Relationships change over time and ties that were once significant sometimes fade or disappear from sight. Having once existed, however, these ties still hold the potential to re-emerge at a later time, mobilized like sleeper cells when circumstances or needs change.
This year, Professor Alexandra Marin received a grant from the American Sociological Association’s Fund for the Advancement of the Discipline to study the particular ways in which personal relationships change. This fund supports “small, groundbreaking research initiatives…that (have) the potential for challenging the discipline, (and/or) stimulating new lines of research…”
This project asks whether people are really gone from a social network when researchers think they are gone. It posits that people play different functions in our social lives and might shift from one function to another. For instance, we might not share important details about our lives with some people who would, nonetheless, be there with a pot of soup if we were ever really in need. Circumstances might have drawn apart people who were once close; but circumstances could also draw them together again. Without thinking of the multiple dimensions of network ties, researchers can’t understand the full potential for social support that exists in all of our personal social networks.
Professor Marin is studying this question with an innovative research method that involves asking middle-aged adults to pull out their old photo albums and talk with an interviewer about their current relationships with the people from their past. Using albums helps to catch those people that we might just have forgotten about over time. Personal support networks can be incredibly important for living healthy, socially and economically engaged lives. Understanding the ways in which relationships can shift will help us understand the full potential that personal networks have in providing social support.