Studies of personal networks have sought to reconstruct individuals’ network structures with approaches that help determine how actors become connected with one another. While the concept of social connections is easy to understand, social relationships can be so vague and dynamic that it often becomes unclear as to what comprises a connection or tie. To identify such connections and delineate the personal networks surrounding the ties, many network researchers design network generators and ask individuals to list a specified number of friends and relatives who meet certain criteria. Depending on the nature of these criteria, some generators yield strongly tied network members, while others tap into those in the network’s periphery who are weakly tied to the focal person. With rich information from different subsets of personal networks, these generators help reconstruct network structures that enrich network analyses. As informative and insightful as they are, however, most generators tend to dredge up limited or selective network subsets.
Like these preexisting measurements, contact-based measurements induce or sample certain network subsets by setting the specific circumstances under which a respondent lists other people in the instrument. Unlike other approaches, the contact approach seeks to collect information about all persons with whom one has contact in everyday life. In other words, “daily contact” measurements cover all kinds of one-on-one interpersonal contacts, with various contents, purposes, and formats of social interactions, and regardless of the types of relationships between the actors. Such an all-encompassing approach enables network researchers to build concrete and comprehensive archives of personal networks. As an alternative to the set of information that preexisting approaches helps construct, these broad data archives make extensive analyses of wide-ranging issues possible. In addition, not only does the approach allow researchers to inquire more deeply into the roots of network structures by exploring the features of interpersonal ties, but it also facilitates detailed analyses by breaking each tie down into a series of different contacts. Analyses that employ such a multilevel framework of networks, individuals, ties, and contacts can further help researchers develop unconventional arguments and bring insights into the dynamics of personal networks.
This paper discusses how we developed such a contact-based approach in Taiwan, what kinds of instruments we constructed, and how we applied and revised the instruments in other countries with similar and different backgrounds. Unlike other instances in which scholars apply Western-developed sociological concepts and approaches to Asian societies, this case of studying personal networks with daily contacts represents an approach fully developed in Taiwan. The paper focuses on two contrasting and supplementing measurements of daily contacts. The first is a single survey item on daily contact that we first used in the Taiwan Social Change Survey (TSCS) in 1997, before applying it in a series of four cross-national surveys. The second is an in-depth contact diary that we started to implement in 2001, which has been extended to two subsequent large-scale diary studies, both in Taiwan, and to a similar intensive study in Hungary. By citing concrete examples with appropriate data analyses, we explore how the measurements can help explain personal networks in general. We further review the difficulties and limitations of these approaches while applying the same measurements in other societies. Our discussions call for paying special attention to societal contexts that may affect contact patterns differently among societies, even though some of these patterns may appear to be universal.