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Study Examines Social Class and Social Media

By Leah S. Yared, Contributing Writer

By using Facebook to analyze over 50 billion friendships across 187 countries, a recent study conducted in part by one Harvard professor suggests that people from “high social class” countries tend to have lower percentages of international friends.

Researchers also looked at the Facebook friendships of 857 Americans who self-reported their social class. The researchers found that wealthier Americans have a lower proportion of friends from outside the U.S. than their lower income counterparts.

A team of researchers based at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology that included Harvard Business School associate professor Amy J.C. Cuddy conducted the study.

The study defines social class by objective and subjective measures: both an individual’s income bracket and his or her perceived place in society. At the country level, researchers determined the social class of each country at the national level based on its gross domestic product per capita. The research team used anonymized Facebook data to assess friendships across the entire social network.

“Facebook is a great proxy for the real social environment and a great proxy for friendships,” said lead author Maurice H. Yearwood, a doctoral student at Cambridge.

Researchers found that for those living in low social class countries, on average 35 percent of their friends were international, as compared to 28 percent in high social class countries.

Yearwood said the data suggests that, compared to wealthier people, lower-income people strive to make more global connections. This could be because richer people already have power and resources, so they have less incentive to expand their networks, he added.

“The question now becomes: who’s actually friending who?” he said.

Nishtha Lamba, a co-author and doctoral student at Cambridge, said this study is only the beginning of research about globalization and multiculturalism.

“It’s like a Pandora’s box. Every study is opening a scope for another study,” Lamba said. “This concept of internationalism and social ties should be evaluated a lot more...especially from a cultural standpoint.”

Yearwood pointed to the benefits of assessing massive data sets, now made possible through social media platforms.

“Right now we’re in the technological age,” he said. “Now that we have the data in front of us…we can answer questions we couldn’t answer 10 years ago.”

Big data, one of Yearwood’s areas of focus, involves analyzing a massive set of information to discover correlations or patterns.

“In terms of the social and behavioral sciences, people are still on the fence about using big data,” he said.

Yearwood, however, believes studying big data through online platforms is the cutting edge for global research.

“Being able to partner with different companies like Facebook and Twitter…really strengthens how we use data in the academic community,” he said.

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ResearchHarvard Business School