Social networks, or the kin, friends, and other close associates of primary partners (e.g., spouses), can have important influences on the internal character of a marriage or family. Elizabeth Bott (1971) was among the first to recognize this connection in a study conducted in the early 1950s that involved extensive inter views with 20 London families. In a now classic hypothesis, she argued that: ‘‘The degree of segregation in the role relationship of husband and wife varies directly with the connectedness of the family’s social network’’ (p. 60). Spouses with separate networks, where members knew one another (i.e., highly interconnected or dense networks), were thought to have relatively separate conjugal roles, to perform household labor separately, and to engage in separate leisure activities. In contrast, spouses with low density networks were thought to have relatively joint conjugal roles and leisure activities.
Bott proposed two causal pathways linking network structure with marital outcomes. In the first model, Bott hypothesized that highly interconnected networks would be more apt to share similar values and beliefs regarding conjugal roles relative to loosely connected networks. Consistent norms develop when members of local communities know and interact with one another and are therefore capable of sharing beliefs, conformity, and sanctions. Bott hypothesized a direct path, with network structure determining the strength of normative influence. The specific norm of interest concerned the segregation of conjugal roles. Highly interconnected networks should adopt a consistent gender based ideology, with husbands and wives having very separate responsibilities for decision making, household labor, and child care, as well as separate personal associates and leisure interests. Loosely connected networks are less predictable. Without the coordinated influence of network members, spouses are freer to adopt their own arrangement of roles and responsibilities and accordingly they may adopt separate or joint conjugal roles.
The strength of this first model rests on the recognition that relationship outcomes (e.g., the interactions between spouses and the outcomes of those interactions) are affected by the ties linking network members (i.e., conditions existing apart from spouses’ relationship to one another), with the vehicle of influence being a system of normative beliefs. This is an important contribution because it represents the first concrete attempt to define social structure and normative influence in terms of the patterned interconnection of people, and subsequently to quantify the degree of structure in relational terms. It contrasts sharply with traditional conceptualizations of social structure based on categorical memberships like sex, race, or class, conceptualizations from which structure can be only inferred. On the other hand, a sharp limitation of the model is a failure to explain why a network would subscribe to one belief, such as role segregation or patriarchal norms, rather than any other. The underlying model can be usefully restated by simply treating the specific beliefs, norms, and their attendant sanctions as variable. Whether a particular network shares patriarchal views or egalitarian views is critical to the outcome, but not the structural condition giving rise to the outcome. Greater structural interdependence (e.g., high density) gives rise to more homogeneous attitudes and beliefs on the part of network members, and the potential for coordinated influence. Highly structured networks where members know and interact with one another have greater influence, as Bott initially argued.
Yet another way in which Bott suggested conjugal roles are linked to social networks con cerns the exchange of mutual support, including both instrumental supports (e.g., money, direct aid) and symbolic supports (e.g., love, positive regard). Members of dense networks will provide considerable aid to one another, a system of mutual exchange that is possible only to the extent that members know and interact with one another. In dense networks mutual assistance among members is presumed to be high, and as a consequence spouses will have less need for one another’s practical aid and companion ship, and segregated marital roles emerge. In contrast, in more loosely structured networks, members are less likely to know one another and the network’s ability to coordinate mutual aid is limited, so spouses must rely more fully on one another, creating the conditions for joint conjugal roles to emerge.
The Bott hypotheses have engendered considerable research interest, particularly because they offered non intuitive explanations of marital action located in a social context. A recent review uncovered 14 studies that attempted to examine the link between network structure and the organization of conjugal roles (Milardo & Allan 2000). The original hypothesis has not been widely supported, although no study to date has directly tested the causal models underlying Bott’s original hypothesis, and nearly all of these empirical tests have stumbled upon the inherent difficulty in defining a network, identifying its constituency, and quantifying its structure.
Nonetheless, Bott’s work influenced several generations of network theory that included refinements in the way networks are defined and measured (Milardo 1992). Substantial advances have also been made in the conceptualization of particular properties of network structure all of which center on the organization of ties linking members to one another. They share the common attribute of describing links between network members apart from their ties to spouses and, as a result, benefit from two distinct advantages. Attributes of network structure are essentially highly refined, quantifiable indices of local social structure that are relationally based. They per mit a means to examine the pathways by which basic processes like normative influence and social sanctions, social support, and social interference develop and exert their influence. In the coming decade research will likely explore in greater detail representations of personal networks and their structural features, the potential causal pathways linking network structure with relationship outcomes, and the precise influence of kin, friends, co-workers, and other acquaintances on primary partner ships.
- Bott, E. (1971) Family and Social Network, 2ndedn. Free Press, New York.
- Helms, H. M., Crouter, A. C., & McHale, S. M.(2003) Marital Quality and Spouses’ Marriage Work With Close Friends and Each Other. Journal of Marriage and Family 65: 963 77.
- Julien, D., Chartrand, E., & Begin, J. (1999) Social Networks, Structural Interdependence and Conjugal Adjustment in Heterosexual, Gay and Lesbian Couples. Journal of Marriage and the Family 61: 516 30.
- Milardo, R. M. (1992) Comparative Methods for Delineating Social Networks. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 9: 447 61.
- Milardo, R. M. & Allan, G. (2000) Social Networks and Marital Relationships. In: Milardo, R. & Duck, S. (Eds.), Families as Relationships. Wiley, London, pp. 117 33.
- Schmeeckle, M. & Sprecher, S. (2004) Extended Family and Social Networks. In: Vangelisti, A. L. (Ed.), Handbook of Family Communication. Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, pp. 349 75.