Hatteberg et al., 2021

Sociological Perspectives 2021, Vol. 64(1) 37-57 © The Author(s) 2020 Article reuse guidelines: sagepub.com/journals-permissions DOI: 10.1177/0731121420908885 journals.sagepub.com/home/spx Article A Tale of Many Sources: The Perceived Benefits of Significant Other, Similar Other, and Significant and Similar Other Social Support Sarah J. Hatteberg 1 Abstract Scholarship indicates that there are many benefits of social support, yet theoretical questions remain as to whether the perceived efficacy of support depends upon its source. Drawing on in-depth interviews with a sample of collegiate athletes with access to a vast support network, this research examined the perceived utility of support received from significant others, similar others, and individuals who were both personally significant and experientially similar, albeit to varying degrees. Five categories of similar and/or significant other supporters emerged, each of which seemed to fulfill a different support function. Significant-only others provided support based in personal significance, whereas similar-only others supplied experience-based coping assistance. And a particularly valued resource, individuals who were both significant and similar were solicited based on the relative salience of their significant and similar other role identities and the uniquely specialized support they could provide to match the needs of both individuals and their stressful circumstances. In support of theory, findings highlight the potential for support interventions aimed at cultivating different types of similar and significant other relationships. Keywords social stress, coping, social support, qualitative methods, sociology of sport, student-athlete Scholarship on stress, health, and social support has long recognized the benefits of social rela- tionships to overall health and well-being. There is a large body of research to suggest that social support, a coping resource conferred through these relationships, improves mental and physical health directly and indirectly by buffering against potentially negative impacts of stress (Cohen 2004; Cohen and Wills 1985; Thoits 1995; Umberson and Montez 2010). Still, there remains some uncertainty as to how exactly social support improves health and well-being, and scholars continue to explore the mechanisms behind the salutary effects of social relationships and social support (see, for example, Cohen 2004; McConnell 2017; Perry and Pescosolido 2015; Thoits 1 College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, USA Corresponding Author: Sarah J. Hatteberg, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, College of Charleston, 19 St. Philip Street, Room 102, Charleston, SC 29424, USA. Email: [email protected] 908885 SPX XX X 10.1177/0731121420908885Sociological Perspectives Hatteberg research-article 2020
38 Sociological Perspectives 64(1) 2011; Uchino, Cacioppo, and Kiecolt-Glaser 1996, and Umberson and Montez 2010). Nestled within these theoretical deliberations is the question of whether the perceived utility of and, con- sequently, individuals' preference for certain types of support might depend upon their source . Specifically, scholars propose that significant others (i.e., family and friends with whom indi- viduals have close, personal relationships) and experientially similar others (i.e., individuals, typically linked through more distal ties, who have experienced the same stressor(s)) should supply different kinds of support (see Thoits 2011). Nevertheless, few studies have actually com- pared individuals' perceptions of support received from these two sources, or examined how supporters' experiential similarity and/or personal significance might influence individuals' eval- uations of support received from different sources. Even fewer have examined perceptions of support provided by persons who are both experientially similar and personally significant, pre- sumably because such individuals are rare. To address these gaps in the literature, this study examines the support-seeking behaviors of a sample of collegiate athletes whose networks are made up of former and current athletes (i.e., experientially similar others) and whose structural location within collegiate athletic programs provides them unique access to a variety of supportive others. The purpose of this analysis is to better understand (1) how personal significance, experiential similarity, or both significance and similarity are perceived to influence the support received from various sources and (2) whether and how those perceptions might influence individuals' support-seeking decisions. By identify- ing what individuals facing considerable strain perceive to be most important about the support provided within these supportive relationships, this study further illuminates the mechanisms through which social support may improve health and well-being. Theory and Background Among sociology's greatest contributions to studies of health and well-being is the consistent and robust finding that social relationships positively impact health (Berkman et al. 2000; Umberson and Montez 2010). For instance, studies indicate that social relationships protect against psychological distress (Taylor 2007), improve physiological function (Uchino et al. 1996), and reduce risk of mortality (House, Landis, and Umberson 1988). Although debate con- tinues as to the specific processes through which social relationships impact health, social sup- port remains a promising explanatory mechanism (Cohen 2004; Thoits 2011; Uchino et al. 1996; Umberson and Montez 2010). Social Support and Theories of Stress Buffering Within stress research, social support is conceptualized as the functional properties of social relationships which individuals can mobilize in stressful circumstances to "buffer" against stressors or their consequences (Cohen 2004; House and Kahn 1985; Thoits 1995). Stress schol- ars generally classify social support according to whether it fulfills an instrumental, informa- tional, or emotional purpose (e.g., House and Kahn 1985; Thoits 1995, 2011). Support that involves the provision of tangible resources (e.g., material, financial, or logistical) intended to mitigate stressful situations is classified as instrumental support (House and Kahn 1985; Thoits 1995, 2011). Advice or information that can help an individual reduce, reevaluate, or overcome a stressor is categorized as informational support (House and Kahn 1985; Thoits 1995, 2011). Finally, support that is directed at elevating an individual's emotional state is defined as emo- tional support (House and Kahn 1985; Thoits 1995, 2011). This literature also distinguishes between perceived and received support (Thoits 2011), but generally finds that individuals' belief that support is available carries greater benefit than the support received (Cohen and Wills 1985; Taylor 2007).
Hatteberg 39 The social stress literature also suggests that social support comes from two key sources: (1) significant (intimate) others such as partners, family, or friends who, as part of one's "primary network" (Thoits 2011), may have a role obligation to provide support, especially emotional sup- port such as love, comfort, and esteem, and (2) similar others such as coworkers, neighbors, or acquaintances with whom individuals have less intimate relationships, but who may provide empathy and understanding based on social or experiential similarity (Cohen and McKay 1984; Taylor 2007; Thoits 1986, 1995, 2011). Although early research highlighted the important stress- buffering effects of having a close friend, partner, or confidant (i.e., a significant other ) (e.g., Cohen and Wills 1985; Thoits 1995), and much research has been dedicated to understanding how significant other support improves health and well-being, theoretical and empirical work has since suggested a number of scenarios in which support from experientially similar others may be particularly effective at reducing stress and improving outcomes (Gage 2013; Gage-Bouchard et al. 2015; Grace 2018; McConnell 2017; Perry and Pescosolido 2015; Thoits 2011; Thoits et al. 2000). For example, studies of bereavement (Lehman, Ellard, and Wortman 1986), adult and childhood cancer (Dakof and Taylor 1990, and Gage 2013, respectively), heart surgery (Thoits et al. 2000), mental illness (McConnell 2017; Perry and Pescosolido 2015), status transitions (Suitor, Pillemer, and Keeton 1995) and, most recently, premedical education (Grace 2018) have all shown benefits of connecting with experientially similar others who can provide experience- based support. Still, because most of these studies examined support received from a single type of supporter, it remains unclear as to whether significant other or similar other support may be perceived as more or less desirable as few studies have actually compared individuals' percep- tions of support received from significant and similar others. In their attempts to elucidate the mechanisms connecting social support to positive health outcomes, stress theorists have proposed various models of stress buffering which suggest that the efficacy of support should be based, in part, on the source of that support (see Cohen and McKay 1984; Thoits 1986, 2011). In an early model of stress buffering, Sheldon Cohen and Garth McKay (1984) suggested that, for support to effectively intervene in the stress process, there must be a match between the support available and the specific coping needs of a person's stressful circumstances. Hypothesizing that a given situation could call for a specific type of sup- port, Cohen and McKay (1984) theorized that experientially similar others could better address certain support needs than significant others. For instance, although significant others are aptly positioned to provide love and affection to strengthen a person's sense of belonging should it be threatened, individuals who have experience with the stressor at hand are, based upon their own coping experiences, better prepared to help individuals appraise stressful circumstances (Cohen and McKay 1984). Proponents of this matching hypothesis have argued that the benefits of similar other support may stem from processes of social comparison (Festinger 1954) through which individuals rely on similarly experienced others for behavioral, perceptual, and emotional guidance in uncertain circumstances (Cohen and McKay 1984; McConnell 2017; Thoits 2011). Accordingly, individu- als experiencing stressful situations may look to others who are perceived to have effectively managed or overcome similar stressors for coping insights and validation of their stress responses (Cohen and McKay 1984; Thoits 1986). Thoits (1986, 2011) too argued that social comparison processes play a role in the effectiveness of similar other support; however, she moved beyond role modeling to theorize "empathic understanding" as the bedrock of successful support attempts (Thoits 1986:420). Redefining social support as "active coping assistance," Thoits (1986:417) posited that social support processes reflect the same goals of problem-focused, meaning/percep- tion-focused, and emotion-focused coping strategies by aiming to (1) address the stressor, (2) help an individual reevaluate the stressor, and/or (3) ease a person's immediate emotional response to the stressor, respectively. Thus, according to Thoits (1986), active coping assistance involves providing support specifically attuned to the stressor at hand. Because experientially
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