Social Networks and Health: It’s Who You Know

Social Networks and Health: It’s Who You Know

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Every office has experienced it. One person contracts a cold, and before you know it the entire group is coughing and reaching for the tissues. Our social connections have incredible implications for our health, and not just because they shape the spread of communicable diseases like the common cold, the flu, or even HIV.

From supporting a recovering loved one after surgery, to friendships that affect our eating or exercise habits, who we know doesn’t just shape our health, it also shapes our decision-making and health behavior.

Once the domain of public health researchers, the study of social networks and health has increasingly involved social scientists in recent years. But despite the clear demand, network methods are rarely covered in the standard social-science methods taught to health and health-policy scholars.

“Social network analysis is becoming an important approach in health sciences research,” said Laura Sheble, a postdoc with DNAC. “And yet, training for social network analysis is just scaling up at present. People who are in the work force currently may not have had the chance to get formal training during their graduate years.”

To help bridge the gap between demand and training, an intensive weeklong training program is underway at the Duke Network Analysis Center (DNAC), an SSRI affiliate. The Social Networks and Health Scholars Training Program, a NICHD funded (R25) program, covers network methods that are rarely included in the standard social-science methods sequences taught to health and health-policy scholars.

“We’re really excited about the structure of the program, which is two phases,” said James Moody, founding director of DNAC and Robert O. Keohane Professor of Sociology. “First is the coursework and workshop that’s happening this week, but we also have nine Social Network and Health Fellows, who are people we selected from across the nation to work on a particular project.”

The fellows, who were chosen from a group of grad students, postdocs, and assistant professors from across the nation, have been paired with a mentor from the budding research community.

“The hope,” Moody said, “is to take a basic idea from conception to completion over the course of a year and really create intense knowledge in depth with these fellows so they can present their work and then mentor the next set of fellows.”

This program is an opportunity to form a national network of scholars and establish a foundation for what is sure to be an increasingly important field of research.

“There are people here from all over the United States and we have people here who are crossing the Duke-UNC divide, which is terrific,” Sheble said. “It’s great for people with an interest in the field to be able to have the chance to meet, talk to each other, and share ideas and potentially find future collaboration partners or people that they can talk to about questions they have.”

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