Social Networks, Role in Relationship Initiation

Malcolm R Parks. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Editor: Harry T Reis & Susan Sprecher. 2009. Sage Publication.

Social network perspectives have much to contribute to our understanding of why some people meet and others do not and why some who meet go on to develop a personal relationship and others do not. Although the forces that bring people together are often treated as a matter of chance or destiny, research has shown that social network factors play two important roles in this process. First, they help determine who meets whom. Second, they provide a set of resources or affor-dances that people employ to create first meetings and facilitate the initial development of relationships. To set these network factors in context, it is helpful first to consider the cultural notion of chance and choice in relationship initiation and, second, the adequacy of traditional social scientific approaches to relationship initiation.

Choice and Chance in Relationship Initiation

Human cultures vary in the degree to which they attempt to regulate contact between strangers. The clearest examples of this can be found in the regulation of contact between unattached men and women who might become sexual partners. In many cultures and groups, relationship initiation is heavily regulated by norms about contact between opposite-sex strangers, as well as mechanisms for sexual segregation and surveillance. When young women and men meet, they meet in a relatively “closed field” that is actively managed by the families and institutions to which they belong.

In other cultures, particularly contemporary European-American cultures, relationship initiation is widely presumed to occur in an “open field,” in which individual choice is maximized and larger social influences are minimized. The romantic literature of these cultures celebrates the role of chance or “destiny” in human encounters, although it frequently contains cautionary tales regarding the risks of consorting with strangers as well.

Two things are apparent when we look across the continuum from “closed” to “open” relational fields. First, although cultures differ, all are concerned to one degree or another with regulating contact between strangers, and all have complex literary and cultural traditions regarding the virtues and risks of such meetings. Second, although some cultures regulate relational initiation to a greater degree and more explicitly than others, there is no such thing as a pure “open field” when it comes to relational choices. That is, whom we meet and who is judged to be a potential relational partner is never solely a matter of chance or choice. There are other factors at work even in the most open of cultures. Before looking at those, it is useful to consider how the myth of the open field has limited our understanding of relationship initiation.

Blind Spots in the Study of Relationship Initiation

Until recently, researchers typically sought to examine relationship initiation by asking arbitrarily selected strangers to interact in a laboratory setting. Sometimes they were not even asked to interact. In one popular technique, for example, subjects were asked to form impressions or make relational choices based on extremely limited information—such as pictures or brief printed descriptions of others’ attitudes. This was called the phantom-other technique because there wasn’t actually another person with whom subjects interacted. Subjects in these stripped-down situations naturally used the few scraps of information they were given, but how they did so probably tells us little about how people seek and use information in real settings.

Studies that track naturally occurring relationships over time or compare relationships at different stages of development are more informative. Unfortunately, nearly all of these studies start with established relationships because participants usually elect to report on their more established relationships, rather than on their more tentative, early stage relationships. If we are to understand how relationships begin, we must therefore catch them as early as possible and in their natural setting. Fortunately, there is research that speaks to these issues of timing and context in a general way. This is the research on social norms and physical proximity.

Norms of Relationship Initiation

Researchers view relationship initiation as a screening process—winnowing a comparative large “field of availables” to a narrower “field of eligibles” and then to a still narrower “field of desirables.” Some aspects of the selection process are idiosyncratic, but others reflect broader social norms within the individual’s group regarding who is an appropriate and desirable partner.

The most powerful of these is the norm of similarity or homogamy. When it comes to selecting mate or friends, selection favors those who are similar in terms of age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, and religion. These factors are not equally important in every relationship, but research has consistently demonstrated that people draw on norms of similarity when selecting partners for interaction and when deciding whether they wish to pursue a closer relationship.

Norms have influence because they are widely diffused throughout the individual’s social group. The more frequently a norm is referenced or enacted within the group’s social network, the more influence it will have. Conversely, if the network becomes fragmented or the opportunities to enact norms are restricted, then the impact of the norm on relationship initiation is diminished. Thus, the power of social norms in relationship initiation implicitly depends on the activity and structure of the group’s social network.

Physical Proximity and Relationship Initiation

Physical proximity is undoubtedly the most widely recognized factor accounting for why some people meet and others do not. Put simply, one is more likely to meet and begin a relationship with someone nearby than with someone not so near. Research dating back to the 1930s has consistently documented the effects of physical proximity. Apartment dwellers are more likely to become friends with others who live on their floor than with those who live on other floors. Homeowners are more likely to become friends with the neighbors who live next door than with those who live several houses away. Workers are more likely to strike up a relationship with those who work in close proximity than with those who work in other areas of a plant or office.

Physical proximity offers such a commonsense account for why people meet that researchers rarely question it. However, there are a number of problems with physical proximity as an explanation for relationship initiation. First, the findings of the early research were often not as conclusive as we might think. Although they showed that people who lived within a few blocks of each other were more likely to become friends or marry, a large minority of the relational partners examined in these studies were not in close proximity. In some cases, researchers overestimated proximity effects because they did not count people who met while living in different cities.

Second, physical proximity cannot account for differences within the same geographic radius. Demonstrating that many of those who become friends or romantic partners live within a few blocks of one another does not explain why those particular people connected while others within the same area did not.

Finally, advances in transportation and communication technology over the past 50 years have steadily reduced the importance of proximity as a basis for relationships. In many cases, physical proximity is no longer even a necessary condition for relationship initiation. Computer-mediated communication now makes it possible for people to establish relationships, often close ones, without reference to physical location.

Social Proximity and Relationship Initiation

In social networks, people are directly linked to those they know, but indirectly linked to many others. In fact, nearly everyone is linked to nearly everyone else, although a relatively small number of indirect links. This has been called the “small world” effect, and it accounts for why total strangers often find that they have common acquaintances.

The pattern of social linkages among any large group of people is in a constant state of flux. Some people are pushed further from one another in social space as the number of links separating them increases. Others are carried toward one another as the number of links separating them decreases. Being carried toward one another in social space during the time before individuals actually meet defines a sort of prehistory of relationships. Imagine, for instance, that we could go back in time to visualize changes in the networks containing two individuals who will someday meet and marry. Early on, they might be separated by many links, but as time moved forward, we would see that the number of links separating them steadily decreased. At some point, they were separated by just one or two links. They probably have now become members of at least some of the same groups and have started to share at least some of the same values, attitudes, and expectations. They may become aware of each other through their common contacts and at some point meet for the first time.

These shifts in network structure create “social proximity effects.” As the number of links separating any two people decreases, the probability of meeting increases. Although it is difficult to document social proximity effects in large social networks, several lines of research point to their existence and illustrate the role they play in relationship initiation. Structural sociologists have shown that patterns of liking tend to be transitive in groups. That is, if A likes B and B likes C, then A will come to like C. Other researchers have shown that this transitivity of liking helps predict friendships over time. Two people are more likely to become friends if they already have a friend in common.

Social proximity effects imply that people who become friends or romantic partners should have had one or more common contacts prior to meeting for the first time. Using a national sample of married and cohabitating couples in the Netherlands, Matthijs Kalmijn and Henk Flap found that almost 50 percent had common friends before they met, and a bit more than 14 percent said that members of their immediate families had known each other before they met for the first time.

Further evidence of social proximity effects comes from a series of studies by Malcolm Parks, who examined the relational prehistories of 858 individuals involved in opposite-sex romantic relationships or same-sex friendships. Respondents were asked which of their partner’s 12 closest friends and family they had met prior to meeting their partner for the first time. Two thirds (66.3 percent) had met at least one member of their partner’s network of family and close friends prior to meeting their partners for the first time. Close to half (47.3 percent) had met between one and three members of the partner’s close circle before meeting the partner, and nearly 20 percent had met more. Social proximity effects occurred equally for men and women and across age groups. Interestingly, however, people in romantic relationships reported that they had prior contact with almost twice as many people in their prospective partner’s network as people in same-sex friendships. It appears that young people tend to select romantic partners from those who are socially close, but are willing to develop friendships with those who are not quite so close in social space.

Direct Involvement of Network Members in Relationship Initiation

Network members are often actively involved in the initiation of personal relationships—far more often than is acknowledged in the social scientific literature. Some attention has been devoted to those in formal roles such as marital matchmakers. The formal role of matchmaker can be found in a number of non-Western countries and in a variety of ethnic enclaves in the United States and Europe. Yet focusing on such formal roles leads us to overlook the many informal roles played by network members in everyday life.

Network members rarely describe what they do as “matchmaking,” but people agree that they have often given or received “help” in initiating romantic relationships. In one of the few studies to address this phenomenon, Malcolm Parks found that more than half of those in a sample of young adults in the United States said that they had helped at least one other couple “get a romantic relationship started” in the last year. Those who had helped reported helping an average of nearly three couples during the previous 12 months. Among those who had initiated a new romantic relationship themselves during that time, almost two thirds said that they had assistance from at least one person in their social network. In many cases, they reported having received help from multiple parties. Thus, even in a culture that emphasizes personal choice in romantic relationships, the active involvement of network members in relationship initiation appears to be the rule rather than the exception.

The findings of this study also challenged popular gender stereotypes of women as relational specialists and men as less relationally oriented and probably in greater need of help. Men and women were equally likely to help others begin romantic relationships. They are also equally likely to be recipients of help.

The helper’s location within the social network was critical. Helpers were more likely to be unmarried—perhaps reflecting the fact that married people tend to have married friends and are thus less likely to be in a position to know people who require assistance. People also did not generally give or receive help from relatives, although this may have been a reflection of the fact that most of the study participants were college students away from home and so relatives were perhaps less available. From a network perspective, however, the most interesting finding was how helpers and recipients were related. Cases in which the helper was close to both recipients were rare. The most common cases were those in which the helper was much closer to one of the recipients than the other. Thus, helpers functioned as “network operators” who were not just bringing potential romantic partners together, but who were also bringing together previously unconnected parts of their own social networks.

Contrary to the common stereotype of informal matchmakers operating behind the scenes, most of the people who received help were aware of what the helper was doing on their behalf. More important, in nearly half the cases reported in the Parks study, one or both of the recipients had sought help from the third party. Instead of being passive receivers of third-party influence, then, many people actively enlist the resources of their networks to assist with relational initiation.

The activities of third-party helpers fall into three broad categories: attraction manipulations, direct initiations, and direct assists. Attraction manipulations attempt to increase the prospective partners’ attraction to each other by making positive comments about one person to the other, downplaying or reframing less positive attributes, or noting and reinforcing similarities between the prospective partners. Direct initiations include all those activities intended to facilitate meetings between the prospective partners—arranging for them to be at the same place at the same time, making introductions, and arranging social events intended to bring the prospective partners together. Direct assists range from coaching one or both prospective partners to acting as information relays between the prospective partners. Again, these activities are frequently done with the person’s knowledge and often at their request.

The availability of help from network members often has a profound influence on relationship initiation. In Parks’s study of third-party assistance in the initiation of romantic relationships, just over half of the helpers believed that they had been successful. More important, the majority of those who had received assistance from network members believed that it had been beneficial. Those who received third-party assistance had more active social lives than those who did not.