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Variety of casual acquaintances affects success and health


Knowing many kinds of people in many social contexts improves one’s chance of getting a good job, developing a range of cultural interests, feeling in control of one’s life and feeling healthy. Many know how important networking is, says researcher Bonnie Erickson, but the critical matter is the variety of acquaintances and not the mere number.

Erickson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto, presents her research in an article, “Social Networks: The Value of Variety,” in the winter 2003 issue of Contexts magazine, a highly accessible science journal of the American Sociological Association.

Unlike close friends and family, informal acquaintances tend to be more diverse—both because weak ties greatly outnumber strong ones, and because our close ties are usually limited to people very similar to ourselves, according to Erickson.

“In general, every kind of social advantage tends to generate a network advantage, which in turn helps the socially advantaged stay ahead,” says Erickson. Reviewing research on people’s social networks in several countries, she found that “being of higher status goes with having a wider variety of acquaintances.”

In order to measure diversity of acquaintanceship, Erickson presented respondents with a list of occupations that range in degrees of prestige, and asked whether the respondent knew anyone in each. The greater number of occupations within which the respondent has contacts, the greater the variety in the person’s social network. Her studies take into account other characteristics, such as education and gender.

“Acquaintances are more varied, less like each other,” says Erickson, “and more likely have new information and more likely to include people highly placed enough to influence hiring. Thus family and close friends provide fewer jobs (and often worse jobs) than do people outside the intimate circle.”

More highly placed people generally have connections to higher-placed jobs. An advantage of having varied connections is an improved chance of knowing such a useful contact. Another advantage of diversified connections is their value as an ensemble, because employers seeking to fill higher positions often want people with varied connections that the firm can use.

“The more varied a person’s network, the more that network can do for the organization,” says Erickson. “Employees with more network variety got jobs with higher rank and higher income.”

In addition to job connections, Erickson researched participants in a Toronto social movement and found that people with diversified general networks were less depressed. People with more diverse contacts in the group more often felt participation had improved their health.

Acquaintances help to ensure a sense of control over one’s life. People who feel more in control are less depressed. Also a feeling of control encourages people tackle with problems, which helps to better cope with stress.

“Acquaintance diversity also contributes to being better informed about health,” says Erickson. People with wider networks are better informed about most things, but they may not realize how many of their good health practices go back to a thousand tiny nudges from casual conversations.”

In conclusion, Erickson says that diversity of acquaintanceship itself improves health and happiness. The combination of feeling in control and being better informed flow from the diversity of acquaintances. She suggests that other characteristics of network variety should be explored in addition to occupation, such as variety of gender and ethnicity.

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society

Johanna Ebner | EurekAlert!
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