Ph.D. Spotlight: Social Relationships as Resources in Later Life: The Dynamics of Structural and Functional Support

The field of sociology has long acknowledged the importance of social relationships. Some of the most well-known research in sociology on relationships stems from the foundational work of Durkheim, who found those who were socially integrated were less likely to commit suicide than those who were socially isolated. Durkheim’s was among the first sociological studies to argue that social relationships are critical to health and wellbeing. Over the last several decades, scholars have begun to parse out casual explanations regarding social relationships and health. Social support emerged as a key social resource protective of health. More recent research has explored the relevance of social support at different phases of the life course, with a specific focus on later life establishing older adults as proactive in managing their social network to fit their social needs. This work acknowledges the contextual forces shaping social support and shows that social support changes over the life course.

Despite growing attention to social support in sociological research, there are several key gaps in current scholarship that can be addressed by looking to theories and research grounded in other disciplines. Although social support is typically treated as a stable resource, much like other resources, growing evidence suggests that social support changes throughout the life course and is likely to be influenced by important role losses and life transitions. Understanding the dynamic nature of social support is a necessary step for exploring how it serves as a resource for health. When individuals experience role losses or social losses in later life, the composition of one’s social network and frequency of interactions with others are likely to change. Sociology alongside scholarship in fields such as psychology, social work, public health, and economics collectively show that role losses related to driving cessation, retirement, widowhood in later life, and life are particularly likely to influence the composition, quality, and frequency of our social interactions and relationships. Understanding the ways these kinds of life course changes relate to changes in our social relationships are critical to understanding how our health is subsequently affected.

This dissertation aims to fill gaps in sociological scholarship about changes in dynamic social resources that occur during later life. Specifically, this dissertation examines changes to structural and functional support in association with three role losses that have been shown to have important health consequences in later life – the loss of driving (Study #1), retirement (Study #2), and widowhood (Study #3) – and whether the associations between these three role losses in later life and changes in social resources vary by race, class, gender, or marital status.

The findings from this dissertation show that social relationships are both stable and dynamic resources in later life. Later life is associated with multiple stressful role losses, which each have the potential to impact our social relationships with children, relatives, and friends in unique ways. Evidence suggests that certain social locations are especially important in shaping whether functional and structural support changes in association with a role loss, particularly race (retirement and widowhood), class (widowhood), and marital status/household composition (driving cessation and retirement).

Dr. King is a graduate of Florida State University’s sociology Ph.D. program. This post was based on Dr. King’s dissertation abstract. You can learn more about this project here. You can learn more about Dr. King here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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