Social Support Networks Essay

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Broadly defined, the term social support network is used throughout the field of interpersonal violence to indicate instances where one person’s welfare is dependent upon the nature and extent of positive relationships the person has with others. For example, victims of crime who suffer from physical and emotional stress often rely on the comfort and encouragement of others in order to cope successfully with a loss that has occurred. Similarly, law enforcement officers rely on the assistance of other officers in order to deal with the everyday stress of managing situations of conflict. As a final example, perpetrators of violence frequently are assessed as to whether they have adequate personal contacts to meet treatment and rehabilitation goals. Thus, uses of the term social support network can range from the therapeutic contexts of personally strengthening one who has been weakened by adversity to the everyday care provided by one’s peers.

Describing Social Support Networks

Technically defined, a social support network refers to the provision of help offered through one’s set of social contacts. Consisting of family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and anybody else who plays a meaningful role in providing necessary assistance, a social support network is in direct contrast to the more formal support offered through professional medicine, counseling, education, and other traditional helping professions. Indeed, the existence and nature of informal social support networks is often seen as a beneficial adjunct within more formal helping plans. Depending on the purpose, social support networks may be analyzed from the perspective of an individual or independently as a free-standing group. For example, in order to assess an individual victim’s chances of coping in the aftermath of a crime, a therapist might attempt to identify those within the victim’s social support network who could provide the necessary supports (e.g., financial, emotional, spiritual, mental health) for the resumption of daily functioning. The chance of a positive therapeutic outcome increases with size and skills of the group as well as the interconnectivity among network members. Alternatively, any group of interconnected persons (e.g., police department, office workers) could be analyzed according to how integrated the group is and how likely members are to come to one another’s assistance in times of need. Measures of integration usually include assessment of how much contact occurs within the group, the existence of specific relationships within the group (e.g., family, friends), the degree of reciprocal exchange among members, and the strength of the ties (ranging from voluntary to intimate) between members.

An Ecological Context For Social Support Networks

Social support networks are best understood within an ecological context. For children and adults, the immediate and extended family represent the first instances of available social support and often are the most important means to facilitate daily life. The physical proximity of peer groups as well as participation in social institutions such as schools, workplaces, churches, and voluntary associations additionally impacts the creation of social support networks. Finally, the culture in which one resides provides expectations of both providing and receiving social support. For example, some cultures place a high value on self-sufficiency, whereas other cultures more highly prize reciprocal caregiving. Ecological contexts that provide numerous opportunities for people to connect in meaningful ways with one another are more likely to produce viable social support networks.

Measurement Of Social Support

The study of social support is often inclusive within the study of social support networks. Because social support is a construct that is studied by many disciplines, there is no consensus on a universal definition or measurement. In examining how social support has been studied across disciplines, the instruments used to measure social support generally fall into one of two categories: those that measure structure and those that measure function. Structural measures of social support assess the number and nature of social connections one has to others. For example, structural measures of social support might assess how many friends one has, the strength of the friendships, and the contexts from which those friendships arise (e.g., workplace, neighborhood, voluntary association). In contrast, functional measures of social support assess the purpose served by the social relationship. For example, functional measures of social support might focus on the different types of support (e.g., emotional, mental health, spiritual) available. Combining structural and functional measures of social support provides the most comprehensive picture of personal support available from one’s ties to others.

Perceived And Received Social Support

Within the academic study of social support, a good deal of research has focused on the distinction between perceived social support and received social support. Perceived social support refers to subjective perceptions regarding the availability of support. Not surprisingly, the operational definition of perceived social support varies across studies and has been influenced by the context in which the subject has been assessed. In contrast to the assessment of perceived social support, there has been some uniformity in the measure of received social support. Received social support refers to a measure of the specific supportive behaviors that have been personally received. A commonly used instrument to measure received social support is the Inventory of Socially Supportive Behaviors, a 40-item survey that measures the nature of support received from natural helpers (e.g., family and friends). How perceived and received social support interact with one another is unclear, and the exact nature of the relationship between the two concepts has yet to be determined.


  1. Barrera, M., Sandler, I., & Ramsay, T. (1981). Preliminary development of a scale of social support: Studies on college students. American Journal of Community Psychology, 9, 435–447.
  2. Uchino, B. N. (2004). Social support and physical health: Understanding the consequences of relationships. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  3. Whittaker, J. K., & Garbarino, J. (Eds.). (1983). Social support networks: Informal helping in the human services. New York: Aldine.

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