Social Networks: Influence and Information Concerns For Single Divorced Mothers

Myra Jo Bates, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Patricia F. Kennedy, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
ABSTRACT - The divorce rate in the United States has risen over the years until today there are many households that are headed by single females. Single-parent families' purchase decisions, however, have not been studied in depth in the marketing discipline. This paper examines social network influence in terms of the role of marital status in purchase decisions. Of particular interest is the influence of social network members' input in the purchase decisions of single mothers. Propositions are considered and the implications for marketers, if these propositions prove to be true, are discussed.
[ to cite ]:
Myra Jo Bates and Patricia F. Kennedy (1996) ,"Social Networks: Influence and Information Concerns For Single Divorced Mothers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 440-445.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 440-445


Myra Jo Bates, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Patricia F. Kennedy, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The divorce rate in the United States has risen over the years until today there are many households that are headed by single females. Single-parent families' purchase decisions, however, have not been studied in depth in the marketing discipline. This paper examines social network influence in terms of the role of marital status in purchase decisions. Of particular interest is the influence of social network members' input in the purchase decisions of single mothers. Propositions are considered and the implications for marketers, if these propositions prove to be true, are discussed.


This paper begins a search for knowledge regarding the marketplace information provided by members of the social networks of divorced single mothers versus the information provided to married mothers. In marketing, the inputs to purchase decisions of single parent households have not been thoroughly examined. Early family-decision-making studies focused mainly upon the influence of marital partners in joint decision making. With the high divorce rate in the United States, and the corresponding increase in the number of single-parent, female-headed households, the topic is open for investigation. Ahuja and Stinson (1993) found only five articles in -the marketing literature that referred to single parents. A subsequent study by Bates and Gentry (1994) did examine single mothers and found that divorced mothers use kinship networks as post divorce family preservation tools. Combining this information with that provided by the work of Iacobucci and Hopkins (1992), which shows that network analysis is suitable for identifying sources and targets of information flow, led to the ideas presented in this paper. The focus of this paper is social network influences, and sources of information from the social network used in purchase decisions by single divorced mothers, and whether influence levels and information sources differ between single divorced mothers and married mothers in intact families. A rising divorce rate in the U.S. increases interest in studying single divorced mothers. This paper provides a definition of a social support network, presents network characteristics, and discusses types of support. Subsequent sections discuss the implications of social network influence and information provided to single mothers in purchase decisions. Propositions are then presented and implications for marketers, if these propositions prove to be true, are discussed.


The rising divorce rate in the United States has created an unprecedented number of single parent families. In 1992, close to 1.2 million couples divorced (DeWitt 1992), and it has been projected that nearly two-thirds of first marriages will dissolve (Martin and Bumpass 1989). In any given year approximately 2% of American children experience a divorce, with each divorce now involving just under one child per divorce (DeWitt 1992). In addition, while more fathers are gaining custody of children, 14% in 1990 compared to 10% in 1980, most children of divorce (86%) reside with mothers (Bernstein 1992). Given the continuation of these trends, a majority of American children will spend a portion of their lives in a single parent home, with most of these children living with their mothers.

Questions raised by these trends include: (1) Do single parents arrive at consumer decisions differently than married parents? (2) Are influences on single parents comparable to those on married parents? (3) Is information gathered in a different fashion by single parents than by married parents? If the answer to these questions is yes, the marketer must ascertain the differences and address the variations to satisfy consumer needs.

The focus of this paper is single-divorced mothers. It becomes important to examine how mothers' social networks affect purchase decisions in terms of influence and information. In addition, it is important to identify any differences between single and married mothers in terms of how they are influenced by their social networks and their use of information garnered from these networks.


This study investigates social networks and a specific social network, the social support network. No one definition of a social support network exists. Garbarino (1983, p. 5) defines a social support network as "... a set of interconnected relationships among a group of people that provides enduring patterns of nurturance (in any or all forms) and provides contingent reinforcement for efforts to cope with life on a day-to-day basis." The critical dimensions of this definition include the idea of interconnected relationships, the provision by network members of all forms of nurturance, and the idea of contingent reinforcement. For our purpose, social network refers to the aggregation of individuals with whom one is in contact, and support is a network activity from which individuals receive needed assistance. The social support network then includes those social network members providing aid to others. In reviewing the work of other researches in this area, it appears that some of these issues have become confused. For example, House, Umberson, and Landis (1988) note that the related terms social networks, and social support are often used interchangeably. Hughes (1988) adds that authors often do not distinguish between support and social environment which is the social network.

Not all support given by the social network comes from one person (Walker, Wasserman, and Wellman 1993). Relatives, ex-spouses, or parents may provide child care, whereas social needs are more apt to be met by friends or one's children (Kurdek 1988). Garbarino (1983) points out that social support networks often originate from groups, with formal networks arising from professional services and informal networks evolving elsewhere (Richardson and Pfeiffenberger 1983).

Uchara (1990) espouses the idea of exchange within social networks. This exchange is not always dyadic in nature. Uchara's (1990) ideas can be presented as a continuum with one terminal being gift giving, with nothing expected in return, to a direct exchange of resources at the opposite end where one type of resource is traded for another. Midway on this continuum are loans, delayed repayments in kind for support given. Exchange also occurs when support is given to an individual who reciprocates by delivering support to a third person. Comparing married to single mothers in Sweden, Tietjen (1985) found reciprocity important to single mothers because, when able to repay in some way, seeking support is not associated with charity. Leslie and Grady (1988) bolstered this idea when they found that mothers value relationships when they can give as well as receive.

As discussed above, the definition of social networks, provided by Gabarino (1983), embraces several factors: (1) social networks focusing specifically on support exchanged among network members, (2) the social network as an assortment of interacting individuals, and (3) the reciprocal nature of social support must be included in the definition. The last factor is of some importance, especially to those who might have a need to repay others who have helped them. This definition includes the multiple facets of a social network and will constitute the framework for this paper.


Types of support differ in the literature. Wellman and Wortley (1989) specify emotional aid, companionship, financial aid, and services as dimensions of social support. Hughes (1988) lists categories of help: psychological - a feeling of value; instrumental - provision of goods and services; and informational - sharing advice and knowledge. Divorced mothers feel that child care, financial support, the need for recreational and social activities, an opportunity to discuss feelings, physical intimacy and sexual needs, and discussing divorce-related issues are areas of highest need (Kurdek 1998). Kiecker and Hartman (1994) identify support activities pertaining to purchasing. Functional tasks embody giving information about product features, retail outlets, and prices. Symbolic tasks involve furnishing moral support for the purchase decision, increasing the buyer's confidence when making the decision, and helping determine whether or not the product was appropriate. Whatever terms describe social support activities, all reflect some type of emotional support, such as listening to the recipient, and physical support, like providing material goods and services.

Isaacs and Leon (1986) identify four parental network patterns used to support divorced daughters. These patterns range from emotional and financial aid to child care and offering advice. After divorce, establishing friendships with other divorced individuals is important in that these new acquaintances provide an opportunity to share experiences (McHenry and Price 1991). In Sweden,single mothers receive more network support than married mothers, but single mothers rate their friends and relatives as less supportive than do married mothers (Tietjen 1985). When comparing divorced mothers to married mothers, married mothers rely on neighbors as sources of support whereas divorced mothers depend on friends, especially for instrumental support (Tietjan 1985). However, as one ages, friends become less important than family or kin (Levitt, Weber, and Guacci 1993). Schilling (1987) makes an important point in his assertion that support requirements vary among individuals experiencing the same problems, with no two people having the same level of need.


One objective of this paper is to create propositions comparing married and single mothers in terms of how influence and information from social networks affect their purchase decisions. Understanding how the general system works will give a foundation for ascertaining how information and influence flow through the network. The propositions stem from understanding the network.

Depth and Density

The first feature of social networks is depth. Fellerman and Debevec (1993, p. 459) define depth in terms of ".. . the number of generations 'up' or 'down' within a particular relationship in the network. Thus, one generation "down" is children; those of equivalent depth are siblings; and one generation "up" includes parents and their siblings. This definition need not be limited to kin relationships. Cohorts of one's parents can be considered one generation "up," while one's own non-related cohorts are of equal depth. Intergenerational interaction is not limited to kinship exchange. Support can be obtained from and given to non-related members of the social network. The second feature, density, refers to the extent network members know and interact with each other. The better members know each other, and the more frequent the interaction, the denser the network. Important factors include geographic proximity and frequency of member contacts. Dense kin-filled networks provide mothers with a greater sense of well-being immediately after divorce than less dense or friend-filled networks (Acock and Hurlbert 1993).


Schilling (1987) claims that support networks tend to be composed of individuals with common social characteristics. Quinn and Allen (1989) found that some divorced women often look to their church as a safe place for friendship and social activity. These women feel that churches offer a community with similar values and interests. Another area where single women find others of similar interests is in education. Quinn and Allen (1989) found that divorced women who return to school often see their classmates as part of a social network to whom they may turn for support.

Network Stability

The dynamic nature of the social network is another feature needing attention. Following divorce, a woman's network and primary support person changes both immediately and over time (Duffy 1993). For married mothers, husbands are the primary source of support (Levitt, Weber, and Clark 1986), but this source is lost to divorced mothers. Some members, who provided support during the divorce, remain in the network (McHenry and Price, 1991). Others, who feel closer to the former spouse, drop out. In a longitudinal study, Weinraub and Wolf (1983) found that, over the same time period, single mothers name fewer of the same members in their social networks than married mothers. New friends and dating relationships become added sources of support (McHenry and Price 1991). In networks where support is strong for a divorced single mother, members added after the divorce tend to resemble current network members (Leslie and Grady 1985). For divorced single mothers, friends become more important than kin over time (Wagner 1988), although divorced mothers maintain long-term kin relationships (Gerstel 1988; Walker, Wasserman, and Wellman 1993). Studying three generations, Levitt, Weber, and Guacci (1993) found younger women have more friends and older women have more family members in their networks. Children affect the social network (Ishii-Kuntz and Seccombe 1989), with mothers more involved with their social networks than childless women.


Size of networks is another factor. There is no significant difference in size of married mothers' networks when compared to single divorced mothers' networks (Tietjen 1985). There is also no difference in the number of close relationships between married African American mothers and their divorced counterparts (Brown and Gary 1985). However, larger networks offer more opportunity for interaction.


As stated earlier, the social network changes over time. Members come into or drop from networks as conditions change. By default, the original members of one's social network are relatives, with the most important relationship existing between parent and child (Hogan, Eggebeen, and Clogg 1993). Support lasts over the life course and adult children often reciprocate to parents in the latter's declining years. The support of parents given to their divorcing daughters has adjustment-to-the-divorce implications for grandchildren (Isaacs and Leon 1986). Strong relationships between the parents and daughters help a third-generation child adjust more easily to divorce than if weak relationships exist between the older generations.



The relationship between children and their divorcing mothers changes during the divorce process. There is an initial period of disruption and deterioration with gradual establishment of a new relationship (Zastowny and Lewis 1989). Some parenting skills decline in the post-divorce period (Holloway and Machida 1991), with some mothers losing power to their children (Ahuja and Stinson 1993). Single mothers also discuss financial and economic matters with their children more often than married mothers. Economic difficulties are often shared by the single mother with her children (McLoyd and Wilson 1992). With the ongoing relationship between mother and child, each is a member of the other's social network. The children can be providers of support for single mothers (Kurdek 1988).

Social networks range beyond the nuclear and extended families. Zastowny and Lewis (1989) note that community relationships, including friends, reference groups, and other acquaintances are important. McLanahan, Wedemeyer, and Adelberg's (1981)"Conjugal Networks "have a key male member of the social network as the primary source of support for the divorced mother. Within marriage, the spouse is found near the center of the network and is a primary provider of support. Another source of network members is former in-laws (Serovich, Price, and Chapman 1991). Ex-daughters-in-law are more likely to receive support from former in-laws than ex-sons-in-law, but the research is incomplete in this area.

The source of support given divorced, single mothers depends upon the type of support given (Kurdek 1988). Parents give different types of support than do friends, co-workers, or formal support groups. In some cases the ex-spouse was seen as an infrequent source, beyond that of requisite financial payments

(Johnson 1986). This mainly took the form of non-routine child care and was considered more as potential support rather than actual support.

The membership of the social network varies. Family of origin is instinctively included, while old and new friends, acquaintances, former in-laws, and new mates are added or subtracted as the situation warrants. Whatever the form of the network, membership shifts over time. Divorced single mothers employ different people as sources and turn to these various individuals for different types of support. Much of the necessary support is situationally driven as needed by the recipient.

The characteristics of the social network add to our sense of how resources flow among members. It is important to remember that the network consists of different generations, kin and non-kin relationships, and that it is dynamic and changing over time. Life experiences add and subtract members from the system allowing for different types of support from different members.


As part of day-to-day coping, mothers include purchasing goods and services for themselves and their children. At a minimum, the basic essentials are needed: food, clothing, and shelter. However, purchase decisions are not limited to basics. Mothers make travel decisions, transportation decisions, medical care decisions, gift decisions, insurance decisions, and any number of buying decisions. To make rational decisions they may turn to their social networks for information, or they may be influenced by network members who made similar decisions.

Rather than considering mothers as one homogeneous group, differences between married and single mothers are addressed. The focus of this paper is the provision of information and generation of influence by the social network on the mother's purchasing decisions, and any difference in this process between married mothers and single divorced mothers. The results will have implications for marketing managers.

Figure 1 is a conceptualization of the process whereby the social network affects the purchase decision of mothers, both married and single. The factors that could most affect mothers' decisions include her marital status, type of network with which she is associated, forms of support given by the network, and her views as to what is/are the appropriate role(s) for women in society.


In the study of consumer purchase behavior two sources of influence have been examined: dyads and networks. Corfman and Lehmann (1987) and Davis, Hoch, and Ragsdale (1986) looked at dyads in family decision making. These studies concentrated on married couples as the decision making unit. Word-of-mouth communications, encompassing larger clusters of consumers, were studied by Brown and Reingen (1987) and Beardon and Etzel (1982) who looked at reference group influence. These studies looked at the network as influencers in family decisions of intact families. Childers and Rao (1992) added a family type variable to their study of reference group influence on consumer decisions. However, they compared decision making in Thailand, where extended families are more common, to decision making in the United States where nuclear families are more the norm. Recent studies have begun looking at stranger influence. McGrath and Otnes (1995) have identified six overt and five covert interpersonal stranger influencers within a retail setting. Others have looked at the role of children in family decision making. Howard and Madrigal (1990) found that in purchases involving children's use of recreation services the mother was the major source of influence during the information search process, but the child was the predominant influencer at time of purchase.

There is no one source of influence. With children present, it should be expected that they will attempt to exert influence on the parent(s). Mothers in intact families can expect to be the recipients of more attempts to influence than fathers (Ahuja and Stinson 1993; Baranowski 1978; Dombush, et. a]. 1985; Ekstrom, Tansuhaj, and Foxman 1987; Jenkins 1979). When compared to fathers' perceptions, mothers and adolescents reported that adolescents perceived greater influence on purchase decisions for products that were for their use (Foxman, Tansuhaj, and Ekstrom 1989). To extend this idea, children may exert more influence on single parents, especially mothers, than on parents in intact families for several reasons. First, with only one parent present, children can concentrate their efforts on that person. The mother often gives in to the demands of the children as a defense against rejection by the children (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980). Second, single parents are overloaded with daily tasks and responsibilities (Cherlin 1992). Succumbing to a child's influence may be "the easy way out." Finally, single parents may have higher expectations of the child in areas of household chores and personal decisions, and thus, the parent allows more influence (Hetherington 1989). Another factor may be the adolescent's gender. Mother-daughter pairs are more accurate than mother-son pairs in recalling the child's contribution to a purchase decision (Beatty and Talpade 1994).

During the separation and immediately after divorce children's roles change and they begin supporting their mothers by becoming advisors, helpers, or occasional replacements for other adults (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980). The sphere of influence becomes more like that of an adult. In purchase areas where the product is almost exclusively used by the mother, she may be influenced by her children. This leads to the first question: Will children in mother-headed single parent homes exercise more influence on purchase decisions than children in intact families?

Various types of networks exist (McLanahan, Wedemeyer, and Adelberg, 1981). The requirements for support vary and individuals with the same problems do not necessarily require the same level or type of support (Schilling 1987). The type of social network to which a single mother belongs may have more to do with personality and background than anything else. McLanahan, Wedemeyer, and Adelberg (1981) divided divorced women into stabilizers, who wish to maintain their pre-divorce roles mainly as a wife and mother, and changers, who are trying to establish a new post-divorce identity through a career or new profession. The type of support provided by the network is also related to the attitudes the mother holds concerning the role of women. In McLanahan, Wedemeyer, and Adelberg's (1981) "Family of Origin Network," support by family members tends to be gender related: males give financial aid or perform household repairs and females provide child care and personal advice. The "Extended Network" is composed mainly of new friends, with many divorced individuals as members. This is a more reciprocal type of network with the members exchanging support as needed. McLanahan,Wedemeyer, and Adelberg (1981), also describe a "Conjugal Network" with two subtypes. Both subtypes have a key male member who has a close relationship with the single mother. In Subtype A, other members of the social network resemble those in the Family of Origin Network. In Subtype B, the other network members are similar to an Extended Network.

Advice is a dimension of support (Hughes 1988; Weliman and Wortley 1989). One definition of advice states that advice is a "communication ... containing information" (Costello 1992, p. 20). Another definition says that advice is "an opinion or recommendation offered as a guide to action, conduct, etc." (Costello 1992,p.20). This definition, with its reference to opinion, raises the idea of influence or attempted influence, especially if the advice is unsolicited. Fellerman and Debevec (1993) assert that life transition points trigger kinship exchange behavior affecting both parties. Divorce is one of the transition points in life encompassing that period of time from separation to readjustment and acceptance of a new life style. During this time period, the married person starts over as a single person, and when children are involved the parent goes from sharing child-rearing responsibility to being a single or a noncustodial parent.

McLanahan, Wedemeyer, and Adelberg's (1981) "Family of Origin Network" is composed almost exclusively of family members including the woman's parents and her siblings. The support given by this network is usually directed toward the mother with little immediate reciprocation involved. It is assumed that the single mother will repay at a later date to her children, younger siblings, or nieces and nephews. Advice, information, and material services are given to the mother with support being gender oriented (McLanahan, Wedemeyer, and Adelberg 1981). Fathers and brothers offer financial assistance and household repair services; mothers and sisters give child care and advice on personal problems. In Isaacs and Leon's (1986) "Directing Network," advice is both sought by the divorced mother and offered to her by her parents. The unsought advice may be an attempt by the parents to influence the divorced daughter, whereas the sought for advice may be an attempt by the divorced daughter to gather information. This leads to a second question: Will single divorced mothers be given more unsolicited advice about product and service purchases than mothers in intact families?

Mothers' attitudes toward their role as a woman are also a factor. Corfman (1991) discovered that women with non-traditional attitudes toward their roles as females predict more accurately their relative influence in couple decision making. Following divorce, economic necessity forces many homemakers into the workforce (Wallerstein and Kelly 1980). This constitutes a change from the traditional role of stay-at-home wife and mother, and these women reorient their lives to fit into the breadwinner role. Other mothers, already participating in the workforce, may hold more liberal beliefs on women's roles and will face fewer post-divorce adjustments. Mothers with more traditional attitudes about a woman's role have higher levels of support than do mothers who hold more liberal views on the role of women (Leslie and Grady, 1988). This brings us to a third set of questions. (1) Are mothers with more traditional views on the role of women more likely to be influenced by their social networks in purchase decisions than mothers with more contemporary views on the role of women? (2) Are mothers with more traditional views on the role of women less likely to use information from the social network in purchase decisions than women with more contemporary views? Mothers holding more progressive views on a woman's role may be less influenced by social networks and more likely to rely on their own judgment based on information gathered from the network when making purchase decisions.



Attempted influence can be thought of as reciprocal (Hogan, Eggebeen, and Clogg 1993). The reciprocity factor is valued by single mothers (Leslie and Grady 1988) because it is important in eliminating a feeling of seeking charity when asking for help from their networks (Tietjen 1985). The single mothers' preference for exchange within the network may lead to a greater number of exchanges of influence and information within the social network. This information brings us to a fourth question: Will single divorced mothers have a higher level of influence exchange about products and services with members of their social networks than will mothers in intact families?


Like people can be found in the network (Leslie and Grady 1988; Quinn and Allen 1989), however, divorced individuals receive more support from diverse networks than from kin-centered networks (Acock and Hurlbert 1993). These diverse networks have members with different backgrounds, interests, etc. This suggests a fifth question: Is the membership of divorced mothers' social networks less homogeneous than the membership of social net works of mothers in intact families?

Information flow through the network is reciprocal. There is no one source, although there may be a main source. The type of information given depends upon the source (Messeri, Silverstein, and Litwak 1993). It is important to understand that the network is dynamic (Duffy 1993; Gerstal 1988: Walker, Wasserman, and Wellman 1993; Weinraub and Wolf 1983). For married mothers the primary source of support comes from the marital relationship (Levitt, Weber, and Clark 1986). For single mothers the primary support person can change (Duffy 1993). There may be members that are longstanding acquaintances who remain members over the long run but offer little in terms of support. There also may be members who are important in the short run and are out of the network relatively quickly. For single mothers the establishment of new friendships, especially with other divorced mothers, is important because of the opportunity to share like experiences (McHenry and Price 1991), and the single mother is more indebted to her network than the married mother in terms of information exchange (Tietjen 1985). This suggests that, as a consequence, single mothers may establish more potential sources of consumer information than mothers in intact families. The single mother relies on different people for different types of information because she may see the various providers as more knowledgeable in certain areas than in others (Brown and Gary 1985; McHenry and Price 1991). There is some evidence that information seekers rate their knowledge about products below that of those from whom they seek information (Yale and Gilly 1995). We have now arrived at the final set of questions: (1) Do divorced mothers have more varied sources of information about products and services in their social networks than mothers in intact families? (2) Do divorced mothers receive information about more products and services from their social networks than mothers in intact families? (3) Do divorced mothers place more importance on the information about products and services that they receive from their social networks than mothers in intact families? Table I summarizes these questions.


This paper is a first step in the study of single divorced mothers and how social networks provide information and influence their purchase decisions. The constructs of interest are influence from the network and information flow through the network. A second issue is a comparison between married mothers and single divorced mothers. In studying single divorced mothers and mothers in intact families, areas of special interest include: children's influence, the role of unsolicited advice in purchase decisions, the impact of the mothers' view of women's role on influence and information from the network, the level of information exchange, and the role of variety of and importance placed on information from the network. All of these areas could have implications for marketing managers in strategy formulation, especially in the methods that they employ to communicate with these two groups of consumers.


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For a complete list of references please contact the authors at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln.