Just as the family is a support system for individuals, social networks are support systems for families and individual members. This view stresses the importance of kin, friends and neighbours in the informal exchanges of human services which form so much of family life. These exchanges centre on personal involvements in offering help, advice, affection, and responsiveness to norms and values. It is distinguished from the supports given by more formal specialists and organisations based on cash payments or statutory obligations—e.g. doctors, counsellors, schools and governmental agencies.
(Rapoport, Fogarty and Rapoport, 1982, p. 486)
We acknowledge that the family unit does not exist in isolation. Each family member has relationships with people outside the immediate family. These may be relatives, close friends, neighbours, acquaintances, colleagues at work, other members of clubs and institutions to which the family member belongs and other people seen regularly. All of these people constitute the family member’s social network. This network may vary in the number and variety of people it contains, the closeness, depth and duration of relationships within it, the extent to which friends are shared by different family members and the extent to which network members know each other. Independently of all of these features, people may also vary in the extent to which they feel isolated and in the extent to which they feel supported by their social networks.
There is an enormous body of research literature that indicates that the support provided by one’s social network can protect people from the harmful effects of stress (for reviews see Gottlieb,