Alex Bradley – Journey with a PhD student to the land of Social Networks and Social Support

Over the past few weeks I have been puzzling, as PhD students do, for a ground breaking, cutting edge, innovative and (lest we forget) high impact study idea.  So far my puzzle contains two parts:

Puzzle Piece 1: Social Networks

Sillouettes of tomorrow (see end of blog for attribution)

Sillouettes of tomorrow (see end of blog for attribution)

For those of you who are as ignorant as I am, social networks can be mapped through social network analysis where people (actors, nodes or vertices) are connected to other actors through relationships (referred to as ties or edges).  From here one can look at relational aspects of the ties (strength, frequency of contact) or structural aspects (network size, network density, and centrality).  This technique allows the research to grasp the rich embedded context in which we are all situated.  Past research on social network analysis adhered to the notion that it is your position within the social network and general structure of your social network that influences behaviour (Berkman, Glass, Brissette, & Seeman, 2000). However, other researchers are now advocating a more holistic, all-encompassing view, where societal features, social networks, personality and biological mechanisms are investigated simultaneously (Berkman et al., 2000). This has got me wondering whether mapping social networks through social network analysis might be a useful pursuit for a psychologist like myself.  As a psychologist, my natural ground is looking at the individual, sometimes to the detriment of the environment they are immersed within.  Might social network analysis offer a good opportunity to break this cycle?

Puzzle Piece 2: Social Support

Social support on the face of it appears intuitive – it’s just helping people and being ‘there for someone’ when they need it, right?  It’s actually a more sophisticated, multi-dimensional concept than first glance might suggest (Faber & Wasserman, 2015).  Nothing is ever simple at PhD level. Social support can be split into perceived social support, enacted/received social support, and can also be viewed as the compositional, as well as structural, aspects of the social network in which the individual is situated (Lakey, n.d.).  Perceived support typically seems to be split into emotional support, informational support, and instrumental support (give or take depending on the focus of the paper you are reading) (Shor, Roelfs, & Yogev, 2013).  Emotional support tends to refer to the resources of sympathy, caring, and a general feeling of being loved.  Informational support is about the actors’ ability to obtain useful and relevant knowledge when needed.  Finally, instrumental support is the ability for the actor to receive support both financial and practical when needed.  Perceived support seems to be favoured over received support, due to its ability to better predict outcomes. The question now is how can one combine the perceived level of support with the compositional as well as structural level of support that social network analysis can analyse, whilst not forgetting characteristics of the individual?

Piecing the Puzzle Together

A neat example of how this can all be done was an article called Pathways to Happiness: From personality to social networks and perceived support by Zhu, Woo, Porter and Brzesinski (2013).  They looked at the relationship of the big five (Agreeableness, Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness) both in a direct and indirect manner on the subjective well-being of a sample of first year college students. They hypothesised that the effects of personality would be mediated via social network characteristics and perceived social support. The social network measures they chose were: network size (number of actors one has ties too), closeness (those contact you have strong connection with), upper reachability (position of the network contacts in a social structure) and proportion of new contacts (number of new people met at college compared to previous contacts).  They found only one direct effect of Neuroticism negatively predicting lower levels of subjective well-being.  They found two paths where the personality characteristics of extraversion and neuroticism effect on subjective well-being were mediated by perceived social support.  The majority of the findings were through personality measures (extraversion, agreeableness and openness) predicting network characteristics (network size, closeness and proportion of new contacts) which in turn positively predicted both perceived social support and crucially subjective well-being.

The question that I put to myself and to readers that have made it this far, is can we emulate Zhu, Woo, Porter, & Brzezinski’s (2013) success in creating a study that captures both the individual and their social contexts?

Thank you for journeying with me,

Alex Bradley,

PhD Student, School of Psychology, University of Nottingham

References

Berkman, L. F., Glass, T., Brissette, I., & Seeman, T. E. (2000). From social integration to health: Durkheim in the new millennium. Social Science & Medicine, 51(6), 843–57. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(00)00065-4

Faber, A. D., & Wasserman, S. (2015). Social support and social networks: Synthesis and review. Social Networks and Health, 29–72. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1057-6290(02)80020-1

Lakey, B. (n.d.). Social Support and Social Intergration. Retrieved from http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/brp/constructs/social_support/social_support.pdf

Shor, E., Roelfs, D. J., & Yogev, T. (2013). The strength of family ties: A meta-analysis and meta-regression of self-reported social support and mortality. Social Networks, 35(4), 626–638. doi:10.1016/j.socnet.2013.08.004

Zhu, X., Woo, S. E., Porter, C., & Brzezinski, M. (2013). Pathways to happiness: From personality to social networks and perceived support. Social Networks, 35(3), 382–393. doi:10.1016/j.socnet.2013.04.005

Photo credit: Silhouettes of Tomorrow via Photopin (licence)

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