Social support is a diverse, multidisciplinary area of study that addresses the question: why do people who are involved in relationships tend to be mentally and physically healthier than those who are not? One approach to answering this question focuses on what people say and do to help one another cope with stress (enacted support or supportive communication). Alternatively, scholars have examined how cognitive schemas and beliefs about relationships influence one’s coping and outlook on life (perceived available support). A third way of studying social support focuses on how integration in social networks shapes opportunities, information, immunity, and the flow of resources (social networks and social integration). Within each of these traditions, scholars have recognized that relationships are sometimes harmful rather than beneficial, and have sought to identify circumstances in which and processes through which social support has positive outcomes.
The term “social support” emerged in the mid-1970s from several influential lectures, essays, and books that synthesized research showing how the social environment contributed to individual well-being. Over the next decade, considerable evidence accumulated to show that social support had beneficial effects, some of which came about through the ways social support buffers individuals from the otherwise detrimental effects of stress, and some through other processes independent of stress (e.g., by providing coherence or regulating behavior). By the 1980s, reviewers of this rapidly growing body of research expressed concern that diverse conceptualizations hindered theoretical explanation for how, why, and when social support had beneficial effects. There are various ways of parsing the literature, but it is common to differentiate among “enacted social support,” “perceived available social support,” and “social network/integration approaches.”
Enacted Social Support
The enacted social support tradition has been most prominent among interpersonal communication researchers because of its focus on messages and conversations that are intended to assist others in need (for reviews see Burleson & MacGeorge 2002; Goldsmith 2004). Some studies have described what types of actions are intended or interpreted as “supportive.” For example, it is common to differentiate providing information or tangible aid (problem-solving support) from attempting to comfort, bolster self-esteem, or convey caring or belonging (emotional support). Central research problems include explaining what makes some messages more effective and appropriate than others and identifying processes that account for the link between message or conversation features and beneficial outcomes. Recently, scholars have focused not only on the individual benefits of social support but also on its significance for relational functioning and satisfaction.
Albrecht and Adelman (1987) brought social support to the attention of interpersonal communication scholars in their book Communicating social support. They proposed that social support involved symbolic processes through which individuals managed uncertainty to gain a sense of personal control. Stressful events may create uncertainty about outcomes, one’s individual identity and capabilities, and relationships. To the extent that interactions with one’s social network assist in managing this uncertainty, social support can bring about improved coping and adjustment. Managing uncertainty can entail reducing, sustaining, or increasing uncertainty, and challenges may arise as relational partners coordinate their preferred approaches.
Burleson and his colleagues’ studies of comforting shed light on the processes of emotional support. Messages intended to comfort vary in person centeredness, i.e., the degree to which the distressed person’s feelings are acknowledged, legitimated, and elaborated. Persons high in cognitive complexity are more likely to produce person-centered messages, and both men and women find person-centered messages comforting when facing a loss or disappointment. Nonverbal immediacy cues combine with person-centered content to produce the most comforting responses. Person centered messages are part of a larger process of encouraging talk about feelings. Such talk may bring about emotional relief by assisting in re-appraising a distressing situation.
Well-intended efforts at support can also entail risks and costs, including threats to competence, invasion of privacy, negative impressions, obligation, emotional contagion, and burden. Goldsmith and her colleagues propose that many of these risks and costs involve threats to identities and relational definitions; hence, conversations are helpful to the degree that they not only facilitate coping but also enact valued identities and relationships (Goldsmith 2004). Acts such as advice-giving may be intended as supportive but can also threaten the recipient’s autonomy and competence, imply criticism of coping efforts, and convey status or solidarity. Consequently, features of conversations that save face, enact valued identities, or negotiate power and closeness may explain why some attempts at giving support succeed whereas others fail.
Researchers have also begun to turn attention to the processes through which supportive communication is coordinated. Participants in a supportive conversation need to coordinate their view of the problem and the type of help it requires as well as their desires to approach or avoid problems. Offering practical information to someone who wants sympathy or trying to distract someone who wants to talk is likely to be perceived as unsupportive. Coordination may be particularly challenging when both members of a couple or multiple members of a group or community are affected by the same stressor. The term “communal coping” refers to the blurring of “provider” and “recipient” roles that may occur when individuals recognize a common stressor, communicate about it, and cooperate in their coping efforts.
Perceived Available Support
Perceived available support is one’s perception of being valued by others who will provide support if needed. The belief that others are there to help enhances coping with a variety of stressors in personal and professional life and also contributes to relationship satisfaction. Perceptions of available support are not strongly correlated with reports of enacted support, suggesting that perceived available support is based on more than just a past history of supportive actions. Instead, perceived available support appears to be linked to individual cognitive schemas for relationships (e.g., attachment models) and to more global properties of relationships such as responsiveness, interdependence, commitment, and sentiment.
Although perceptions of available support are not strongly tied to support received for specific stressors, there is evidence that ongoing patterns of communication that demonstrate trustworthiness and care contribute to the perceived supportiveness of a relationship. Perceived available support is also relevant to interpersonal communication because an individual’s global sense that support is available, and his or her beliefs about the supportiveness of a particular relationship, create a perceptual lens that colors how specific supportive actions and conversations are evaluated.
Social Networks And Social Integration
The term “social network” refers to the ties that connect individuals. Structural features of networks have been examined for their relationship to positive outcomes. For example, networks with dense interconnections are helpful for validating social identities and for making support needs known and then coordinating provision of tangible aid. In contrast, loose interconnections aid in enacting a new identity or connecting with previously unknown information or resources. Network size is a poor predictor of outcomes, perhaps because conflictual ties offset the benefits of supportive relationships. An appreciation of the influence of social structures beyond the individual and his or her immediate contacts is a distinctive feature of social network research. For the interpersonal communication scholar, this tradition helps to embed particular interactions and relationships within a broader social milieu.
Social integration reflects involvement in a diverse range of relationships, including family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and community and religious organizations. Those who are socially integrated live longer and healthier lives than those who are isolated. Diversity of social contacts, rather than sheer number, confers a health advantage. Social integration may promote health through enhancing personal control, meaning, self-concept, affect, and healthful behavior. Interpersonal communication scholars could contribute to our understanding of how to develop a diverse network and manage the potential communication challenges of sustaining multiple different types of relationships.
Issues In Measurement And Methodology
Several widely used measures of social support exist (see Cohen et al. 2000 for a review); however, most focus on perceived available support, sources of support, integration, or frequency of enacted support. Interpersonal communication scholars have developed ways to measure the quality of social support (i.e., not just how much is received but also whether it is seen as helpful, supportive, and sensitive). Common methods involve asking participants to rate hypothetical messages, recalled conversations, or brief interactions with a stranger or confederate. Although powerful, these methodologies often divorce messages from conversational context, either because the messages are presented or coded apart from surrounding dialogue or because participants do not recall potentially important details of conversational structure. Observational studies usually occur between strangers, despite evidence that most support is sought and received in personal relationships. Even when researchers have obtained participants’ ratings of a particular conversation between close partners, it is challenging to determine to what extent ratings reflect observable conversational features or broader relational patterns and perceptions that exist beyond the conversation under examination. Qualitative methods are increasingly used to address the meaning and context of social support and are a useful complement to the dominant quantitative approach .
Social Support Interventions
Social support research provides a basis for interventions, including programs designed to provide new supportive relationships (e.g., buddy programs, support groups, mentors) and programs that attempt to make existing relationships more supportive (e.g., developing skills in identifying and seeking support, educating support providers).
Perhaps not surprisingly, the success of support interventions depends upon adaptation to the social environment and personal characteristics of participants. Many programs lack systematic and rigorous evaluation and few have a basis in theories of communication processes. This is an area ripe for the application of theories of relationship development, group communication, and communication skill development.
Support groups and self-help groups, both face-to-face and through the Internet, are an increasingly popular form of social support intervention. Participation in a support group can improve individual coping and mental and physical health. However, the willingness and ability to participate is greater in some sociocultural groups than in others and for some conditions than for others. Some evidence suggests optimal group functioning occurs when participants include both those who are coping well and those who are struggling; yet while those who were previously lacking in personal and social resources benefit from the group, those who were coping well to start with may be at greater risk of psychological distress and reduced satisfaction with their support system. Many support group interventions have not been adequately assessed. Studies that have assessed such interventions often find participants report high levels of satisfaction, but input from individuals who declined to participate or dropped out is less often available, and links to outcomes such as coping or well-being are less often measured and less consistently demonstrated. Theories of group and interpersonal communication could bring a needed perspective on how the outcomes of support groups may be contingent upon communication processes.
- Albrecht, T. L., & Adelman, M. B. (1987). Communicating social support. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Albrecht, T. L., & Goldsmith, D. J. (2003). Social support, social networks, and health. In T. L. Thompson, A. M. Dorsey, K. I. Miller, & R. Parrott (eds.), Handbook of health communication. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 263–284.
- Burleson, B. R., & MacGeorge, E. L. (2002). Supportive communication. In M. L. Knapp & J. A. Daly (eds.), Handbook of interpersonal communication, 3rd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 374–424.
- Burleson, B. R., Albrecht, T. L., & Sarason, I. G. (1994). Communication of social support: Messages, interactions, relationships, and community. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Cohen, S., Underwood, L. G., & Gottlieb, B. H. (2000). Social support measurement and intervention: A guide for health and social scientists. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Cutrona, C. E. (1996). Social support in couples. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Goldsmith, D. J. (2004). Communicating social support. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.