Whereas social network researchers have been studying increasingly complex structures based on larger and larger datasets, Professor Mario L. Small has been doing the opposite—studying increasingly micro-level questions based on small sets of individuals and how they develop and use their personal networks. He is writing a book about how people decide to whom to turn when they need a confidant based on richly detailed, longitudinal data on the experience of a group of graduate students over the first two years of their programs. The book questions the theory that, when needing to discuss personal or otherwise important matters, people will decide whom to approach based primarily on the closeness of the relationship.
The first study from the project, “Weak Ties and the Core Discussion Network: Why People Discuss Important Matters with Unimportant Alters,” was published in Social Networks. It showed using national data that almost half of the people in the core discussion network—their regular confidants—were not respondents’ close ties but their acquaintances, therapists, priests, co-workers, and others they regularly encountered. The most recent paper, “How Stable is the Core Discussion Network?”, co-authored with Peter McMahan and Vontrese Pamphile and also in Social Networks, examines the implications of those findings for how people’s network of confidants should evolve. The paper tests the standard theory that the network should be largely stable, evolving slowly over the span of people’s lives. It finds that, as people enter new social contexts, the core discussion network changes remarkably quickly, with little or no lag, and that it appears to do so because both the obligations that people face and the routine activities they engage in are transformed by new institutional environments.
Small’s book expands on these questions by studying why people are more willing than traditional network analysis has theorized to reveal personal details, to change quickly whom they trust, and even to confide in strangers.