ETSU researcher takes a look at social networks and what they reveal about relationships

Brandon Paykamian • Mar 27, 2019 at 6:01 PM

When most people think about social networks today, social media is often the first thing that comes to mind.

But a social network can be any kind of unit in which people interact — a place of business, a group of friends, a family, a neighborhood or a political party.

To take a closer look at how social networks affect our lives, relationships and behavior, Candace Forbes Bright, an assistant professor in the East Tennessee State University Department of Sociology and Anthropology, hosted a public talk Wednesday at ETSU’s Reece Museum titled, “Social Network Analysis and Social Determinants.”

Bright’s lecture was part of the ETSU Department of Women’s Studies “Women on Wednesdays” lecture series.

Bright, whose research often focuses on the role of social networks in health disparities, social capital and sociocultural development, said much of the data shows that the information people receive usually comes from people they know.

“Specifically, I look at smaller social networks and how we access resources through them. So how we form relationships and what that means for access to social capital and what we have around us,” she said. “In particular, I look at a lot of health networks. If there’s a coalition meeting around a health issue, what level of collaboration do they need to be effective, and how can we measure effectiveness through measuring their relationships?”

Bright took a look at how personal relationships affect behaviors like smoking, for instance. When someone is the “center” of a social network, certain behaviors like smoking can spread or change.

In 1971, 45 percent of people were smokers, and many were central in their personal social networks. By 2000, smoking went down to 21 percent.

“One of the studies I talk about is how if we’re going to change our smoking behavior — in particular, going from smoking to non-smoking — there are different spheres of influence in our life from friends to family and who has the most influence,” she said. “They’ve found the same with obesity, so with a lot of health behaviors, there’s a specific amount of influence that different people and different layers of our networks have.

“We can see that in 1971, smokers were central to the cliques within the network, and in 2000, smokers were peripheral to the cliques within the network,” she later pointed out in her lecture.

Bright also briefly touched on how social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter have changed the way in which people are influenced by others and how we interact.

“It's changed a lot, obviously. Now, with social media, if you want to find someone across the world, there’s a much different process. It’s changed how we communicate and how we relate, and we no longer have to depend on the people closest to us when we have more access to people more geographically and socially removed from us,” she said, adding that the internet has also changed how researchers gather much of the data used for social network research.

To view Bright’s full presentation or other Women on Wednesdays lectures, visit www.etsu.edu.

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