Survey Variable: Social Network Size

A key feature of social capital is how many people we know. Some people have large networks of friends and acquaintances whilst others know just a few people. In each case there is also variation in how well people know their acquaintances, and we often have closer and more distant friendships. To investigate these variations, the survey asked respondents roughly how many friends they have who they are in contact with daily, weekly, and monthly, as well as how many of their neighbours they know. Their answers are presented in Figure 1 (above, using weighted data), which shows an unsurprising trend: people have fewer close friends than distant friends and acquaintances.[1] More than four in ten people (45.8%, a plurality) have one or two friends who they are in touch with daily (panel A), whilst the figure is closer to a third (36.9%, also a plurality) for friends contacted weekly (panel B) and three in ten people (30.9%) have three to five friends in that category. The shift from fewer to more friends continues when we look at those who people are in touch with monthly (panel C), in which essentially the same proportion of people have one or two and three to five friends (28.7% and 29.6% respectively). By the time we get to neighbours, the most distant group, a third of people (32.5%, a plurality) have ten or more such acquaintances. We can also see the trend toward growing numbers of more distant friends and acquaintances in the percentage who report no contacts in each category. For friends contacted daily, more than a quarter of people (27.8%) have no such friendships. Half as many people (13.4%) report having no friends who they are in touch with weekly, whilst the figure is one in ten (10.8%) for friends contacted monthly and one in fourteen (7.1%) for neighbours known.

As Figure 1 shows, the survey also asked about the size of family networks. These are obviously distinct from networks of friends and acquaintances in the sense that people are born into large or small families, rather than engaging with them later in life. However, family-based social capital can be key in shaping people’s lives so it is important to measure the size of the familial network that people can draw on. Most people (54.3%) live near (within a fifteen-to-twenty-minute walk, or a five-to-ten-minute drive) at least one family member, although the number of people in each category declines as the number of nearby relatives increases such that a plurality (45.7%) does not live near a relative. By contrast, less than one in fifteen people (6.4%) have no relatives who live further away, and the number of people in each category increases as the number of relatives increases. A plurality (35.7%) has ten or more relatives living further away, and a majority (56.2%) has at least six. Thus, in addition to their friends and acquaintances, most people have at least a moderate number of relatives who live far away from them and a smaller number who live nearby.

Thus, people tend to have smaller networks of close friends and family, and larger networks of more distant friends, family and acquaintances, which might have implications in light of the importance of weak social ties. It remains to be seen whether there is also an underlying tendency for people to have more or less contacts across all categories (i.e., whether there are people with larger and smaller networks regardless of the closeness or distance). However, Figure 2 (below, also using weighted data) shows that a half of people (50.8%) have an average of between three and five acquaintances across the different categories. Approaching a third (28.9%) average one or two acquaintances whilst slightly less than a fifth (19.3%) average between six and nine, meaning very few people (2.4% combined) have non-existent or very large social networks. The size of such networks might relate to the frequency with which people are invited to participate in different activities, including receiving requests to undertake political action, and we will investigate this subsequently.

Figure 2. See also Table A2.
Variable namessc_friends_daily, sc_friends_weekly,
sc_friends_monthly, sc_neighbours_know
Number of cases1,405
Number of categories5
Categories to code as missingNone
Cases to code as missingNone
Recoded variable namesc_size_ave
Number of cases1,405
Number of categories5
New and old categoriesThe average numerical category of the
answers across the four original variables
was taken for each respondent, and then
rounded to the nearest category.
Details of the original and recoded social network size variables.

[1] See also Table A1.

Published by joegreenwoodhau

Joe Greenwood-Hau is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Government & Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde, where he works on the Capital, Privilege and Political Participation in Britain and Beyond project.

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