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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Personal Networks and Social Change in Northern California from 1977 to 2015

  • Author(s): Giannella, Eric Romualdo
  • Advisor(s): Fischer, Claude S
  • Fligstein, Neil D
  • et al.
No data is associated with this publication.

This dissertation examines how changes in American society over the past four decades have shaped personal networks. Specifically, it uses survey data to assess changes in the personal networks of residents of northern California in 1977-8 and 2015-6. The dissertation is organized as three papers, each considering one key way that personal networks may have changed.

The first paper examines the changing role of distance in the maintenance of personal ties. Contra popular suppositions that technology is making social interactions superficial or that technology is a panacea for social support, I find that people today are more selective about friends and family whom they rely upon, both ignoring those nearby more often and casting a wider geographic net for emotional support. I examine changes in relationships with siblings, friends, and mothers and fathers. Intimate supportive exchanges that were not strongly differentiated by proximity in the late 1970s were more likely to be conducted with individuals who live farther away by the mid-2010s. Compared to respondents of the late 1970s, mid-2010s respondents were also more likely to feel “especially close” to parents and friends who lived more than an hour away. As one may suspect, exchanges that require getting together, such as socializing or obtaining practical support, are still sustained by proximity. Overall, people use distance and technology together to exchange more with their most important ties, while allowing others to wither.

The second paper asks whether women’s greater labor force participation has led to changes in the composition of their personal networks. I find that women have gained supportive work-related ties in the last four decades compared to men. For both time periods, I identify individuals associated with work who were also named as providers of four supportive exchanges: socializing, confiding, obtaining practical help, and asking for advice. Respondents could describe these individuals as coworkers, people who did the same kind of work, or people whom they had met at work. While women in the late 1970s lagged men in forming work-related supportive ties, women today have caught up with or surpassed men. Follow-up analyses support two explanations for the shift. First, women continue to largely befriend women, not men, at work; this suggests that some of the increase in women’s supportive ties at work can be attributed to the increased presence of women in the workplace. Second, compared to men today and to women of the late 1970s, women today who are not working are much more likely to interact with people associated with work. This suggests that women are better able than men to maintain work-related ties.

Paper three considers whether changing gender roles and norms at home and at work have led men’s and women’s personal networks to become more similar. Demographic changes such as women’s increasing and men’s decreasing labor force participation and related cultural changes such as more egalitarian beliefs about the division of labor in the household would suggest some convergence in the characteristics of men’s and women’s personal networks. Research on personal networks often emphasizes differences between men and women in terms of kin involvement, access to nonkin resources, emotional intimacy, and overall burdens and support. In each of the four areas mentioned, I find some evidence of convergence. The gap between men and women has decreased in terms of the number of kin they consider close, their willingness to confide, their ties to adult children, their overall network burdens, and access to people from work contexts. In the only instances of divergence, women pulled ahead of men in terms of access to advice from nonkin and, it seems, became even more likely than men to serve as confidants. In other ways the networks of men and women remained distinctive. I argue that the overall picture is one of partial convergence and that we ought to view some of the differences typically associated with men and women’s networks as products of their time.

In sum, the papers suggest that there are substantively significant and statistically measureable changes in the personal networks of Americans in the last four decades, particularly in terms of the balancing of men’s and women’s networks and in terms of using technology to maintain important ties regardless of distance.

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This item is under embargo until November 2, 2020.