Sociograms in Critical Methodologies

Rachel Benchekroun

The egocentric sociogram – a visual representation of an individual’s relationships with others – is a powerful means of exploring social relations and participants’ perceptions and experiences of them. In my research on and with mothers with insecure immigration status and ‘no recourse to public funds’ (NRPF), participant-created sociograms – in the context of in-depth conversations – produced new insights and enabled power to be shared in the participant-researcher relationship.

Sociograms have been used extensively in quantitative and qualitative research on social networks, but not always with the intention of empowering participants. Software has been used to produce sociograms using data generated through interviews with participants, or participants have been required to enter information into a program to produce the ‘egonet’ (Bellotti 2016). In such cases, sociograms have been employed as a means of analysis or to aid interpretation of data.

Sociograms have also been used as a visual tool in qualitative, longitudinal migration and social network research, exploring processes of ‘telling network stories’, most notably by Louise Ryan (2015, 2020). Similarly, sociograms were a key element of my ethnographic research, which explores the development of social networks by mothers with insecure immigration status and NRPF living in London, and relational practices generating social support, in the context of the UK government’s hostile environment policy. Using sociograms as a visual and participatory method fit with my critical methodology, helping to redress power imbalances in the researcher-participant relationship in the processes of producing data.

My starting point was to recognize participants as creative and knowledgeable. I invited each person to draw an egocentric sociogram to represent the people that were important to them, and, as they did so, to tell me about these relationships and the nature of their interactions.

This took place during the first or second of (in most cases) multiple meetings[1] with 22 mothers over the course of 16 months of fieldwork. I was keen to understand how mothers formed and sustained friendships and couple relationships, interacted with family members, and engaged with voluntary sector advocates and state representatives. In particular, I wanted to understand how these relationships had shaped access to various forms of social support, in the context of wider structural constraints.

Providing a sheet of A3 paper, pens and pencils, I asked participants to put themselves in the centre, then to represent the people who were important to them, placing the people they felt closest to nearest to them on the paper. Beyond this, I avoided giving any instructions. It was important that participants did not feel there was a right or wrong way to create their sociogram – it was to be a personal map of interpersonal relationships that mattered to them.

The process of creating a ‘freestyle’ sociogram was highly significant, as were the surrounding narratives. Mapping out their personal networks helped participants to grasp my initial research interests, which may otherwise have appeared abstract. Crucially, it gave them agency in determining lines of conversation. By creating an open-ended sociogram in the context of an unstructured conversation, mothers could decide which relationships to talk about, and how. They made choices about who to include, where to place them, and how to represent their relationships with individuals (or groups of people, or organisations, past or present). This process evoked memories, stimulated deep reflection and shaped participants’ narratives. As a creative, participatory method, the sociogram was empowering for participants within the participant-researcher relationship.

Furthermore, the creation process allowed me, as the researcher, to be responsive to participants’ representations of their networks. Who is important? Who is included but depicted ‘at a distance’? How does the participant talk about the different relationships? What is suggested by their body language or tone of voice? Are there any surprises? The sociogram and the narrative around it provided the starting point for me to formulate questions on practices, processes, interactions and changes over time with regard to different types of relationship and to particular relationships.

Using an alternative approach of a template, such as the ‘target’ sociogram – a series of concentric circles representing emotional closeness (Pahl and Spencer 2004), sometimes also with quadrants for different types of relationships (Ryan et al. 2014, Tubaro et al. 2016) – can be helpful in guiding the process of producing data.[2] However, it may be experienced by participants as restrictive, confusing or intimidating. Participants may worry about the ‘right’ way of filling in the template, or what might constitute an ‘appropriate’ number of people in their network. Deciding where to place friends may cause discomfort, as it may feel like ranking them.

Moreover, framing an individual’s network in this way implies assumptions about how it should be conceptualised and about the quantifiability of closeness. It reduces the autonomy of the participant and prevents them from constructing and representing their support network in a way that may make more sense to them. Conversely, a blank piece of paper empowers participants to visually depict and communicate their reality as they see it. The role of the researcher is accordingly less intrusive in the creation process. This can lead to new ways of seeing and understanding participants’ social worlds.

My reproduction of Emily’s sociogram, replacing individual friends’ names and children’s names with ‘friend 1’, ‘child 1’ etc, to protect identities. ‘Emily’ is a pseudonym.

When Emily created her sociogram in our second meeting, she first wrote down the names of her children and close friends, then added ‘church’ and ‘GOD’. She explained why:

Though I go to church, I don’t really get any support from the church, but it is part of my life, so I will still put down church, on top. And then… I put God, of course, he’s been my main strength. And then he’s made me go through a whole lot. I could have been anything else without him in my life.

This led to a deeply reflective narrative in which Emily contrasted the support derived from her faith in God with that provided through the material, embodied relationships with her pastor and church members. This shone a light on the complexities of the processes of embedding and sharing social support, and raised important questions of trust and trustworthiness, from a position of precarious immigration status. Emily’s sociogram and her narrative around it sensitized me to the significance of faith itself, as well as ambivalence around faith-based networks.

The process of creating sociograms and the dialogue with the researcher provide insights into ‘meanings attached to interpersonal relationships’ (Ryan et al. 2014) and prompt memories, stories and anecdotes. Significantly, the hopes, joys, fears, frustrations and worries surfaced by the creative process call attention to the nature of everyday interactions and practices, and the types of exchanges and forms of support shared within particular relationships. As Tubaro et al. (2016) and Ryan (2020) have highlighted, the dialogue produced through network visualization encourages not only a focus on individual stories but also systemic thinking and a deeper awareness of social contexts, facilitating a shift from description to theorisation.

Participant-produced sociograms in the context of open-ended reflective conversations can therefore be empowering and enlightening, shaping discussions of processes and practices in social networks, as part of a critical methodology.

Rachel Benchekroun is a PhD candidate at UCL’s Social Research Institute. Her research interests include migration, mobility and settlement; diversity and change in urban environments; family and friendship practices; belonging and citizenship; and ethnography and critical methodologies.

[1] I refer to these meetings as ‘conversations’ rather than ‘interviews’, in keeping with my critical approach.

[2] I used a concentric circles template in a study on the impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on individuals’ support networks, which was conducted online (Benchekroun, forthcoming). Participants were asked to complete a sociogram prior to our first interview. The constraints on how the research was conducted shaped the use of the sociogram as a method. As such, the creation process was less of a focus.

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