Too much diversity lowers social trust

Social relationships, social capital and social networks - a conceptual classification

Social Networks and Health Inequalities pp 33-48 | Cite as

  • Nico Vonneilich
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Social relationships are a central subject of sociology and can therefore look back on a long tradition of research. Over the years, sociological (and other scientifically related) research has dealt with social relationships from different perspectives, and a wealth of terminology has emerged, from social support to social capital and social cohesion to social networks. The aim of the chapter is to give an overview of central concepts and their theoretical location, to differentiate and organize them. In this way, a conceptual foundation is to be laid for the other chapters of this volume.


  • The terms social support, social capital, social cohesion and social network are defined and distinguished from one another.

  • Overlapping and peculiarities of the respective concepts are worked out and should contribute to a conceptual precision and a better understanding of the research field.

  • Social networks can be described both at the level of individual individuals (micro) and at the level of groups and communities (meso / macro level).

  • Social network theories include both quantitative aspects of social relationships (structure) and qualitative aspects (function).

1 Introduction and Background

Social relationships are a core area of ​​sociology, its basic structure. Without social relationships, there are no social connections. The study of social relationships can look back on a long research tradition and this is continued in constantly differentiating and specializing subsystems. The aim of this chapter is to give a brief overview of the research traditions on social relationships. In particular, the aim is to clarify the terms and, where possible, to differentiate between different concepts that have been developed in the course of dealing with social relationships in sociology and other related disciplines (such as social psychology). Why is such a delimitation and classification necessary? When dealing with research work on the subject of social relationships, it can be determined that different terms are used synonymously and that originally intended delimitations between one another become blurred over time. The present chapter is based on the following key questions: What terms are used in sociological research on social relationships? How are these defined? And how can an overarching concept for social networks emerge from these different terms? The field of research on social relationships is broad and is the subject of many disciplines. It ranges from sociology to social psychology, from economics to public health to epidemiology, without this being a complete list of all subjects and research priorities that deal with this topic. The scientific consideration of social relationships has a longer history in sociology: it stretches from Durkheim's well-known work on suicide (Durkheim 1993, original 1897), to Parson's functionalist social analysis (Parsons 1951), which observes the values ​​and norms underlying social interactions to Bourdieu's theories of capital and his analyzes of social differentiation (Bourdieu 1994). The resulting conceptual diversity is definitely desired and testifies to the plurality of research activities. This ranges from social capital to social cohesion and social networks. At the same time, however, such a differentiation is problematic if the terms and the underlying concepts overlap or are used synonymously without clear definitions and delimitations being associated with them (Holt-Lunstad et al. 2010; Berkman and Krishna 2014). Berkman and Glass succinctly summarize this as follows: "When investigators write about the impact of social relationships on health, many terms are used loosely and interchangeably, including social networks, social support, social ties and social integration" (Berkman and Glass 2000, p. 137). The aim of the following overview is to classify the terms and to differentiate them from one another, to sketch their origins in order to be able to describe and discuss connections with health based on this.

In the context of this chapter, social relationships serve as a generic term for a whole range of different concepts for describing social interaction in societies. Different features can be differentiated. In this way, the quantity and quality of social relationships can basically be distinguished. Quantity is to be understood as the number of different social contacts or the frequency of social contacts. A certain quality can be ascribed to every social contact. How are these contacts made or which resources can be reached via these contacts? Social contacts are a prerequisite for the exchange of resources and social support. However, it cannot necessarily be assumed that an increasing number of social contacts goes hand in hand with an increasing availability of resources and support services. Not every person within a social structure enables access to resources.

Another possibility of differentiation arises from the level at which social relationships can be classified. While on the Micro-level social relationships of an individual are examined, it is on the Meso-level (Institutional) networks, for example of municipalities, municipalities, districts or schools, and accordingly on the macro-level Countries and states. The latter is often measured on the basis of indicators for trust, norms or state institutions, which will be discussed below.

Based on this fundamental differentiation, central terms such as social support, social capital, social cohesion and social networks will be introduced and discussed below.

2 Clarification of the terminology

2.1 Social support

The central qualitative dimension at the micro level of social relationships is social support. Without social contacts, without being embedded in social networks, there can be no social support. If the number and frequency of social contacts are a measure of the quantity of social relationships, then social support is a measure of the quality of these relationships. In support research, a distinction is made between objective and subjective aspects of support (Turner and Marino 1994). It could be shown that not only the support actually received is relevant, but that the subjectively perceived support plays a central role, especially in connection with (mental) health. Even the feeling of having social support in an emergency can mitigate the negative effects of acute stress without actually using support (Cobb 1976; House et al. 1988; Turner and Marino 1994; Uchino 2009). In addition, only minor correlations were found between actually received and subjectively perceived support, which suggests that these can be viewed as relatively independent constructs (Barrera 1986; Lakey and Cohen 2000). This functional aspect of social relationships usually includes forms of support on an emotional, instrumental and informational level.

Emotional support refers to those social contacts who are available for discussions about one's own feelings, which can contribute to the discussion of everyday fears and worries or also offer confirmation of sympathy and affection (see Tab. 1, also Lin et al. 1999) . Instrumental support, on the other hand, includes those forms of support that are characterized by practical help - for example in the household, with childcare or by lending money or other goods. With informational support, all those services are recorded that make knowledge available for solving certain problems or knowledge about access to certain resources, for example within communities. Tab. 1 gives a brief description of different aspects of social support, based on Wills and Shinar (2000).
Tab. 1

Different functions of social support according to Wills and Shinar (2000)

An important basic principle on the basis of which different forms of social support can come about is that social reciprocity (Siegrist and Wahrendorf 2016). This means that people expect a corresponding consideration for a certain service provided (principle of reciprocity). It is this expectation that makes many forms of social interaction possible in the first place. A consideration does not have to be in the same form as the service received, but should be perceived as adequate and similar. For example, if you provide assistance to acquaintances with a move (instrumental support), you can expect to receive a similar service if necessary. If these expectations are not met, the norm of reciprocity is violated and lasting social exchange is less likely. Depending on the relationship in which you are with other people, the norm of reciprocity can change. For example, within the family, for close friends or relatives, one is more willing to provide a service without expecting a corresponding (immediate) consideration in time. The generalized reciprocity means that individual services are not reciprocated accordingly. Rather, a general reciprocal behavior can be expected at a significantly later point in time. A classic example of this would be the parent-child relationship, in which parents provide support for their children without reciprocating directly. In return, parents may expect appropriate support from their children at an advanced age. The research approach to social support focuses strongly on the individual level, it asks about forms of support which are available to individuals. However, since the structural aspect is lost due to the concentration on the individual, science has repeatedly suggested that the overall structure of the networks should also be examined in order to be able to work out the structural nature of individual support services and options (Holt-Lunstad 2010; Berkman 2014). The focus here is on how social relationships must be created so that social support can take place. Which factors within social relationships require social support, which are more of a hindrance? Can structural features of social support be identified? An analysis that focuses too much on individual support is difficult to answer.

2.2 Social capital

Social capital as an object of investigation can be located in various specialist disciplines (sociology, economics, social psychology, political science). The following can be identified as the central commonalities of different concepts of social capital (Berkman and Krishna 2014; Kawachi and Berkman 2014). Social capital is understood as a resource (1) which is not produced by individuals, but only arises through social interaction with others (2). In sociology, two research traditions can be roughly distinguished. On the one hand, a rather French research tradition, particularly shaped by the work of Pierre Bourdieu. On the other hand, a more American branch of research, especially James Coleman and Robert Putnam.

According to Bourdieu's theory of capital, in addition to economic capital, cultural and social capital is also available. Social capital means that access to resources can be made possible through social relationships (Bourdieu 1994). Individuals can also invest specifically in these social relationships in order to gain access to social capital, which in turn can affect the other forms of capital. It is supported by a "[...] Competition between investments in social capital and other capital [...]“Spoken (Lüdicke and Diewald 2007, p. 15). Social capital is viewed as a characteristic of individual individuals who can trade with or through it.

The approaches of Coleman (1990) and Putnam differ in their approach from Bourdieu in that social capital is understood more as a property of social networks and accordingly the emphasis is on the interpersonal level. "Unlike other forms of capital, social capital inheres in the structure of relations between actors and among actors" (Coleman 1990, p. 98). This North American tradition develops its understanding of social capital from studying social networks. In the foreground is the question of how and under what conditions social capital is formed in social networks (Lin 2000).

Looking at social capital at the micro level of individuals, there is an overlap with both the concept of social support and social networks. Social support is usually based on close, rather stronger social relationships. The concept of social capital, on the other hand, distinguishes between strong and weak relationships and sees the possibilities of weaker relationships to provide new information and resources and is closely based on the concept of social networks. This was under the catchphrase strength of weak ties discussed (Granovetter 1973; Putnam 1995). This thesis developed by Granovetter says that it is precisely the relationships that are frequently frequented, close and with higher intensity (also known as bonding social capital can provide relevant resources, such as access to the labor market, but that this can be made possible through contacts that can be characterized by lower contact frequencies and low intensity. This as bridging social capital (bridging social capital) are characterized by the fact that they are established across different social groups and that they increase the probability of access to certain resources (Lin et al. 1999). In contrast, it is the closer contacts that tend to provide instrumental and emotional support (Dahl et al. 2010).

Viewed at the meso or macro level, social capital can be defined as a property of social groups as well as a characteristic of living spaces. Based on the recording of individual assessments such as reciprocity and trust in the respective living environment (e.g. neighborhood, district), on social and voluntary commitment as well as general attitudes to groups or living spaces, indices are formed on an aggregate level, which indicate the extent reflect social capital and be used accordingly as a characteristic of groups or delimited spaces. The basic assumption here is that only through experienced reciprocity and trust as well as on shared values ​​and norms does regular interaction arise, which in turn enables access to resources within groups and social capital can arise (Putnam 1995; Ichida et al. 2009; Dahl et al . 2010). According to the theory, the higher the level of trust in one's own living environment, the more likely it is that stable social relationships in which social capital is available will develop. A large number of studies have been able to confirm such relationships (see Airaksinen et al. 2015; Pickett and Pearl 2001).

2.3 Social cohesion

Another term that is mentioned again and again in connection with the investigation of social relationships within delimited spaces is social cohesion. This primarily describes subjective assessments of connections between members within social groups. There is some degree of social cohesion within each group. Basically, you can choose between structural cohesion (structural cohesion) as well as the sense of belonging of the individual members (perceived cohesion, sense of togetherness) (Bollen and Hoyle 1990). By emphasizing the feeling of belonging, which implicitly also includes values ​​and norms that are shared, closes the concept of perceived social cohesion closely related to the concept of social capital.

A high structural social cohesion means that the members of a certain group are closely connected to one another.The greatest cohesion within a group is therefore achieved when every member of a network is directly connected to every other member, and low cohesion when many members of a network are only loosely and indirectly connected to one another. The subjective cohesion does not have to correspond to the structural cohesion, because these can differ from one another. Social cohesion is described as a characteristic of groups or spatial areas and can therefore be assigned to the meso and macro perspective of social relationships.

Social cohesion is often measured using subjective assessments. The focus is on individual assessments and perceptions of the respective groups as well as actual activities of the individuals within the groups. Strong cohesion within social groups is more often associated with greater internal social control, while such groups remain relatively closed to the outside world (Kawachi and Berkman 2014). Examples of such cohesive groups are found among immigrants who form strong bonds with one another because of their ethnicity, e.g. B. due to linguistic barriers, but remain relatively closed to the outside world. The same applies to highly networked neighborhoods or village communities.

The concept of perceived social cohesion was criticized because it has a lot of overlap compared to social capital and there are no clear unique selling points for this concept. However, since the recording of extensive structures of social capital in communities or neighborhoods in particular is very time-consuming and difficult to carry out, perceived social cohesion can be understood as an alternative form of recording and is justified by its methodological feasibility and less because of its theoretical location.

Both terms, both social capital and social cohesion, harbor the possibility of negative processes within social groups. These include social exclusion, stigma, discrimination and other negative effects of social relationships such as ongoing conflict. A high degree of social cohesion and close networking among members also includes the possibility of excluding non-members (see Kawachi and Berkman 2014). In addition, groups with high social cohesion tend to have little contact with other groups. Contacts between different groups can support positive attitudes towards others, and prejudices and negative attitudes are more likely to be reduced. This was examined in particular in the context of different ethnic groups (Laurence and Bentley 2016; Hewstone 2015) and discussed in the light of two different theories (conflict theory Putnam 2007, intergroup contact theory Brown and Hewstone 2005). A lack of social contact between groups can lead to negative attitudes. Further information on negative aspects of social relationships can be found in Chap. "Negative aspects of relationships and health inequalities".

2.4 Social networks

Finally, the term social networks will be explained in more detail below. Sociological network analysis is interested in relationships between individuals and in the properties of these relationships, more than in the properties of the individuals themselves. The basic idea is that individuals do not act independently, but that these actions are embedded in a network of interpersonal relationships (Burt 1982). The focus is not only on the relationship between the ego, i.e. the central actor from whom the observation of the network is based, and various alteri, i.e. reference persons of ego in the network under consideration, but rather the network analysis is about examining an entire network of relationships . Because the relationship between the ego and the alteri is also influenced by the relationships between the alteri, which in turn are indirectly connected to the ego. Social interaction and social processes cannot be explained solely through the characteristics of the individual, but through their integration into a social environment (Häußling 2010). In order to illustrate these social relationships, graphic network models are developed that make the relationships visible. With the view of network research, one quickly leaves the micro-perspective of the individual towards a meso-level, which makes the interdependence of individuals and groups visible. An important basic idea in network research is that not only the position of an individual within a social network can be identified, but also the possibilities for contact, influence and control within networks can be analyzed by revealing the structures of a network. These structures, which can be described using network-theoretical terms such as nodes, density, centrality and position, are used to describe social phenomena (Holzer 2009). An explanation of the different terms can be found in Chap. "Network theory (s)". The complexity of social networks results from the various possible forms and types of interaction between individuals and groups.

In addition, social networks can be differentiated according to their respective character, which can be of a formal nature if they are organizations and associations, or informal if they are personal, family or friendly networks and contacts. Furthermore, a differentiation according to frequency, according to intensity as well as according to size and range of the networks, the extension, is possible. Early (sociological) network research focused primarily on these more quantitative aspects of social relationships. Here the concept of social networks overlaps with the concept of social integration. According to a definition by Laireiter (1993), social integration can be understood as the integration of individuals into social groups, associations or voluntary organizations, as the number of social contacts with family, relatives and friends, and the availability and access to social and interpersonal resources. At the same time, social integration refers to norms and values ​​as an orientation for individual actions that arise and are perpetuated by social interaction. Numerous indicators have been developed to measure the degree of social integration within social networks. For example, from the social epidemiological research of the Social Integration Index von Berkman or the Social Connection Index by Kaplan (Berkman and Syme 1979; Kaplan et al. 1977). More recently, network research has also increasingly tried to expand the previous, rather quantitative understanding of social networks and also to include qualitative aspects in the research of social networks, for example by including the availability of resources or shared norms and values ​​within networks Be considered (Henning and Kohl 2011).

What the sociological investigation of social networks has largely lacked so far is an independent theory (Holzer 2009). There are points of contact Rational choice- Approaches as well as structuralist social theories, including systems theory, can be used to establish connections for the investigation of social networks. In network research, formal and methodological questions are in the foreground, less the development of a common theoretical basis. In previous work, this lack of superordinate theory was also referred to as structural intuition referred to in network theory (Freeman 2004). Holzer emphasizes this in his contribution to network theory as follows: "In order to be able to take the decisive step from network analysis to network theory, however, the special constitutional conditions [of network analysis] must be taken into account" (Holzer 2009, p. 264). This statement refers to the fact that previous approaches of a network theory have found favor in various scientific disciplines, such as physics, biology, psychology and sociology, but these respective approaches cannot always be transferred to other areas and make a common theoretical foundation accordingly difficult . So far, there are only a few approaches that attempt, on the basis of theoretical considerations, to fill the relational analysis with cultural and symbolic aspects in order to make actions and interactions explainable (White 1995; Gibson 2005; Fuhse 2008). The theoretical background and methodological aspects of network research are discussed in more detail in Chap. "Network analysis" received.

The authors of this anthology are based on a common understanding of social networks, which is different from the terms described so far or which consciously includes individual aspects of different definitions of social relationships. Accordingly, social networks are initially more than the social contacts of an individual. Social networks stand out from social integration when they allow statements about the structure of social contacts, i.e. also make the networking of the Alteri visible through the individual social contacts. Such a network term goes beyond the understanding of networks such as in the above indices (e.g. Social Network Index) clearly out. With regard to social capital, the term social network is delimited in that it not only describes which resources or norms and values ​​are available in certain groups, but also focuses on how these arise and are reproduced and which patterns enable or prevent certain resources of social networks. Such a network term asks about the structural conditionality of social support and can thus complement research on social support, as this, with a focus on individual support forms and patterns, neglects the social structure behind the perceived or actual support, as was shown at the beginning. Social cohesion can help to describe the interconnectedness of social networks and is already established in this function in network theory.

3 Summary and Outlook

The aim of this article is to clarify and organize the different terms used in research on social relationships. In health and medical sociology in particular, social capital, social networks and social support have become established as concepts in research on all aspects of social relationships, partly independently of one another, partly closely linked. A recurring accusation in this research area is that terms are unclearly defined or used synonymously, which does not help to clarify the respective terms.

Based on a conceptual clarification, a common term for social networks is to be developed. A comprehensive understanding of social networks encompasses both quantitative and qualitative aspects of social relationships. First of all, social networks represent the structure within which social support and social integration can take place. By their nature, social networks enable or prevent the emergence and spread of social capital. Using social networks, it is possible to show the structural nature of social support, the degree to which individuals are in contact with one another, how far these relationships extend and how long-term they are. Qualitative aspects can also be recorded: the intensity of the interactions, the available resources between network members or the norms and values ​​and their correspondence within networks allow conclusions to be drawn about the quality of the networks. In this respect, aspects of social capital also flow into such an understanding, in which it is postulated that not only the close contacts provide resources, but that this can happen especially through weak connections (weak ties).

Networks can also be analyzed at different levels. At a micro level, contacts between the ego and various alteri can be analyzed, in which the connections between the alteri are also recorded. Such an understanding goes beyond simply recording social contacts. At a meso level, these networks can be measured for larger groups or small-scale areas such as schools or neighborhoods. From such a perspective, conclusions can be drawn about connections between networks. The main disadvantage of such a comprehensive understanding of social networks is the methodological effort that is necessary to record social networks (see chapter "Network analysis").

The aspect of measuring and collecting such comprehensively understood social networks is an important aspect of the present work. Much of the work to date, especially in connection with the investigation of health inequalities, has not been able to meet the demands of complex social networks, as it often focuses on quantitative aspects of social networks (e.g. the number of contacts) or on social support without taking other members of the social network into account Have concentrated networks (Alteri). For a complex analysis of social networks in connection with health inequalities, in addition to a common conceptual understanding, there is also a lack of corresponding data. At this point, this anthology is intended to show which possibilities for research on health inequalities could arise from a more complex understanding of social networks and at which “gaps” of previous research new findings could be expected.

Reading recommendations

Berkman, L. F., & Krishna, A. (2014). Social Network Epidemiology. In L.F. Berkman & I. Kawachi (eds.), Social Epidemiology (Pp. 234-289). Oxford: University Press. Fundamental and well-founded preparation of the topic “Social Networks and Health”, both theoretical basics and empirical connections are presented.

Henning, M., & Kohl, S. (2011). Framework and scope for social relationships. On the influence of habitus on the formation of network structures. Wiesbaden: VS. Good overview work on the theoretical localization of social relationships.

Kawachi, I., Berkman, L. (2014). Social Cohesion, Social Capital, and Health. In L. Berkman & I. Kawachi (eds.), Social Epidemiology (Pp. 290-319). Oxford: University Press. Very well-founded and detailed overview work on the subject of "Social Capital and Health".


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Medical Sociology, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany