Misery does not love company: Network selection mechanisms and depression
Schaefer, D. R., Kornienko, O., and Fox, A. M. (2011). Misery does not love company: Network selection mechanisms and depression. American Sociological Review, 76(5), 764-785.
This work seeks to identify the role of mental disorders/stigmas (specifically, depression) in friendship networks, and the resultant tendency of individuals suffering from depression to be friends with similarly depressed people (a notion that is captured by the term “homophily,” which refers to the tendency of similar people to form relationships/associations with one another). The authors hypothesize that, while preference for similar friends is one possible cause of this occurrence, two more factors may be involved: “avoidance” (in which others avoid a depressed individual and cause her to lower her standards of friendship), and “withdrawal” (in which an individual retreats from social interactions and is left with non-normative [and usually also depressed] social groups to interact with). This study is different from ones before it in that it examines the role of mental disorder itself in structuring networks, rather than merely assessing the protective role that friendship networks might offer to shield one another from experiencing mental disorders like depression.
For their methods, the authors analyze the “National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health” and two long-term network samplings from students from nine high schools. After correcting for differences such as sex and race, the researchers use a stochastic actor-based (SAB) model to analyze the different networks seen in the two samples of friendships taken (Wave I and Wave II). The authors then run a bivariate association between friendship networks and depression, run SAB models to examine the mechanisms of homophily (here, the idea that depressed people make depressed friends), and then try to deconstruct the “friend selection process” in order to see whether withdrawal plays a role in homophily. The results were consistent with the three hypothesized mechanisms (“preference,” “avoidance,” and “withdrawal”).
This study contributes to the sociology of mental health by opening up questions of the complex relationships between groups that are generally stigmatized by disorder. While this study hones in on those experiencing depression, the mechanisms uncovered — namely that preference, avoidance, and withdrawal can lead to depressive homophily – may apply to a larger group of those stigmatized mental disorders. As the authors note, “Although our empirical focus is on depression, the mechanisms we propose can be applied to other dimensions (e.g., behaviors or attributes) where network selection differs between actors with high versus low values on the dimension” (765-766). This suggests that the social negotiation of other attributes, such as minority group status or social deviance, may involve mechanisms similar to those present in the creation of homophily.