Too much of a good thing? Revisiting the relationship between over-integration and health

Xuewen Yan


Several decades of research have emphasized the protective role of social relationships on individuals’ health. An equally important yet much less noted possibility is that social networks might be “too much of a good thing” for wellbeing, especially when social ties and demands are excessive. This hypothesis aligns with Durkheim’s Suicide that associates over social integration with altruistic suicide, and with Falci and McNeely's (2009) finding of a curvilinear relationship between network size and health. This study draws attention to the negative link between over social integration and health, extending the current literature in three ways. First, relying on restricted longitudinal data from Add Health, I will implement a fixed effect design that allows for a stronger causal interpretation. Specifically, I examine within-individual, cross-temporal changes in self-reported health and depressive symptoms as a function of social integration, controlling for unobserved individual characteristics. I hypothesize that ego’s health status first increases as social integration increases from low to a moderate extent, and then decreases. Second, while I follow Falci and McNeely’s previous study to test for an interaction effect between network size and cohesion in determining ego’s health, my approach differs both methodologically and theoretically. Methodologically, I operationalize social integration using not only network size but also the frequency of contact, and I measure cohesion with not just density, but also transitivity and structural cohesion. While previous research has yielded inconsistent findings in terms of which network measures matter for health, this study sheds light on whether these different measures capture distinctive structural properties. Theoretically, Falci and McNeely proposes that a cohesive network ameliorates the negative influence of over integration, because the role strain from multiple relationships could be alleviated when the demands from these relationships are correlated and similar. Whereas I include their proposal as a hypothesis, I also hypothesize a competing mechanism: a more fragmented network reduces the association between over-integration and ill health because disconnected alters cannot jointly supervise or urge the ego to fulfill social norms (Coleman 1988). Third, I address the possible role of friendship reciprocity (being nominated as a friend versus identifying an alter as a friend) in intervening the association between social integration and health. While the demands of numerous friendships can take a toll on the individual, a recent study from online networks (Hobbs et al. 2016) implies that a still worse health conditions might occur to individuals whose over-integration stems from unreciprocated ties. Two hypotheses follow. First, the negative association between health and over-integration is stronger for high-outdegree individuals than for high-indegree ones. Second, the negative association between health and over-integration increases as the net difference between indegree and outdegree increases.

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