Sunday, June 26, 2011

Social Networks and their Influence on Support for Same Sex-Marriage

Frank Bruni offers an interesting take on the same-sex marriage debate in today's New York Times new Sunday Review section. Yes, the same Frank Bruni who was the NYT's former chief restaurant critic.
Bruni stresses how personal connections with gays and lesbians in one's own social circle or network continue to shape the same-sex marriage debate and influence changes in public policy -- most recently in New York State.

Bruni writes: "This issue will increasingly transcend partisan politics and hinge less on party affiliation or archaic religious doctrine than on the intimate, everyday dynamics of family and friendship."
I think Bruni stresses a very important point and one that is backed up by solid evidence from recent public opinion polls.

In a recent article entitled, "New Voters, New Outlook? Predispositions, Social Networks, and the Changing Dynamics of Gay Civil Rights," published in the June 2011 issue of Social Science Quarterly with colleague Dietram Scheufele, we found that while values and religious considerations heavily influenced older voters objections to extending same-sex marriage benefits, younger Americans, particularly those between the ages of 15-25, were more heavily (and positively influenced) by contact with gays and lesbians in their social networks. 

More importantly, it wasn't just about contact for these younger citizens, but rather the degree of the contact. The closer the contact (e.g., having a gay or lesbian family member or close friend), the more profound the impact on public attitudes toward homosexuality and support for same-sex marriage. 
The same dynamic was present in New York where Republicans and Democrats alike noted the impact of personal relationships and contact within their social networks on their choice to support the amendment. Michael Barbaro of the NYT documented the influence of personal contact on vote choice in a lengthy article in today's paper. 

In February, I appeared on WMAR ABC 2 News to talk about our research and the then on-going debate over same-sex marriage in Maryland.  Here's a video from the interview:

While New York is the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage, it is likely that Maryland and other states will be revisiting the debate in the near future. It will be interesting to track the influence of social networks and the role that personal contact will play in shaping debates beyond New York. Here in Maryland and elsewhere, it is indeed very possible that religious value concerns may take a back seat to the "everyday dynamics of family and friendship."

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