February 8, 2021
When we think about the type of person who is active in politics, most of us have in mind someone who holds strong opinions about current issues and events, who pays attention to the news, and who is active in the community. And this is mostly right. Extensive research on political participation has shown that having more years of formal education, stronger political commitments, and more regular patterns of religious attendance increases your likelihood of being more active in politics. But more recently, scholars have argued that political participation is not simply a function of our personal attributes, but the broader social environment as well. Recent research suggests that having more close personal connections is strongly linked to more regular political participation.
To measure close social ties, we employed an egocentric social network battery designed to measure these types of personal connections. To identify members of a core social network, respondents were required the name people with whom they “discussed important personal matters or concerns” in the previous six months, regardless of the nature of the relationship or the frequency of interaction. To learn more about our approach to measuring social networks read our related report: “Socially distant: How our divided social networks explain our politics.”
One of the most basic political activities—voting—is much more common among those with robust social networks. Americans with more social connections are far more likely to report that they always participate in national elections than those with few or none. Among those with zero people in their network, less than half (45 percent) say they always vote. Americans with between one and three close social contacts report only modestly higher rates of voting with 51 percent reporting that they always vote. In contrast, 71 percent of Americans with large social networks (six or seven social contacts), say they always vote in national elections.
Americans with a larger social network also report more interest in the 2020 presidential election. Those with at least six close social contacts report being nearly twice as likely to be following news about the election than those without any social connections (50 percent vs. 27 percent). They are also far more likely to be registered to vote (92 percent vs. 76 percent).
Americans with larger core social networks also report higher levels of political activity than those with fewer close personal relationships. This pattern is evident across a broad range of different political activities, including making political donations, attending a rally, displaying a sign or making political comments online. Nearly half (46 percent) of Americans who have at least six close personal connections say they have publicly supported a political campaign on social media, an activity that is far less common among those with smaller networks. Only 18 percent of those who report having no close social contacts say they posted a comment supporting a campaign.
One possible explanation for why Americans with larger networks engage in political activities more often is that they are simply more likely to be asked. Americans with larger social networks report receiving calls to (political) action far more often than those with smaller networks. Many Americans with at least six people in their core social network report being asked to donate to a political cause or candidate (49 percent) or to attend a rally or protest (46 percent). In contrast, those with zero close social contacts are far less likely to be asked to do either activity (26 percent vs. 22 percent, respectively).
But this is not the only plausible explanation. Previous research has suggested that Americans with larger networks have more robust social capital — the social, financial, and emotional resources derived from their personal relationships — that allows people to dedicate more time and attention to politics. A larger personal network of trusted social contacts affords us greater opportunities to gain exposure to political information, and knowledge that encourages participation.
Does social network size predict political participation?
There is a strong relationship between the size of our social networks and our propensity to participate in politics. However, Americans with larger social networks differ from those with fewer social connections in important ways. Americans who report having more social connections are also disproportionately likely to be older, be married, and have higher levels of formal education, all of which have been shown to be linked to political involvement. Therefore, any conclusions about the relationship between network size and political involvement must account for these disparities.
To address this issue several multivariate regression models were employed that controlled for these demographic differences found in people with larger and smaller networks. The results of the model show that social network size significantly predicts political involvement even after accounting for basic characteristics, such as age, education, marital status, and religious attendance. The results show that Americans with more robust network of social ties are more politically engaged.i These results were consistent across a variety of different political activities. Americans with no close social ties have only a 11 percent probability of having contacted an elected official, while those who report having seven people in their core social network have a 31 percent probability of having engaged in this activity. Similarly, Americans with no close social connections have a 9 percent probability of having donated to a political cause or campaign while those with seven people had a 31 percent probability. The importance of social network size is evident even in more common types of political activities, such as posting a comment in support of a political campaign on social media. Americans without an immediate social connection are far less likely to have participated in this activity. Those with no close social ties have only an 18 percent probability of having posted about a political campaign on social media. In contrast, Americans with seven close contacts have a 46 percent probably of having expressed support for a political campaign on social media.
When we consider the importance of having close personal connections—whether family or friends—we often focus on the social and emotional support that these relationships provide. But the benefits of having larger social networks extends to the political arena as well. Having a robust network of friends and family may encourage us to become more active in civic and political life.
Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank Beatrice Lee for her research assistance and support with the design of the figures.