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Social Networks and Health

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Social networks can be a key factor in determining how healthy a community is. For one thing, they can create social supports that provide a buffer against the stressors that damage health (House et al., 1998; Zilberberg, 2011). Social networks may also have negative effects on health, however (Arthur, 2002; Cattell, 2001). Christakis et al. (2007), for example, found “clusters” of obesity within a network of people studied over time. Their longitudinal analysis suggested that these clusters were not merely the result of like-minded or similarly situated people forming ties with one another, but rather reflected the “spread” of obesity among people who were connected to each other (Christakis et al., 2007). Although not everyone agrees on how social networks affect health (Cohen-Cole et al., 2008), they seem to play a role, together with culture, economics, and other factors, that is important for both individuals and communities (Pachucki et al., 2010).

In New York City, for example, one group tailored its outreach and education programs on breast and cervical cancer by determining how differing cultural perspectives affected social networks. They found that for the Latino population, women’s relationships easily lent themselves to the helper role, but that access to and utilization of health care in this population were mediated by men. Therefore, they included both genders in their intervention (Erwin et al., 2007).

Social networks can also play an important part in community health improve-ment because of their role in the “diffusion of innovation” — a concept introduced in Chapter 1 — and in the generation of social capital, defined by Putnam (1995) as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit”. A critical first step in engaging communities is identifying networks, such as faith communities, whose “social capital” can be employed in collective approaches to improving community health.

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