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Online Social Support: The Interplay of Social Networks and Computer-Mediated Communication

Author: Antonina Bambina
Publisher: Youngstown, NY: Cambria Press, 2007
Review Published: September 2009

 REVIEW 1: Willem de Koster
 REVIEW 2: Fred Stutzman
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Antonina Bambina

Online Social Support aims "to clarify the patterns of relations that develop in an online environment and the impact they have on the availability and transmission of social support" (2). To do so, the author analyzed two weeks of the archived discussion of the fictitiously named Support OnLine (SOL)-Cancer Forum -- a forum used by people with various experiences with cancer, including patients, their relatives and caregivers.

The book's introductory chapter first offers an insightful overview of the literature on social support. As an alternative to the traditional literature on this subject, Bambina introduces the "expanded organizational contingency theory" proposed by Litwak et al, whose main assumption is that specific types of support can be provided by social groups with specific structural characteristics. Having sketched this theory, Bambina makes a plea for a social network perspective as this seems best suited to illuminate associations between patterns of relationships and the transmission of social support.

In the subsequent chapter the author provides a careful, detailed discussion of the coding scheme she applied, and the interested reader can find additional information in an appendix. Three main categories of social support are distinguished: emotional support (which is affective and sentimental), informational support (which is practical), and companionship (which makes individuals feel part of a meaningful collective). Following an overview of the frequency of the three types of support -- companionship is numerically most prominent, followed by emotional support -- the general conclusion is made that intimacy and support can exist in online contexts. This conclusion is posed vis-a-vis theories that hold the contrary, but this seems a somewhat forced discussion as many others have already documented the existence of various types of support in online environments.

Chapters three and four take up the research question by describing the structure of relations on the forum. In chapter three, an image of a divided network is sketched. It is demonstrated that two categories of users can be distinguished: "givers" and "takers." The former both provide and receive the three types of support, whereas the latter predominantly receive informational support and do not give. Chapter four focuses on the structure of the givers, which are classified into four categories. A "star" actor is identified, as well as "prime givers," "serious members," and "moderate users." Subsequently, Bambina shows that some types of support are exchanged in narrower circles than others: whereas even takers are involved in informational support, emotional support is limited to the four types of givers, and companionship appears to be most exclusive as it is only exchanged between members who are more central in the network than moderate users.

The empirical analyses presented in these chapters are extremely thorough, and a wide range of statistics is applied to ascertain the existence of the patterns again and again. Although empirical rigor is laudable, the presentation of the results makes these chapters rather tedious: the statistical discussion is very detailed and especially since the initial results are repeatedly corroborated it might have been a better idea to curtail their presentation. This would allow for a more extensive discussion of the theoretical implications of the results. The concluding parts of the chapters are relatively short and add little more than an overview of the patterns that were uncovered, leaving the reader wanting for an indication of their relevance beyond the scope of the SOL forum.

Chapters five and six provide the most explicitly theory-oriented research parts of the book. First, the expanded organizational contingency theory is elaborated upon, and five structural dimensions are formulated that can be used to classify the structure of the network as well as support -- i.e. level of dedication, degree of intimacy, reciprocity, size, and commonality of major cancer role. Hereafter, detailed hypotheses on the convergence of the structure of the network and the support structure are formulated. For each type of requested and provided support it is predicted how it is associated with the five structural dimensions of the network. It is concluded that this "network support-specific model" is a correct representation of the support that is exchanged within the forum. Like before, there is more than adequate attention to statistical procedures, but the operationalization underlying these raises some questions. One wonders, for instance, whether the number of messages exchanged is a valid measure for degree of intimacy (186). It seems problematic that the contents of these messages are not taken into account. Another issue is that members can contact each other outside the forum yet this has not been measured (222). Would intimate relationships not be sustained through private communications off-forum?

The concluding chapter summarizes the results and sketches the social implications of the study by addressing the benefits of online social support for patients. All in all, the book's most important contribution is the demonstration that structural differences in online participation are associated with different forms of online social support. As such the study is a convincing application of the expanded organizational contingency theory in the digital realm. However, there are some limitations -- some of which are mentioned in the concluding chapter (221-225) -- that deserve a little more attention.

While outlining the significance of her study, Bambina states "it lends a sociological perspective to the broader academic community of Internet scholars by adding to the few sociological voices engaged in discussing contemporary issues of online social support and CMC" (24). Because of this engagement to contribute to what might be termed "Internet studies," it seems odd that the research is hardly embedded in the broader literature of this field. In fact, the book's theoretical focus is on an application of the expanded organizational contingency theory and is as such not explicitly connected to empirical research and theorizing in Internet studies. A good starting point could have been the literature on virtual communities, which takes a prominent place in Internet studies. This literature is not discussed and the word community is merely mentioned twice in the index, while some empirical findings seem very interesting from the virtual community perspective. From this perspective it is relevant that companionship is the most frequently communicated form of support, as this closely resembles a "sense of community." Strikingly, companionship comprises the largest share of the total support exchanged by the givers, whereas the takers receive least of this form of support (111), indicating a tight-knit community with clear boundaries. Along with the finding that "the companionship network includes the smallest number of categories" (145), this suggests interesting dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that could have been reflected upon.

Furthermore, a sociological understanding of the forum could have benefited from attention for offline contexts of online interactions. As Bambina herself indicates (223-225), the study's exclusive attention for messages posted on the forum creates a blind spot for other interactions that might relate to those on the forum. She repeatedly suggests that nearly all interactions take place on the forum (18, 32, 244n16) but there is not much evidence corroborating this assumption. After all, people could engage in private e-mail interactions and phone conversations and they could meet face-to-face without stating this in forum messages. A related issue is that if other interactions had been part of the analysis, the conclusion that instrumental (tangible) support is too rare to be subject of the study (31-32) could have been otherwise.

I hope that these points of critique will be regarded as opportunities to be taken up in future research into the transmission of social support in online environments. For the moment, Bambina has provided scholars interested in online social support with a relevant book that, despite the many statistical details, offers a pleasant read because of its systematic approach and analytical clarity.

Litwak, E., Messeri, P., Wolfe, S., Gorman, S., Silverstein, M., and Guilarte, M. (1989). Organizational Theory, Social Supports, and Mortality Rates: A Theoretical Convergence. American Sociological Review, 54(1), 49-66.

Willem de Koster:
Willem de Koster is a sociologist of culture. Studying how participation in online forums can be understood from offline social life, he works as a PhD student at Erasmus University Rotterdam. In general, he is interested in processes of cultural change in the West. Some of his work has been published or is forthcoming in British Journal of Criminology, Information, Communication and Society, International Political Science Review and Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.  <dekoster@fsw.eur.nl>

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