, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 273-290

Social networks, support cliques, and kinship

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Data on the number of adults that an individual contacts at least once a month in a set of British populations yield estimates of network sizes that correspond closely to those of the typical “sympathy group” size in humans. Men and women do not differ in their total network size, but women have more females and more kin in their networks than men do. Kin account for a significantly higher proportion of network members than would be expected by chance. The number of kin in the network increases in proportion to the size of the family; as a result, people from large families have proportionately fewer non-kin in their networks, suggesting that there is either a time constraint or a cognitive constraint on network size. A small inner clique of the network functions as a support group from whom an individual is particularly likely to seek advice or assistance in time of need. Kin do not account for a significantly higher proportion of the support clique than they do for the wider network of regular social contacts for either men or women, but each sex exhibits a strong preference for members of their own sex.

Robin Dunbar, B.A., Ph.D., until recently a professor of biological anthropology at University College London, is professor of psychology at the University of Liverpool. His main research interests concern mating systems and the evolution of mammalian social systems. Matt Spoors, B.Sc., M.Sc., teaches at St Hugh’s School, Grantham (England).