Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Social Networks and Support: A Comparison of African Americans, Asian Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanics

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Social Networks and Support: A Comparison of African Americans, Asian Americans, Caucasians, and Hispanics

Article excerpt


Milardo ( 1988) notes that the relationships we maintain with other individuals, whether close and longstanding or ordinary and brief, are among the most important features of life. Through relationships with these individuals-however superficial-we share information, goods and services, as well as positive and negative regard. These social ties have important consequences for society as well as for the individual (Brown and Gary, 1987; Escobar and Randolph, 1982). Yet interestingly, we know very little about the nature of these networks and relationships. Sussman (1988) concludes that inattention to these relationships is related to our society's view that such relationships beyond the nuclear family are not that influential and may even interfere with individual development and mobility.

Social relationships are generally conceptualized as consisting of two major components: social networks and social supports. Social networks can be defined as the existence or "quantity" of relationships. Social support is commonly used to refer to the "quality" or functional contents of the relationship (Cohen and Wills, 1985). The supporting functions of network ties are multiple, including emotional nurturance (e.g., expressive support) and resource and information assistance (e.g., instrumental assistance).

Much has been written about the role of social networks in facilitating the adjustment and assimilation of ethnic minority groups within the majority culture. Fabrega (1969) postulates that the availability of social resources in the receiving environment of the immigrant is a critical factor in satisfactory adaptation. It is assumed that most immigrants, especially the undocumented, are socially and economically marginal to American society and that social networks will function either to hasten or impede their adjustment to the new environment (Portes and Bach, 1985). Antonoucci and Akiyama (1987) propose a convoy model of social relations wherein individuals carry basic norms of social relations with them over time and place, which assist in maintaining emotional well-being and in coping with life stresses. In a review of the literature, Wilkinson (1993) notes that such help patterns continue to filter through ethnic minority lifecycles. She contends that the legacy of the extended family system, with strong emotional ties clustered in nearby residential areas, remains an important aspect of family bonding in these ethnic groups. While research on personal relationships and social support has generally focused on positive effects, it should be noted that there can be negative consequences of giving and receiving support-for example, economic dependence and sense of inadequacy on the part of recipients, and economic strain and resentment on the part of providers (La Gaipa, 1990).

There are reasons to conclude that the social networks of these three ethnic groupsAsian Americans, African Americans and Hispanics-would operate similarly. For example, Ogbu ( 1985) contends that these ethnic groups have many common characteristics because they are all "caste-like," having entered this society more or less involuntarily through slavery, conquest and/or colonization. Also, Harrison et al. ( 1990) note that each of these groups has utilized adaptive strategies of strong extended family networks, collectivism, and group loyalty. Yet researchers have failed to compare and to contrast these networks across cultural groups. Most studies have focused on one ethnic group, often in one geographical area.

Two studies are notable for their attempts to examine multiple cultural groups in terms of social networks. Mindel (1980), comparing Mexican American, African American and Caucasian families, found Mexican Americans to be the most familistic in attitudes and behaviors, followed by African Americans. Further, he found that Mexican Americans were more likely to use kin for social and emotional support, whereas African Americans were more likely to use kin for instrumental purposes. …

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