Measuring the Functional Components of Social Support

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Abstract

In the last several years, we have been interested in the role social supports play in protecting people from the pathogenic effects of stress. By social supports, we scan the resources that are provided by other persons (cf. Cohen & Syme, 1985). Although others have investigated and in some cases found evidence for a “buffering” hypothesis—that social support protects persons from the pathogenic effects of stress but is relatively unimportant for unexposed individuals, there are difficulties in interpreting this literature. First, there are almost as many measures of social suppport as there are studies. Hence it is difficult to compare studies and to determine why support operates as a stress buffer in some cases, but not in others. Second, in the vast majority of work, support measures are used without regard to their psychometric properties or their appropriateness for the question under study. For example, studies using measures assessing the structure of social networks (e.g, how many friends do you have?) are seldom distinguished from those addressing the functions that networks might serve (e.g., do you have someone you can talk to about personal problems?). In fact, in many cases, structural and functional items are thrown together into single support indices resulting in scores that have little conceptual meaning.