Based on a large study of individuals in groups that meet regularly, an interdisciplinary team of University of South Carolina researchers has created a questionnaire that can measure the dynamics of social connections and their association with better mental health. Their work has been published in Sage Open and the Journal of Community Psychology.
“Just because you’re in some type of group doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be beneficial to your health,” said Dr. Holly Pope, director of evaluation for the Center for Research and Nutrition in Health Disparities in the Arnold School of Public Health. “To have a positive effect, there have to be certain qualities in a group’s interactions that build trust and reciprocity of support, whether it’s a book club, an AA meeting or a prayer group.”
The Arnold School team members included lead author Dr. Pope, Dr. Maggi Miller and Dr. Carol Cornman, with the Office of the Study of Aging, and epidemiology professor emeritus Dr. Robert McKeown. “[Dr. Miller] and I went to all corners of the state, wherever people gathered — laundromats, convenience stores, churches, flea markets, restaurants, bingo parlors — to find people willing to talk to us about their experiences in groups,” Dr. Pope said. They interviewed scores of people who belonged to church, community and service groups as well as some who did not belong to any groups. They began to theorize that the trust each person felt and the give and take they experienced in groups creates social capital.
“Social capital is like a tangled mess of spaghetti — it’s the benefits that people derive from being part of a group. Our job was to untangle and measure those strands of social capital to see how they related to mental and physical health,” Dr. Pope said. After rigorous analysis of the interviews, the research group developed what became the Relationships in Community Groups questionnaire.
“That questionnaire has been validated, so it can be used by community researchers to measure the quality of relationships in community- and congregation-based groups and investigate if participation in these groups is associated with positive mental health outcomes,” Dr. Miller said.