Social Networks

In addition to identifying and classifying social support, it can be helpful to examine the sources of support. The term social network refers to linkages between people that may or may not provide social support and that may serve other functions (i.e. social comparison, companionship, social influence).

Two approaches used to explore social networks

  1. Examine whole network
  2. Examine specific relationships within the network

We will use the same example to show how one could describe the whole social network that provides different types of support to the 39-year-old graduate student diagnosed with breast cancer.

Social Network (as a whole)

Construct Definition Application
Density Extent to which network members know & interact with each other Determine if entities within her network are interrelated. Perhaps she is going to the same physician as her mother & her hair stylist who both had breast cancer a few years ago
Homogeneity Extent to which network members are demographically similar Determine if she belongs to a diverse group of people or if most or all share similar characteristics (age, race/ethnicity, marital status, etc.)
Geographic Dispersion Extent to which network members live in close proximity to focal person Determine the location (family or friend's residences, physician's office, etc.) of those who provide her with social support
Directionality Extent to which members of the dyad share equal power and influence Determine power dynamics in various relationships (i.e.- patient/provider; husband/wife)

Another way to understand how social support is provided by the social network of our 39-year-old breast cancer patient is to examine characteristics of specific relationships between other network members and herself.

Social Network Relationship Characteristics

Construct Definition Application
Reciprocity Extent to which resources and support are both given and received Her husband's willingness to assume her familial roles while she is in treatment/recovery just as she does when he is ill or working late
Intensity/Strength Extent to which social relationships offer emotional closeness The close emotional bonds she shares with her husband and mother are stronger than the emotional bond she shares with her co-workers
Complexity Extent to which social relations serve many functions Her close friend of 15 years is also her supervisor at work. Consequently, her friend is able to modify work-related responsibilities to accommodate her illness.
Formality Extent to which social relationships exist in the context of organizational or institutional roles The relationship between herself & her physician exists in the context of the patient/provider relationship