Social Networks

This website is focusing on the impact and development of networks, rather than Social Networks, but we wanted to give a short overview of these networks too.

Social networks are highly individualised, rather than cohesive membership structures around shared purpose (Malby and Mervyn 2012 ). People are inherently social beings. The relationship between individuals and society (collective) underpins social networks – that social networks are formed because of individuals need for connection with others. Social networks are individualised networks of relationships as opposed to formalised and structured learning networks such as communities of practice.

Social networks have been widely defined as both:

  • a form of support that emanates from other people (Cohen, Mermelstein et al. 1985 ), and
  • as a ‘networking form of social organization’ (Castells 2000 p. 500 ).

Social capital, a key component of social networks, with the basic premise of social networks being that people thrive when they are connected together. Unlike the networks we describe in this website, social network members can be tightly or loosely connected around themes or interests but not necessarily around a common purpose. They are what the label says – social.

Social networks are often called ‘informal’ networks (Valente 1996 ) or ‘natural’ networks (Braithwaite et al 2009 ) emerging spontaneously around and issue or common interest, with little if any structure and where the power is fluid. According to Braithwaite (2009) the voluntary nature of networks makes them likely to be far more effective in generating shared understanding and commitment to change.

More and more health organisations are relating to the power of social networks to form social capital for the organisation and between organisational employees (it can be a place where work gets done). Professionals and patients turn to social networks for advice and to galavanise action. Much of the junior doctors strike was coordinated through social media.

Social capital has been linked to better health. Here is an example:

Gowen and colleagues found that the vast majority of young adults with mental health problems engage in social networking activities that are specifically designed for their population. Social networking helps to direct people to information based sources, identify resources on independent living skills and address feelings of isolation (Gowen, Deschaine et al. 2012).

Prof Rebecca Malby


Article Footnotes

[1] Malby, B. and Mervyn, K. (2012) Social Networks.An Additional Brief Literature Review for The Health Foundation. University of Leeds.
[2] Cohen S., Mermelstein R., Kamarck T., & Hoberman, H.M. (1985). Measuring the functional components of social support. Social support: Theory, research and applications. p73-94
[3] Castells, M. (2000 ). The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA, Blackwell
[4] Valente, TW. (1996) Social Network Thresholds in the Diffusion of Innovations. Social Networks. 18(1):69–89
[5] Braithwaite, J., Runciman, W. B. and Merry, A. F. (2009) Towards safer, better healthcare: Harnessing the natural properties of complex sociotechnical systems, Quality and Safety in Health Care, 18 (1), pp. 37–41.