Social disadvantage and network turnover

Benjamin Cornwell
Journals of Gerontology. Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 2015, 70 (1): 132-42

OBJECTIVES: Research shows that socially disadvantaged groups--especially African Americans and people of low socioeconomic status (SES)--experience more unstable social environments. I argue that this causes higher rates of turnover within their personal social networks. This is a particularly important issue among disadvantaged older adults, who may benefit from stable networks. This article, therefore, examines whether social disadvantage is related to various aspects of personal network change.

METHOD: Social network change was assessed using longitudinal egocentric network data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, a study of older adults conducted between 2005 and 2011. Data collection in Wave 2 included a technique for comparing respondents' confidant network rosters between waves. Rates of network losses, deaths, and additions were modeled using multivariate Poisson regression.

RESULTS: African Americans and low-SES individuals lost more confidants--especially due to death--than did whites and college-educated respondents. African Americans also added more confidants than whites. However, neither African Americans nor low-SES individuals were able to match confidant losses with new additions to the extent that others did, resulting in higher levels of confidant network shrinkage. These trends are partly, but not entirely, explained by disadvantaged individuals' poorer health and their greater risk of widowhood or marital dissolution.

DISCUSSION: Additional work is needed to shed light on the role played by race- and class-based segregation on group differences in social network turnover. Social gerontologists should examine the role these differences play in explaining the link between social disadvantage and important outcomes in later life, such as health decline.

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