsuccessful. Facebook's Beacon application, for instance, was meant to notify users when and what their friends bought on popular online stores, but the

trend-setting idea failed soon after it began when users declined to use it for reasons of privacy. Friends over Web sites, after all, are not always the same as friends face to face. It remains to be seen if external social networks will be able to integrate the proper applications to make themselves a successful tool for businesses or not.


Everywhere and Nowhere. The Economist, 2008. Available from:

Lesnick, Marc. Increasing Internet Community Size and Revenue! Social Networking Conference. Intranet Business Conferences, 2008.

Kirkpatrick, Marshall. Wikis Are Now Serious Business. Read Write Web, 2008. Available from:

McCarthy, Caroline. Forrester: Social Networks Mean Business, Big Business. the social. cnet news, 2008. Available from:

Roberts, Jane. Social Networking for Business Is the Next Big Thing. Commercial Appeal. The E.W. Scripps Group, 8 Jun 2008.

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social network

social network See NETWORK.

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