I recently published this paper with my colleague Rich Ling (University of Copenhagen). This paper came about as a result of a dinner conversation where we realized that we had each collected data on core discussion networks, national samples from the United States, Norway and Ukraine, over the same time period. The perfect opportunity to add comparative data to a growing literature on core networks (including a number of my own studies), that had previously relied exclusively on a series of repeated cross-sectional samples of Americans. This literature suggests that there has been large-scale change in the size and structure of American’s core networks over the past two decades.
The goal of our paper was to test the theory that there was something unexpected or exceptional about a finding that American’s core networks are relatively small and kin-centric. Our expectation was that this was not something exceptional at all. Rather, we anticipated that at the societal level a large and diverse core networks was a sign of something troubling, the need for large amounts of informal support. Our expectation was that where formal resources were relatively limited (Ukraine), we would find larger and more diverse core networks. When formal resources were more robust, as a result of things like a strong economy, strong civic society, and strong government safety net (Norway and the US), people would have less need for informal support and could thus rely on a smaller core network. We argued that kin are more likely to persist in core networks; when the median core network size drops to one it should be of no surprise that kin dominate these networks. As we expected, Norwegians have relatively small and kin-centric core networks, and a similar level of social isolation as Americans. Along the way, we also challenge a number of related arguments: that higher levels of individual and societal well-being predict higher levels of face-to-face contact, that most people have less face-to-face contact when mediated communication is used with core confidants, and that the use of ICTs within core networks displaces core confidants.
We have three main findings:
- Concerns that low societal well-being is associated with smaller and less diverse core networks should be discounted. Arguments in favor of this position are based on an ecological fallacy that assumes that the positive relationship between individual well-being and core network size can be generalized to the societal level (that is, individual factors related to well-being, such as higher education, that predict larger and more diverse core networks, cannot be extended to conclude that societies with higher well-being should also average larger and more diverse core networks). This generalization is false; it ignores a network paradox. Unlike at the individual level, societal prosperity is negatively related to network size.
- For most people, frequent ICT use within core networks is associated with frequent face-to-face contact. However, as a result of an affordance paradox, there is an exception based on individual inequality. In the absence of new communication technologies, the most disadvantaged, individuals of lower socioeconomic status, have more frequent face-to-face contact with core ties (compared to those of higher socioeconomic status). In this context, face-to-face contact is lower with ICT use only for those of lower socioeconomic status.
- Social contact, in-person communication, and the use of ICTs support larger core networks. However, there is a contact paradox whereby, in a context of lower societal well-being, frequent contact with core networks, face-to-face and otherwise, impedes the ability to maintain a larger core network.