Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

A Social Network Comparison of Low-Income Black and White Newlywed Couples

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

A Social Network Comparison of Low-Income Black and White Newlywed Couples

Article excerpt

Black families have long been described as drawing support from their extended social net- works (McAdoo, 1998; Stack, 1974; Staples & Johnson, 1993). Indeed, analyses of data from the National Survey of Black Americans indicate that two out of three Black adults treat some- one to whom they are not biologically related as a relative (Chatters, Taylor, & Jayakody, 1994). Furthermore, ethnographic research on Black families suggests that strong expectations about mutual support continue to play a large role in these extended network ties (e.g., Hill, 1999; Roy, 2005). The cultivation of extended net- works may be a source of social capital for Black families to compensate for experiences of segre- gation and economic hardship (Broman, 1996; Scott & Black, 1999).

To the extent that extended social networks can serve as a source of social capital for Black families, they may be especially relevant for Black married couples. On several dimensions, Black couples enter marriage at a disadvan- tage relative to comparable Whites. Not only do Black couples have less access to education and higher rates of unemployment than Whites, they are also overrepresented in lower income communities in the United States (Macartney, Bishaw, & Fontenot, 2013), significantly less likely to get married and thus are rare within Black communities (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002), and significantly more likely to have children prior to entering marriage (Elwood & Jencks, 2004). If Black couples possess the extended social networks that have been described as char- acteristic of Black families more generally, those networks might serve as a resource to compen- sate for these other social and economic disad- vantages.

Yet, although research has described the social networks of Black families, research directly comparing the networks of Black and White couples has been rare. Moreover, the limited existing literature has relied almost exclusively on global perceptions of network quality, preventing detailed statements of how the composition and structure of Black cou- ples' social networks may differ from those of comparable White couples. Recognition of this gap has instigated a call for further research describing the social networks of dis- advantaged populations (Sampson, Morenoff, & Gannon-Rowley, 2002) and of Black cou- ples in particular (Brown, Orbuch, & Maharaj, 2010; Bryant et al., 2010). In the current study we aimed to fill this gap in the literature by using newly developed techniques of social network analysis (i.e., studying couples' com- bined duocentric social networks; Kennedy, Jackson, Green, Bradbury, & Karney, 2014) to compare the networks of recently married Black and White couples sampled from low-income communities.


The composition of a social network refers to the aggregated characteristics of the individuals who compose the network. Qualitative and quantita- tive research suggests at least two ways that the composition of Black and White couples' social networks may differ.

First, Black and White couples may differ in the amount of emotional and financial support they can access from their networks. Sev- eral studies have shown that Blacks generally describe smaller networks of close relation- ships than comparable Whites, but within their networks, Blacks generally describe a higher proportion of family members ( Ajrouch, Antonucci, & Janevic, 2001). In light of the fact that people are more likely to draw social support from family members than from friends or coworkers (Wellman & Wortley, 1990), these trends suggest that low-income Black couples may possess stronger networks of support (both emotional and financial) than comparable White couples, consistent with the idea that social networks may partly compensate for economic disadvantages in Black communities (Broman, 1996; McAdoo, 1998). …

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