Relational Meaning

Social network analysts using formal techniques typically collect data on interpersonal relationships under the assumption that ties classified under the same label such as friend, spouse, or advisor carry the same cultural connotation. This assumption has allowed researchers to bracket the meanings of those labels and focus instead on the structure of ties; a strategy that has been indispensable for generating the immense volume of research in formal social network analysis. Nonetheless, assumption of sharedness and stability of relational meaning can be problematic when labels attributed to relationships sustain the simultaneous coexistence of disparate meanings I critically evaluate this assumption in several of my papers. 

In a recently published paper at Social Networks, I argue that the measurement and analysis of multiplexity is a useful tool for testing the validity of this assumption and exploring the cultural meanings of ties using traditional survey data. Employing loglinear models and a datamining technique called ‘association rules’, I analyze data from the 2004 social networks component of the General Social Survey, which gave subjects the option to classify confidants into multiple relational categories. Contrary to standard assumptions, I find that, subjects report viewing their ties multiplexly a little less than half the time. Familial labels are either perceived as intrinsically meaningful or more broadly as ‘friends’ and ‘advisors.’ Spouses are likely to be described as ‘friends’ only when they are also classified as ‘coworkers’ or ‘group members.’ ‘Friend’ and ‘advisor’ also display complex layering alongside other labels indicative of flexibility. I discuss implications of my findings for network structure and the cultural meanings of close personal ties.

In a book chapter forthcoming at the Handbook of Social Network Analysis and Culture (edited by Nick Crossley and Paul Widdop), I I make the case for making the empirical investigation of relational meaning more integral to the analysis of social networks.

I investigate the relationship between sibship-size and composition of social support networks (published at Sociological Forum and winner of ASA’s Family Section Student Paper Award in 2012). Using data from 25 countries. I find that people with fewer siblings are more likely to turn to other kin and non-kin ties for instrumental and emotional needs. Crucially, however, rather than a re-imagination of the meanings of those relationships, adjustment of support networks towards non-sibling ties generally occurs in culturally expected ways.