From February 2017, information about the work of the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow is available and updated on the University of Glasgow website.

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Social Relationships and Health Improvement

Social relationships (be they familial, intimate or sexual relationships, or based on broader friendships/social networks and communities) are fundamental to the development of our attitudes and behaviour from childhood and across the life course leading to advantages and also inequalities in health. Relationships shape health at various levels, both as a source of risk and protective factors and also by mediating the influence of many other biological, social, and environmental factors. Understanding how social relationships impact on health is crucial to informing intervention development. Interventions targeting relationships and networks also have the potential to influence other people within these, improving ‘reach’, and influencing ‘maintenance’ of behaviour change; the ‘holy grail’ of behaviour change research. The Social Relationships and Health Improvement programme will study the dynamic, interactive processes through which our relationships influence health and wellbeing, to identify mechanisms that can independently, or in combination, be translated into interventions that effectively and sustainably improve health and reduce health inequalities. To do so, we will examine the structure, function, and influence of relationships among groups at risk of ill health and health inequalities, with a particular focus on the role of social support and social networks. Technology is rapidly transforming social networks and relationships, and we will have a cross-cutting focus on how this influences health and how social media and smartphone apps can be exploited to mobilise social networks and improve health.

Aim and Objectives

The aim of the programme is to examine the dynamic mechanisms by which social relationships and networks influence health and behaviours across the life course, and to translate these understandings into interventions to modify relationship influences, and improve population health. Our objectives are:

  1. To measure and explain the influence of social relationships on health behaviours and inequalities
  2. To discover how to modify social relationship influences to improve population health and reduce inequalities
  3. To develop and evaluate theory-driven, relationship-based interventions to improve population health and reduce inequalities

The programme will initially be taken forward through four inter-related themes on: 1) families; 2) peers and social networks; 3) intimate and sexual relationships; and 4) communities. Current research in the Children, Young People, Families and Health programme will contribute to themes 1 and 2, and research in the Sexual Health programme will contribute to work in themes 2, 3 and 4. Theme 4 will focus initially on gay communities (building on current work in the Sexual Health programme) and online communities. In the longer term, we will expand our work into the development of broader multi-factorial interventions to affect a wider range of health behaviours and lifestyles affecting health, (e.g., in mental health, alcohol/drug use and violence), and build on our existing research in key public health priority areas, such as obesity. A key element of our work will be in understanding how social relationships affect, and are affected by, broader settings, neighbourhoods, and policies. We will, therefore, work across the programmes in the Unit to develop theory and evidence on mechanisms of change and new interventions that work across, and exploit the interactions between, the four levels of the socio-ecological framework. The programme will use a range of methods and disciplinary perspectives, and will work in close partnership with the Complexity in Health Improvement and Measurement and Analysis of Socioeconomic Inequalities in Health programmes in relation to: the development and evaluation of complex interventions; intervention transferability; social network data collection and analysis methodology; and the use, linkage, and analysis of routinely collected data.

For more information, please contact Lisa McDaid.