Social Network Graph of College Students in Dorm

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If I Can’t See It, How Can it Affect Me?

In this post Nathan Palmer discusses how supra-individual factors can influence our thoughts, behaviors, and experiences even if we cannot see them.

Sociology is the study of how society influences the individual. Some of these social influences are easy to see (e.g. social punishments for individuals who commit crimes that harm society). However, often the social factors that have the most profound impact on us are things that we cannot perceive with our own eyes. I know that makes sociology sound like the study of social magic, but nothing could be further from the truth. Every student of sociology at some point has asked themselves, “If I can’t see these social forces, how can they be having such a profound affect on me?” That is a fair question and I’d like to answer it for you.

Social Forces are Bigger Than You

When sociologists talk about how social forces influence you as an individual, they are really talking about supra-individual factors. The word supra means above or over. Therefore, supra-individual factors are circumstances that cannot be attributed to an individual and that no single individual can control. These are environmental factors (e.g. growing up in a high crime neighborhood), cultural factors (e.g. living in an individual focused vs. community focused society), or structural factors (e.g. the laws governing what actions you can legally take) that affect your thoughts, actions, and experiences.

How Your Community Influences You

One way to examine how your community influences you is to look at your social network. A social network is a collection of people and all of the connections between them. For instance, look at the social network graph above of 105 college students living in the same dormitory that I adpated from the excellent book Connected by Christakis and Fowler (2011). Each dot on the graph represents a single student and each line indicates a mutual friendship between two students. Researchers call the dots in social networks nodes and the connecting lines are called ties.

A social network graph reveals not only who has a lot of friends, but also who has a lot of friends who themselves also have a lot of friends. For instance, compare student A to student B. Both students are friends with six other students, but student A’s friends have far more friends than student B’s friends do. As a result, student A has more indirect connections to more of his dorm-mates than student B does. Centrality is the term social scientists use to describe how many connections the people you are connected to have. In part it’s called this because when your friends have more friends the dot representing you on the network graph literally moves toward the center.

Your centrality within the network affects your experiences in it. For example, imagine that a nasty flu virus is spreading through the dormitory. Student A’s higher level of centrality suggests that he or she would be at a higher likelihood of contracting it. On the flip side, if a juicy bit of gossip was spreading through the dorm, student B would be less likely to hear about it than person A would be. Or imagine that you wanted to pull of a prank without getting caught. If you were one of the people on the outer rim with just one friendship, then your relative anonymity would make it far easier to execute your prank without anyone recognizing you.

Your Social Network Influences You In Invisible Ways

The structure of our social network and our place within it is clearly a supra-individual factor. Individually we can control how many friends we have, but we have no ability to make our friends become friends with more or less people within our networks. We also have limited information about our friends’ friends, but research suggests that they influence our likelihood of being obese, smoking cigarettes, and many other health and social outcomes (Christakis and Fowler 2011). Which means that even if we don’t know anything about these people or their place in the larger social network we are a part of, they still have an influence on us. These supra-individual factors are invisible to us, but that doesn’t make them magic.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Who are your close friends? Draw a graph of your social network. Be sure to draw ties connecting you to your friends and your friends to one another. Also, to the best of your knowledge draw in who you think your friends’ friends are too.
  2. What are some other supra-individual factors not mentioned in the article that could influence individual behaviors.
  3. Watch this short clip about how family life is impacted by larger social forces. What are some ways your family has been impacted by supra-individual factors?
  4. Look again at the graph above of student A and student B. Think of some other situations that the two students are likely to experience differently based on their different locations within the social network.


  • Christakis, Nicholas A. and James H. Fowler. 2011.* Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives – How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do.* New York, NY u.a.: Back Bay Books.