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Defining and Measuring Social Support:

Guidelines for Social Work Practitioners

Calvin L. Streeter
Cynthia Franklin
University of Texas at Austin

This article reviews the literature on social support and presents the theoretical foundations and
basic concepts of social support. A framework is presented for assessing measures of social
support, and eight measures are reviewed using the framework. The framework focuses on basic
conceptualizations of social support, the psychometric characteristics of the measures, and their
clinical utility. Suggestions are made for both using and improving existing measures of social
support in social work practices.

Social support is a multidimensional construct. It assumes many different


forms and can encompass a multitude of relationships, behaviors, and con-
sequences. For example, Lin (1986) has suggested that individuals connec-
tions to their social environment can occur at three distinct levels: (a) the
community level through mechanisms of social integration, (b) the social
network level through a wide range of social interactions and exchanges, and
(c) the level of intimate relationship through which individuals share intimate
feelings and seek advice and guidance concerning the personal and private
aspects of their lives. Whittaker (1983) notes that social support often occurs
within the family context, among friend and peers, between neighbors, and
in specially created support groups.
The focus of this article is on the measurement of social support. It begins
with a review of the literature on social support and highlights the theoretical
foundation and basic concepts of social support. A framework is presented
for assessing measures of social support, and eight measures are reviewed
using the framework. Suggestions are made for both using and improving
existing measures of social support in social work practice.

Authors Note: Correspondence should be addressed to Calvin L. Streeter, University of Texas,


School of Social Work, Austin, TX 78712.
Research on Social Work Practice, Vol 2 No 1, January 1992 81-98
~ 1992 Sage Publications, Inc
81

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CONCEPTUALIZATION OF SOCIAL SUPPORT

Most empirical research and theoretical formulations have focused on


three different types of support: social embeddedness, perceived social sup-
port, and enacted social support (Barrera,1986). Social embeddedness refers
to actual connections people have to significant others in their environment.
Measures that conceptualize social support as social embeddedness generally
focus on ones social network. That is, they identify the direct and indirect
linkages that tie people to family, friends, and peers. These linkages are seen
as indicators of social resources that have the potential to serve a social

support function in times of crisis. Social embeddedness is believed to be


associated with ones sense of belonging to the community, and it implies a
lack of alienation and social isolation (Gottlieb, 1983; Sarason, 1974).
Perceived social support views support as a cognitive appraisal of ones
connections to others. Measures of perceived social support recognize that
not all linkages between individuals and their environment result in social
support. Even if the potential exists for a particular relationship to generate
expressions of support, it is not likely to do so unless it is perceived as avail-
able or adequate to meet the need (Cohen & Hoberman, 1983; Procidano &
Heller, 1983; Turner, Frankel, & Levin, 1983). In some cases, efforts to
provide support are inappropriate, poorly timed, or against the wishes of the
person being helped (Rook, 1984; Rook & Dooley, 1985). Measures of
perceived social support focus on the individuals cognitive appraisal of his
or her social environment and the level of confidence he or she has that when

support is needed it will be available, sufficient to meet the need, and offered
in a way that is perceived as beneficial (Tracy, 1990).
Enacted support refers to the specific behaviors or actions performed by
others as they exhibit expressions of support and assistance. Supportive be-
haviors can include such activities as listening, expressing concern, lending
money, helping with a task, offering suggestions, giving advice, and showing
affection. Measures of enacted support emphasize what people actually do
when they provide social support. In a sense, enacted support is a behavioral
assessment of social support (Tardy, 1985). Most measures of enacted
support are self-report measures that depend on recall of past experiences
rather than actual observations of supportive behaviors. Several studies have
focused on enacted support to assess the responsiveness of ones environment
to requests for assistance and the behavioral response that request receives
(Carveth & Gottlieb, 1979; Lefcourt, Martin, & Saleh, 1984; Sandler &
Barrera, 1984).

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Types of Support
Several classification schemes have been developed for distinguishing
between different types of support. At the most basic level, Pattison (1977)
identifies two types of support: instrumental and affective. Instrumental
support addresses tangible forms of support, such as material aid and finan-
cial assistance, whereas affective support includes such things as emotional
support, social reinforcement, recognition, and esteem building. This distinc-
tion provides an important and fundamental point of departure for identifying
different types of support. However, elaborations of this basic model offer
more precise conceptualizations of the different types of support.
For example, Gottlieb (1978) used explicit descriptions of informal help-
ing behaviors from a sample of single mothers to develop an empirically
generated framework of supportive behaviors. Twenty-six different types of
helping were identified and organized into four general modes of support:
emotionally supportive behaviors, problem-solving behaviors, indirect per-
sonal influence, and environmental action. Each category contains several
subtypes of supportive behavior. For example, subclasses of problem-solving
behaviors included advice giving and guidance, modeling appropriate behav-
ior, and direct practical assistance such as providing transportation. Different
types of support were provided for different kinds of problems. The mothers
reported receiving mostly emotional support for emotional problems, emo-
tional and problem-solving support for problems related to their children, and
problem-solving support for financial problems.
Another important typology of support was developed by Barrera and
Ainlay (1983). Their typology identified six categories of social support that
consistently appeared in the research articles they reviewed. These categories
can be described as follows:

1. Material aid: providing tangible materials in the form of money and other
physical objects;
2. Behavioral assistance: sharing of tasks through physical labor;
3. Intimate interaction: traditional nondirective counseling behaviors such as
listening, caring, expressing esteem and understanding;
4. Guidance: offering advice, information, or instruction;
5. Feedback: providing individuals with feedback about their behaviors, thoughts,
or feelings;
6. Positive social interaction: engaging in social interactions for fun and relax-
ation. (Barrera & Ainlay, 1983, pp. 135-136)

The strength of this typology is that it not only captures the distinctions
reported in the literature, but the descriptions of each category identify the

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kinds of behaviors associated with each type of support (Vaux, 1988).


However, this strength is also a serious limitation. Because it focuses on
supportive activities, it overlooks the cognitive appraisal and consequences
of those activities. Recognition of the complex and dynamic nature of social
support is critical for understanding the ways in which social support is
brought to bear on the everyday problems and stresses of ordinary people.

Sources of Support

Social support can be derived from many different sources: family, friends,
co-workers, classmates, and so on. Lack of support from one source is often
compensated for by support from other sources (Feldman, Rubenstein, &
Rubin, 1988). An important distinction has been
is
made
between support that
provided informally from friends and family and that which is provided
through the formal human service system. This distinction generally con-
cerns the extent to which social support spontaneously occurs or is initiated
and directed by a professional service delivery system. Garbarino (1983)
notes that it is useful to recognize that social support can be either discovered
or created. That is, it can occur naturally and be discovered, or it can be
invented in an effort to respond to personal crisis or stressful life events. Most
formal human services represent created forms of social support. Govern-
ments and private institutions design and implement formal programs and
services that generally have social support as their stated or implied goal. In
fact, the history of social work and the human services is primarily a story
of how and why formal institutions invented or created professional helping
systems.
Informal social support, on the other hand, tends to be much less structured
and deliberate. It can flow out of ongoing personal relationships with family
and friends that are enacted whenever a crisis or need arises. Or it can occur
because those surrounding the individual observe that something is wrong.
Individuals are often unaware of diminished role performance or changes in
emotional stability until those around them point it out (Gottlieb, 1985). For
example, colleagues and co-workers are often the first to notice that one of
their peers is performing poorly on the job or is missing work more fre-
quently. Neighbors quickly notice a fathers growing impatience with a dif-
ficult adolescent. A husband is readily aware that his wife is neglecting her
personal appearance or that her appetite has declined. A wife quickly recog-
nizes that her husband is getting up later each morning and that he seems to
have lost interest in his job or his family. In short, family, friends, and peers
are often the first to notice that something is wrong, and they may let the

person know through expressions of concern and offers of assistance.

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Froland, Pancoast, Chapman, and Kimboko (1981) note that the differ-
ences between informal and formal helping systems are considerable. Formal
helping systems are generally marked by bureaucratic organization, special-
ization of function, formal rules and procedures, explicit criteria for assessing
need and eligibility for services, standardized procedures for helping, and
professionally trained staff who are paid for helping. In contrast, informal
helping systems are highly pluralistic, and the provision of assistance occurs
within the context of multiple relationships and is flexible and responsive to
changing individual needs. Although it is the formal system that social
workers are involved with most directly, both should be recognized as
important.

A FRAMEWORK FOR ASSESSING


MEASURES OF SOCIAL SUPPORT

The task of reviewing and selecting an appropriate measure for social


support assessment requires an understanding of the theoretical and concep-
tual underpinnings of the measure, as well as a clear formulation of the
dimensions and aspects of support one desires to assess. It was noted above
that social support can be conceptualized in terms of social embeddedness,
perceived social support, and enacted social support (Barrera, 1986). In
addition, types of support and sources of support often cut across the three
basic conceptualizations of support. These basic conceptualizations provide
the foundation for a framework for assessing measures of social support.
In addition to assessing the conceptualization of support when selecting
measures of social support, social workers also need to assess the psycho-
metric characteristics of the measure. Of utmost importance is the extent to
which the measures have demonstrated reliability and validity. Reliability
refers to the extent to which the items in the instrument consistently measure
the same entity and the total instrument measures the same way every time
that it is used (Corcoran & Fischer, 1987). Validity refers to how well the
instrument measures what it is designed to measure. A good measure for
clinical assessment is one that has empirically demonstrated reliability and
validity.
A good measure for clinical assessment is also one that has appropriate
standardization and norms. Standardization of measures entails a process of
establishing norms for the measure. Development of norms is essential to the
scoring and clinical interpretation of the measure, because norms make the
measure comparable across client groups and empirically define the limits

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86

and practicalities of the measure. Norms establish such relevant information


as the average score of the measure, the deviations necessary to score outside
the average, and the client groups for which the measure is appropriate.
Standardized measures have uniform procedures specified for the adminis-
tration and scoring of the measure. The developer of the measure is able to
provide detailed directions about how the measure is to be given, to whom
it is to be given, and the exact meaning and clinical significance of the results
(Jordan, Franklin, & Corcoran, in press).
Measures for clinical assessment must also be critiqued in terms of their
clinical utility. Clinical utility refers to the practical advantages gained from
using the instrument to plan interventions and to obtain accurate feedback
about the effectiveness of those interventions (Gottman & Leiblum, 1974;
Nelson, 1981). Corcoran and Fischer note that &dquo;instruments that tap a
clinically relevant problem, are short, easy to score, and easy to interpret are
the most useful for practice&dquo; (1987, p. 24).
Table 1 combines these ideas and provides a useful framework for
assessing measures of social support. It draws upon the various conceptual-
izations of social support as well as addressing issues of reliability, validity,
standardization, and clinical utility.

MEASURES OF SOCIAL SUPPORT

The framework is used to assess eight measures of social support. The


instruments reviewed are categorized on the basis of the different conceptu-
alizations of social support discussed previously: social embeddedness,
perceived social support, and enacted social support. Measures are described
along the dimensions of the framework in Table 1. The measures reviewed
serve as examples of assessment instruments available to measure different

aspects of social support.

Social Embeddedness

The Social Support Network Inventory (SSNI) was first developed by


Flaherty, Gaviria, and Pathak between 1979 and 1983 (Flaherty, Gaviria, &
Pathak, 1983). The SSNI is a self-report measure that requires clients to
generate a limited network (five) of supportive individuals and one group.
The SSNI has 11 items that are scaled on a 5-point scale, with 5 indicating
high support and 1 indicating no support. This measure provides a brief
assessment of three types of social support: practical support, emotional

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TABLE 1: A Framework for Assessing Measures of Social Support

support, and stress-event-related support. The SSNI provides information on


both the instrumental and the affective types of social support.
Reliability and validity have been established for the SSNI testing 207
inpatients, 100 students, 74 members of an urban neighborhood, and 32 mem-
bers of a close-knit religious group. Internal consistency reliability was cal-
culated using the Kuder-Richardson-20 formula, with coefficients in ranges
of .79 to .90 for the different populations. Evidence was also found for the
content, concurrent, convergent, and predictive validity of the measure.
The SSNI takes about 15 to 30 min to complete, making it suitable for
rapid assessments. It is also easy to use and has face validity for clinical
situations. The measure was developed for use in a psychiatric setting and
was utilized to assess the role that social factors play in the development of
emotional illness. Scoring of the measure is relatively simple by summing

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the 11 items across the five modalities. Norms and standardization are
limited, but with further development the SSNI may be useful as a predictive,
clinical assessment tool. Currently, the measure appears to have some utility
as a clinical tool for initial screening of a clients social support network
resources. The measure is available from the author. Contact Joseph A.

Flaherty, M.D., Department of Psychiatry, University of Illinois at the


Medical Center, 912 South Wood Street, Chicago, IL 60688.
The Social Network Map (SNM) was recently developed by Tracy and
Whittaker (1990) to be used in clinical assessments. The SNM provides a
global assessment of social support and is designed to assess the structure
and functions of personal social networks. It is a self-report measure that
incorporates a graphic approach (ecomapping), card-sort techniques, and an
interview grid for the purposes of assessing several aspects of informal
support. Specifically the SNM provides information on the network size;
domain size, such as family, friends, work associates, and so on; perceived
availability of emotional, concrete, and informational support; proportion of
the network perceived as being critical for the individual; closeness of the
network members; reciprocity; directionality; stability of relationships; and
frequency of contacts.
The SNM collects information on seven sources of support: household,
family or relatives, friends, work and school, clubs, organizations orreligious
groups, neighbors, and agencies or other formal supports. Clients are asked
to generate a list of members in each source area and place them on a network
circle that acts as a visual display. The interview grid is then used to ask
questions about qualitative aspects of the network. The card-sort technique
is utilized in answering the questions and allows clients to indicate qualitative
aspects of their network, such as how close they are to various network
members and the directionality for help.
The SNM has excellent face validity for collecting network information
in clinical work. However, at its current stage of development, it has limited
clinical utility because reliability and validity studies have not been com-
pleted. The authors report, however, that the SNM was demonstrated to have
qualitative clinical utility in their work with 45 high-risk families. Its length
of administration was 15 min to one hour, with an average administration
time of 20 min. Such variability in time of administration is a limitation to
the practical usefulness of the measure. The SNM does appear to be useful,
however, as a systematic clinical technique for gathering a thorough and
comprehensive assessment on a clients network characteristics. It is more
like a game than a paper-and-pencil measure and has greater visual and tactile
appeal. It is easy to administer, and Tracy and Whittaker (1990) have

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89

provided detailed information on how to administer and score the measure.


For a copy of the measure, contact Elizabeth Tracy, Mandel School of
Applied Social Services, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH
44106.
The Social Support Resources (SSR) measure was developed for the
purpose of assessing five types of social support: emotional, socializing,
practical, financial, and advice or guidance. The measure provides informa-
tion on the structure, composition, and quality of relationships in social
networks across these types of social support (Vaux, 1988; Vaux & Harrison,
1985). A total of 10 network members may be generated for each type of
support, producing a total list of 50 network members. Clients are asked to
list the people who give them emotional support, financial assistance, advice
and guidance, help with practical pro~lems, and people they socialize with.
Questions are provided to illustrate the different types of support and to help
the client clearly identify the correct network members in each area. For
example, under emotional support, clients -are instructed to ask themselves:
Who comforts you? Whom do you feel close to? Whom do you confide in
and discuss personal feelings with? (Vaux & Harrison, 1985, p. 266). After
generating the list of network members, clients are asked a series of eight
questions about each person in their network. Questions cover such relevant
aspects of social networks as frequency of contacts, closeness, balance, na-
ture of the relationship, social sector, and sex of the person. Finally, the client
is asked to provide a global rating of support satisfaction across the five types
of support.
Reliability and validity studies have shown that the SSR has marginal to
adequate reliability and validity for a good clinical assessment instrument.
Test-retest reliability was assessed for a 6-week interval with reliability
coefficients ranging from .31 to .71. Internal consistency for the measure was
.76 for a college sample. There is, however, a fair amount of evidence for the
content and predictive validity of the SSR (Vaux, 1988).
There is little information about the clinical utility of the SSR. Although
the measure was developed for the purposes of assessing social embedded-
ness in a research setting, it does appear to provide information that would
be useful to clinicians. For example, the measure assesses multiple types of
social support and provides information on multiple sources of support. This
type of comprehensive and integrative assessment would help clinicians
understand who provides social support to their clients and what types of
support are given. The measure is easy to administer and could be adminis-
tered in the context of an assessment interview. But like many other measures
of social embeddedness, it is lengthy and time consuming. Administration

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time for the measure is estimated to be anywhere from 20 min to one hour.
Scoring and interpretation of the measure are difficult. Scores are calculated
for total network size, mode-specific network size, density, frequency of
interaction, closeness, complexity, proportion of reciprocal relationships,
and proportion of network members falling into various types of relation-
ships. Currently, the measure lacks adequate norms and standardization for
aclinical assessment instrument. The SSR may be obtained from Alan Vaux,
Psychology Department, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL62901.

Perceived Social Support


The Family Relationship Index (FRI) is a self-report, paper-and-pencil
measure that assesses the quality of social support among family members
(Holahan & Moos, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986). The FRI subscales are
part of the Family Environment Scale, a state-of-the-art clinical family mea-
sure that assesses social and interpersonal climates in families. Three sub-
scales from the Family Environment Scale-cohesion, expressiveness, and
conflict-were derived for use as the FRI. Subscales do not conform to
traditional definitions of social support but, rather, indicate the degree of
closeness, open communication, and conflict that exists among family mem-
bers. All of these characteristics are taken together to infer a supportive social
environment in the family.
Psychometric characteristics of the FRI are excellent for research and
clinical practice. Most of the psychometric work done on the Family Envi-
ronment Scale also applies to the FRI, because it is derived directly from this
measure. Psychometric characteristics of the Family Environment Scale have

been established in over 200 studies (Grotevant & Carlson, 1989). Reliability
for the three subscales of the FRI was found to be excellent with a Cronbachs
alpha of .89. There is evidence for the content, concurrent, predictive, and
construct validity of the measure.
The FRI has primarily been used in research studies on the role of family
supports in resistance to stress. However, it appears to be useful for clinical
assessments with families. It is sensitive to clinical change and provides a
good assessment of client progress in treatment. Administration time is
approximately 10 to 15 min, which makes it ideal for rapid assessments.
Scoring is simple, using a scoring key and stencil available for the instrument.
Computer scoring is also available as a part of the Family Environment Scale.
The FRI has been standardized, and a large normative base exists for the
measure. Raw scores can be converted into standard scores and plotted on a

graph for easy interpretation. The availability of a technical manual adds


further to the FRIs clinical utility (Moos, 1986). The FRI can be obtained

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from Consulting Psychologist Press, 3803 Bay Shore Road, P.O. Box 10096,
Palo Alto, CA 94306.
The Perceived Social Support Questionnaire-Family and Friends (PSSQ)
is a measure of social support that assesses the extent to which clients per-
ceive that their needs for information, feedback, and support are being met
by their family and friends (Procidano & Heller, 1983). The PSSQ is a
self-report, paper-and-pencil measure that consists of 20 items in which a
client answers yes, no, or dont know. The same statements are answered to
evaluate social support from two different sources, family and friends.
Psychometric properties of the PSSQ are good. Studies have evaluated
the reliability and validity of the measure. Internal consistency reliability
ranged from alphas of .89 to .91. Test-retest reliability coefficients ranged
from .81 to .91. There is also evidence for the content, convergent, and
divergent validity of the PSSQ. These studies are available from the authors
(Procidano & Heller, 1989).
The PSSQ appears to have a great deal of utility for social work assess-
ments (Darro et al., 1990). The measure has been used with a variety of
clients, including individuals with alcoholism, schizophrenia, and dysfunc-
tional families. The PSSQ has been recommended as an important clinical
assessment tool that may be used in family therapy assessments (Floyd,
Weinand, & Cimmarusti, 1989). Further, the PSSQ is easy to administer,
score, and interpret. Items are scored by assigning 1 to responses indicating
social support and summing the items. Scores range from 0, indicating no
support, to 20, indicating maximum support. Administration of the measure
takes approximately 10 to 20 min, making the measure ideal for rapid clinical
assessments. However, interpretation of the PSSQ is difficult, because norms
and standardization for the instrument are limited. It appears to be useful for
screening perceived social support among family and friends and as a crude
measure of clinical progress. The PSSQ can be obtained from Mary Pro-

cidano, Department of Psychology, Fordham University, Bronx, NY 10458.


A copy of the measure is also reprinted in an article by Procidano and Heller
(1983).
The Social Support Appraisals Scale (SSA) assesses the degree to which
a person feels cared for, respected, and involved (Vaux, 1988; Vaux et al.,
1986). It is primarily an affective measure of social support. The SSA is a
self-report, paper-and-pencil measure made up of 23 items. The measure has
a agree/disagree format and provides separate scores for perceived social

support from family and friends.


Reliability and validity studies using five college and five community
samples have been reported by the authors (Vaux, 1988). The SSA has shown

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good internal consistency with alphas ranging from .84 to .90. Test-retest
reliability indicated that the scales remained consistent over a 6-week period,
with reliability coefficients ranging from .71 to .80. There is also evidence
for the convergent and predictive validity of the measure.
Although the SSA was developed for research purposes, the measure
appears to be adaptable to clinical settings because of its brevity and ease of
use. Time for administration is approximately 5 to 15 min, which makes the
SSA an excellent candidate for rapid clinical assessments. It provides useful
information on the affective type of social support from the perceptions of
the individual filling out the measure. The measure is also easy to score, but
interpretation is complicated because the measure lacks adequate norms and
standardization. The SSA may be obtained from Alan Vaux, Psychology
Department, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL 62901.

Enacted Social Support


The Inventory for Socially Supportive Behaviors (ISSB) was developed
to assess enacted social support and includes items that measure both instru-
mental and affective types of informal social support (Barrera, Sandler, &
Ramsay, 1981). The ISSB was originally designed to assess six types of social
support: material aid, physical assistance, intimate interaction, guidance,
feedback, and social participation. However, empirical evidence indicates
that four types of social support exist within the factor structure of the
measure: directive guidance, nondirective support, positive social interac-

tion, and tangible assistance (Barrera & Ainlay, 1983).


The ISSB measures the number of times clients were the recipients of
supportive actions in the different areas over a 4-week interval. It is a
self-report, paper-and-pencil measure that consists of 40 items scaled on a
5-point scale ranging from not at all to almost every day. The measure pro-
vides information on several aspects of social network relationships, includ-
ing frequency of interactions, closeness, complexity, and reciprocity of
relationships.
The psychometric characteristics of the ISSB have been evaluated in a
number of studies. The measure was found to have good internal consistency
reliability, with an alpha of .93, and test-retest reliability over a 2-day period,
with a reliability coefficient of .88. There is evidence for the concurrent,
convergent, and divergent validity of the measure. The contents and factor
structure of the measure have also been examined in two studies.
The clinical utility of the ISSB has not been examined directly. However,
the measure appears to have potential as a clinical measurement instrument.
A. Vaux (personal communication, February 11, 1990) has indicated that of

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93

all theexisting measures of social support, the ISSB would seem to be most
compatible with clinical work and in fact was developed with clinical appli-
cations in mind. The ISSB is easy to administer and score. Scoring requires
the simple summations of items on a 5-point scale. Administration time is
estimated to be 15 to 20 min. Therefore it may be appropriate as a rapid
assessment measure. Standardization and normative base for the instrument
are currently limited. It appears to be best suited as a screening instrument in
cases in which practitioners need to obtain information about the types of
social support actually provided to a client. To obtain a copy of the ISSB,
contact Manuel Barrera, Jr., Department of Psychology, Arizona State Uni-
versity, Tempe, AZ 85281.
The Social Support Behaviors (SSB) was developed to measure five types
of social support: emotional, socializing, practical assistance, financial assis-
tance, and advice or guidance. It was developed, along with the SSR and
SSA, as part of a battery of social support measures. All the measures in this
battery, including the SSB, were developed from different conceptualizations
of social support. The SSR and SSA measures have been reviewed previously
under the topics of embedded and perceived social support. The SSB assesses
the available supportive behaviors from two sources of social support: family
and friends (Vaux, 1988). The SSB is a 45-item, self-report, paper-and-pencil
measure that asks clients to indicate on the basis of their past experience how

likely a friend or family member is to perform a supportive behavior.


Several studies have provided support for the good psychometric charac-
teristics of the SSB. Internal consistency reliability was tested on several
samples of college students and found to be good, with alphas of .85. There
is also evidence for the content, concurrent, predictive, and construct validity
of the measure. Factor analysis also supported the factor structure of the SSB
(Vaux, 1988).
Like the SSR and SSA, the SSB was designed for research and not clinical
purposes. It may have some value, however, as a clinical assessment tool, in
that it assesses several types of social support from friends and family and
provides an assessment of the supportive behaviors given. The focus on
behavior makes a unique contribution to social support assessment. Few
social support measures assess enacted social support, a critical aspect of
support for planning treatment alternatives in situations in which clients need
to increase or decrease social support. The demonstrated predictive abilities
of the SSB make it particularly suited for screening and treatment planning.
We estimated the administration time for the measure to be 15 to 20 min,
which makes it suitable for rapid clinical assessments. The SSB is also fairly
easy to administer and score. Scoring is a simple clerical procedure of

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summing items for subscales. Interpretation, however, is complicated by the


fact that the measure lacks adequate norms or standardization. The SSB may
be obtained from Alan Vaux, Psychology Department, Southern Illinois
University, Carbondale, IL 62901.

SUMMARY AND IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE

Of all the helping professions, social work has most consistently recog-
nized the multidimensional context within which person-environment rela-
tionships develop, are maintained, and are mobilized to address client needs
(Mattaini & Kirk, 1991). Social support networks have served an important
role in this matrix and have been at the forefront for consideration as an
important element to be assessed in social work practice (Allen-Meares &
Lane, 1987; Jordan & Franklin, in press; Meyer, 1983; Tracy & Whittaker,
1987, 1990). This article has reviewed some of the relevant concepts and
measures of social support with the intent of making the dimensions of social

support in the research literature more accessible and meaningful to direct


practitioners. Eight measures of social support have been reviewed for the
purposes of informing direct practitioners about available measures of social
support that have potential for uses in clinical assessment.
This review indicates that a number of measures that have acceptable
reliability and validity exist to assess several different types and sources of
social support. Several of these measures have potential for clinical practice,
but few have been developed to the point of being standardized with estab-
lished norms. Although advances in social support assessment and measure-
ment will undoubtedly continue in social work practice, practitioners are
urged to view social support as an important assessment issue and to use the
best social support measures currently available in doing clinical assess-
ments. Toward this end, the following suggestions are offered.
Practitioners should use measures that have the best clinical utility. The
FRI and the PSSQ appear to show the most promise as rapid assessment
instruments for clinical practice. These measures appear to have the best
empirical and clinical development. The SNM, on the other hand, lacks the
empirical development of some measures but appears to have considerable
potential as an excellent assessment tool for conducting a comprehensive
assessment of social support. The SSNI also has potential for providing a
rapid, individualized assessment of a clients personal social support net-
work.

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Although the Vaux scales (SSR, SSA, and SSB) lack direct clinical utility,
they may serve as excellent sources of social support information by provid-
ing a comprehensive view of support from the three basic conceptualizations:
social embeddedness, enacted social support, and perceived social support.
In addition, the ISSB was developed with clinical applications in mind and
provides a comprehensive view of social support across multiple types of
support (Barrera et al., 1981). These social support measures have been
recommended for use in practice in relationship to evaluating parenting
programs, and in their current state they appear to be useful for preliminary
assessments of social support (Darro et al., 1990).
Practitioners should seek opportunities to contribute to the further devel-
opment of existing social support measures and to improve their clinical
utility. Further standardization of these instruments, in particular the devel-
opment of norms and standard scores, would greatly enhance their usefulness
in social work practice (Corcoran & Fischer, 1987; Jordan, Franklin, &
Corcoran, in press).
Because formal support is important to social work practitioners, this
source of support needs to be developed into existing instruments. For

example, practitioners may wish to develop a formal support scale to add to


the clinically popular, rapid assessment measure, the PSSQ, which currently
measures only support from family and friends.
New and more clinically relevant measures are also needed. In particular,
rapid assessment instruments, which can measure social support would be
clinically useful and would increase the social work practitioners ability to
make accurate clinical judgments regarding the degree of social support that
clients are experiencing (Hudson, 1989; Tracy & Whittaker, 1987, 1990).
Rapid assessment measures relevant for specialized populations such as
children, adolescents, and the elderly would increase the clinical utility of
social support assessment. Beyond rapid assessment instruments, computer-
ized social support measures that could assess multiple, interactive variables
and map client social support networks are definitely indicated. These
measures will represent the wave of the future in social work assessment and
make assessment of the person-environment matrix a reality (Cheers, 1987;
Mattaini & Kirk, 1991).

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