Social Relationships Take Center Stage

Social Relationships Take Center Stage

Maria SmallMario Small of Harvard University

Northwestern University’s 2017 “Social Relationships Across the Life Span” conference brought together more than two dozen scholars with multiple perspectives on social relationships in homes, schools, online communities, organizations, and inequality.

The faculty and students are studying social relationships in diverse life stages and contexts. They represented multiple disciplines, including developmental sciences, economics, education, learning sciences, management, psychology, social policy, and sociology.

The conference was hosted by the office of Global Initiatives at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy and co-sponsored by the Institute for Policy Research. 

Read the full story here. Conference highlights follow.

Social Relationships and Social Networks

Northwestern’s Kirabo Jackson, professor of human development and social policy, refuted the idea that teachers are as interchangeable as LEGO blocks. In fact, peers and context matter, and teachers learn from their peers, according to his research.

“Teachers do not exist in a vacuum,” Jackson said. His work indicates that teachers’ colleagues can influence their professional development and that teachers benefit from access to remote colleagues over the internet. He suggests developing policies that pair teachers and using technology to effectively link teachers across contexts.

Social Relationship and Inequality

Having positive beliefs and attitudes about one’s ethnic and racial group can help boost cortisol regulation, the body’s primary stress hormone, according to research by Emma Adam. Adam’s team is working to solve the mystery behind why African-Americans have less variation in their cortisol rhythms than white people. They also have found that perceived discrimination among adolescents strongly predicts dysregulated adult cortisol rhythms and reduces rates of college graduation.

Social Relationships in Organizations

Those weak ties you’ve formed are more important than you might think, said sociologist Mario Small of Harvard University. “People routinely turn to weak ties when looking for a confidant, regardless of background,” said Small, the author of the new book Someone To Talk To. “They often favor understanding over closeness (strong ties).”

Networks are metaphors for highlighting what’s important in a person’s life, said Small, the Grafstein Family Professor of Sociology at Harvard. “We’re all engaged in a steady stream of social interactions. Think about who your potential supporters are, people who you encounter on a regular basis. Research suggests you might turn to people you wouldn’t expect.”

In a presentation on social relations in schools, Northwestern’s James Spillane suggested teachers may benefit from the chance encounters that stem from working near one another inside the school building. “Physical proximity -- even a relatively small distance -- matters,” Spillane said.

“We’ve taken it for granted but it predicts ties among school staff, and these interactions potentially enable teacher learning,” he said. “It’s not just interesting from a social network, social interaction perspective. It has important implications for how schools are structured.”

Social Relationships From Youth To Late Life

Being popular doesn’t necessarily help an adolescent’s self-esteem, said Jenny Wagner of the University of Kiel in Germany. “What matters for self-esteem is whether you feel like you belong to the class,” said Wagner, head of the personality development in educational contexts research group at the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education.

On the opposite end of the life span, interpersonal trust increases with age and people with certain forms of a gene are more reactive to the highs and lows of life, said Northwestern University’s Claudia Haase, director of the Life-Span Development Laboratory. Haase’s team looks at whether the thin slices of emotional behavior observed in the lab can predict health and well-being over the long term.

“We’ve found that emotions in social relationships do change with age, and it does get better,” Haase said. “Getting closer to the natural end of life seems to shift people toward the positive.”

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 11/6/17