The social bonds we forge are seen as crucial to healthy human development. We first learn to relate to others at home, as young children. But the ways in which we learn to attach and relate to others from our family have life-long consequences. In this chapter, Brown and Ciciurkaite discuss their understanding of social bonds as a key aspect of human development and provide an overview of the different ways that sociologists define social relationships. They then further discuss the importance of social support for mental health and consider several ways in which this relationship is influenced by social statuses such as socioeconomic status, marital status, and gender. The reader is encouraged to consider these questions: Can you differentiate the perceived from the structural aspects of your relationships with friends? Why do you suppose that the perception of social support matters more than “actual” support received in predicting psychological well-being? And can you give an example of a main effect of social support you have experienced, as well as a buffering effect?
In the classic Beatles song, “I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends” (1967), the questions, “How do you feel at the end of the day? Are you sad because you're on your own?” are memorably answered with the response, “No, I get by with a little help from my friends.” This is the crux, in perhaps its most distilled form, of sociological understandings of the connection between social support and mental health.
The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary defines support, in part, as to “keep from failing or giving way, give courage, confidence, or power of endurance to … supply with necessities … lend assistance or countenance to” (1975: 850). What distinguishes social support from this broader definition is that it always involves either the presence or implication of stable human relationships. The domain of social support has been addressed under a variety of labels, including “social bonds” (Henderson, 1977), “social networks” (Wellman & Wortley, 1989), “meaningful social contact” (Cassel, 1976), “availability of confidants” (Brown, Bhrolchain, & Harris, 1975), and “human companionship” (Lynch, 1977), as well as social support. Although these concepts are not identical, they are similar and share a focus on the relevance and significance of human relationships.