The latest wave of Understanding Society, or the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), includes the first module on social networks. The UKHLS was first run in 2009, emerging from the previous 1991-2008 British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), providing detailed information on all individuals in 30,000 UK homes. Those individuals in Wave A, or who entered from the BHPS, are tracked every year and interviewed along with all others within their household. Therefore, when households are stable across time (i.e., a married childless couple who always live together) the same individuals are interviewed each year. But, when households change (i.e., a married couple whose grown-up children move out of the parental home and have flatmates, partners and children of their own) different people become eligible for inclusion.
Individuals are interviewed annually, covering a wide range of subjects including, amongst others, employment, politics, health, income and education. In addition, there are various modules which are included once every three years, including cognitive ability. The most recently released wave, C, contains the first data from the social networks module. This is something I’ve been looking forward to immensely since hearing Raj Patel discussing what was included last May.
Wave C provides a range of variables which explore different elements of social networks. There is a particularly interesting set of questions relating to homophily, or the concept that ‘birds of a feather flock together’. Participants were asked what proportion of their friends are:
- of a similar age
- of the same ethnicity
- have a similar level of education
- have a job
- have a similar income
- live in their local area
- are also family members.
Respondents have five options: all similar; more than half; about half; less than half; or none. These categories perhaps introduce uncertainty surrounding the boundaries between categories, for instance, what proportion is required to move from about half to move than half? 60% could be viewed as about half if you have 10 friends (6/4 split) but less so if you have 30 (18/12 split). If 19 of our 20 friends have a similar level of education does that count as ‘all’ and, indeed, does the strength of relationship with that one other influence people’s choices.
Also, it is somewhat arbitrary what counts as ‘similar’. Should people who are 40 view those who are 49 as a similar age based on a similar position in the lifecourse, or limit the criteria to within 5 years? Do people with a PhD and a university degree have a similar level of education? If the graduate sees similar as those with a degree and the postgraduate sees it as someone with a higher degree, two people could easily differ in whether their friendship is homophilous. Therefore, such data should be seen as how people perceive their friends rather than necessarily subjectively measuring levels of homophily in society.
The data show trends we might have predicted. It appears that the youngest and oldest respondents were most likely to have all their friends of a similar age, perhaps indicating that those in maximal years of employment (20 to 59) have connections across the age range. Similarly, the social isolation of those in the least advantaged occupational groups can be seen with a greater tendency to have mostly friends with a similar level of income. Similarly, those with the lowest educational qualifications are most likely to have friends who with the same levels. Many of the social trends we might expect to see are observable.
Social isolation, as well as social connections are explored in the wider survey. Nearly 14% of respondents stated they never go out socially with friends. Nearly a third of those who don’t socialise claimed they were too busy and around a quarter stated health, illness or disability reasons. Caring responsibilities and financial reasons were also common causes of low sociability. Similar data is in the survey for why people don’t visit their families.
- Too busy 32.7%
- Health 24.5%
- Caring responsibilities 18.6%
- Financial reasons 18.3%
- No-one to see 8.4%
- No access to public transport 7.0%
- No access to a car 6.3%
- Anxiety/lack of confidence 6.0%
- Nowhere to go 5.0%
- Fear of crowds 2.7%
- Fear of crime 1.7%
Other social capital related questions include sense of belonging to the local neighbourhood, attitudes and opinions towards neighbours, membership and activity within in a range of social organisations and also whether people are a member of a social media website, and if so how long they engage with such sites. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a marked effect of younger people being more likely to use social media, with much lower engagement with such websites for older people.
The BHPS regularly asked for basic demographic information on up to three friends, with more detailed depictions of the best friend asking about occupations and other information. This appears to have been dropped from the UKHLS. However, both surveys offer a range of within-household social connections which can be operationalised to ascertain patterns of homophily within homes and, as households change, potentially homophily between members of connected households. Therefore, a survey like Understanding Society offers far more opportunities for analysing social networks than what is incorporated within the networks module.
Dave Griffiths, 19 Februrary 2004