Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts

Session #2 – Perspectives on Social Networks and the Life Course

Relationships in Time: An Exploration of Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Richard A. Settersten, Jr.
Oregon State University

Human life is social. Little about the life course is purely individual. Indeed, one’s life narrative is hardly one’s own – its strongest storylines are punctuated by and enmeshed with other people.
The principle of “linked lives” is rattled off and repeated as a mantra in the life course literature. And yet this stands in direct contrast to state of research, which largely treats the individual life course as if it exists in isolation of others. Who we become, the opportunities we are given or denied, the decisions we make, the actions we take, the meaning we derive – these are all intimately tangled up in social relationships. All of life’s ups and downs, and its major milestones, involve or are shared alongside other people – individuals, small groups, whole communities. The experiences of others become ours, and ours theirs. Relationships are subject to social expectations and judgments, rituals and memory, reinforcements and punishments. Relationships can ensure life’s vitality or destroy it. These relationships also largely stem from the social institutions or settings in which we find ourselves, whether by choice or by circumstance (and often by someone else’s choices and circumstances). Families, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities are central spaces for creating relationships, which in turn connect us to larger webs of relationships. Our attachments to these settings may be relatively short-lived, with relationships gained, lost, or retained along the way. Our attachments to these settings may be longstanding, though the nature of relationships therein nonetheless changes as we age. This paper explores the significance of social relationships through time – especially probing processes related to forming, maintaining, revising or resolving, ending or relinquishing relationships with individuals or groups. The paper also explores the power of social relationships in the mind – How relationships are imagined for the future, and shaped by time that remains or might be. How relationships are understood (or recast) in looking backward, and shaped by time that has been spent or time that has been lost. How relationships live on within us even after they have dissolved in life or through death, shaped by time that was stopped or time that ran out. Throughout, illustrations are drawn from personal observation and experience, case studies, social theories, and empirical research. These illustrations reveal how crucial social relationships are to understanding life transitions and trajectories, but also how far away research is from capturing the richness and complexity of the life course as a social entity. They also reveal that interdependence more than independence is a key hallmark of human experience – and that the life course should be studied as such.

Paper and presentation coming soon.

The Ins and Outs of Network Analysis

Stanley Wasserman
Indiana University

Olga Mayorova & Valentina V. Kuskova
National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia

Networks are clearly important in the study of the life course of individuals. In this paper, we discuss why this is so, and the types of analytical approaches that can be used to incorporate network data into life course studies. The focus then turns to what can go right and what can go wrong in analyzing network data for life course studies.

Paper and presentation coming soon.

Life Course Events and Network Composition

Peter V. Marsden
Harvard University

Life course transitions—such as entry into marriage, divorce, labor market entry, or retirement—prompt people to increase their involvement in some social foci (e.g. family, workplace, neighborhood) and decrease it in others, thereby heightening or dampening opportunities for contact with different types of people.  This paper will examine variations in the composition of social networks associated with important life course phases and transitions.  Drawing on both cross-sectional and longitudinal data from the General Social Survey (GSS), it will examine the extent to which networks are composed of social contacts such as family, friends, and neighbors, and how this differs both between people at distinct life course stages and within people who move from one state to another.

Paper and presentation coming soon.

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