Identifying Coherent Subgroups in a University Residence During the COVID-19 Pandemic Using a Social Media Analysis Approach

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Our research adds evidence to the rare literature on COVID-19 with the application of social media analysis. Previous studies have examined cohesion and groups in relation to sleep34, and pandemic communication via twitter35, and even how to convey specific messages to audiences of interest36. But our study would be the first to analyze cohesion among university students. Our results analyze a population of particular interest, as university students come together, share their experiences and information, and this also in the context of a pandemic..

We have described the potential of social networks to capture and understand the clustering among college students in their living conditions. This research focused on aspects of social cohesion in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, within the framework of university residences, as the close coexistence between university students could be the key to both the spread and prevention of the virus. Previous studies have already shown that social distancing and isolation are strategies introduced to fight pandemics37. However, since university students have many relationships with many contacts and isolation does not seem feasible, it would be useful to study the structural features of cohesion among students and assess how this relates to the degree of COVID-19 infection.

Coherent subgroups in the context of the pandemic

Our results have shown that in university residences and in a pandemic context, clearly differentiated networks or reticular subgroups are formed. In order to understand this fact, it is necessary to understand the difference between “situational environment” of the pupil and “reticular environment”.

Lozares et al.38 explain this clearly. The situational environment is based on each student’s perception of their daily experiences, such as “I’m bored”, “I’m having fun”, “I like food”, “This movie is fun”, etc.

However, this perception in itself does not generate networks, since it is the reticular environment that represents the relationship between these daily experiences. That is, the reticular or network environment refers to the relationship between the events that occur in the daily life of the students. for example “I met my friends to eat” versus “I like to eat”, “I met my friends to go to the cinema to see a funny movie” versus “I have fun”, etc. With regard to this reticular context, a network is formed with the two environments, the situational environment and the reticular environment. Therefore, in the context of the network, sub-clusters can be observed within the network, based on strong relationships in which the actors are linked by shared events that generate strong cohesion. This cohesion can become so strong that the performance of a group or a sub-group can be similar to that of a single actor. It is therefore important to analyze cohesion from clusters.

Our results show that infected students form subgroups and that uninfected students also tend to be more clustered. This could be related to the concept of social capital in networks. In other words, social capital is the relational value of networks39. “I have more contact with the classmate who leaves me notes, or the one who listens to me, or the one who supports me when I am depressed. We have to be attracted to someone, or someone has to be attracted to us to regroup.

Regarding the contagion by COVID-19 and the importance of how we perceive others, Gould40 points out that contact in small groups can be linked to positive feelings among actors. For example, we prefer to receive positive feelings from contacts for which we ourselves have positive feelings. In this sense, Homans39 had already pointed out that feelings lead to interaction and vice versa. Given this, students would not react to pandemic protocols just because they know them. In this case, individuals are expected to follow the rules of social responsibility. But knowledge does not guarantee action. It is the moral and emotional aspects that trigger certain social reactions that transform knowledge into action41. In this sense, one could deduce that the moral and emotional aspects involved in the networks of coexistence between students could justify their behavior in the face of the pandemic and, consequently, their results on the infection.

On the other hand, the actors also agree according to their similarities. In this sense, our results show that gender could be a strong variable leading to the regrouping of actors. This result would be consistent with the concept of homophilia and previous studies on the subject.

Homophilia is the concept that more similar people contact each other than different people.42. This means that the cultural or behavioral aspects that are transferred through the channels of the network will be localized and identified by the actors.

The concept of homophilia is relevant to explain clustering, in particular in the context of a pandemic. That is, a local attachment between people who perceive themselves as more similar could lead to two phenomena. On the one hand, local attachment, and on the other hand an increased segregation from other groups43. This result can be positive or negative depending on the context of the study. For example, an increase in segregation between social networks in a neighborhood due to cultural diversity could lead to conflicts and social divisions. However, if in a pandemic context, infected people are more clustered, the interpretation could be different. What will be more important if the infected actors are more clustered or more dispersed? Faced with this question, it seems logical to think that it would be safer for infected actors to be in the same bubbles. In this sense, it could also be considered more useful for uninfected students to be more dispersed, in order to be able to transmit responsible behaviors. However, they themselves choose to band together, perhaps in an attempt to survive in the face of contagion. Thus, it seems that regrouping in a pandemic context could be advantageous in order to address different strategies.

On the other hand, if the infected student clusters were very central, they could have put the rest of the clusters at risk. This is clearly visible in our study and the risk has also been explained in previous studies. Central clusters could become a “footprint” at the structural level of the network44. This fact could explain the possibility of contagious liability or non-liability behavior prior to COVID-19 protocols.

Main bridges in the context of the pandemic

Accessibility is important in the study of subgroups if the research raises the importance of bridges between groups or actors who can act as bridges in social processes.ten.

Our results show that there are bridges between subgroups and that they are in line with previous studies which highlight the importance of bridges between subgroups. Indeed, through them, social capital resources such as information, support, trust and security are transferred and analyzed in healthcare contexts.45. Occasionally, individuals may seek help or advice outside of their subgroup in order to achieve their goals.46.

The ability to act as a bridge in a network is given by the personal characteristics of the individual47. In this sense, we have collected some attributes that highlight the importance of gender and location within the university residence. In the network, there are students with a position that clearly identifies them as bridges. This position could be linked to these attributes, in particular to the emotional attraction they arouse in the eyes of other students. Their quality of intermediary could serve as a “glue” between the sub-groups. Let us not forget that depending on the profile of the intermediary or bridge actor, the student may be used to disseminate behaviors that promote contagion or the prevention of pandemics. Previous studies have shown that if grouping together manifests feelings against the norms, it could increase contagions.48. This confirms the importance of being aware of bridging links during a pandemic.

To conclude the discussion of our research, to emphasize that there is currently an excess of information on the pandemic, especially in digital networks. One would think that this information could influence students in university residences. But it seems that this excess of information can be confusing or even not credible for the younger population.49. Therefore, their behaviors might be influenced more by what they think and how they interact with their close contacts than by online information. In this context, physical social interaction becomes relevant50.

Obviously, this research involves several limits. One of the most important is the lack of additional characteristics of the nodes to more precisely define the personality of the students in the network. Another important limitation is the absence of more relational questions that might be useful in describing the case more precisely.

We recognize that the sample for this research is small. However, the research team considered that the case methodology would be useful for these contexts. Consequently, the results of this research would allow a first approximation of the behavior of individuals in a network in a pandemic context. This information would be useful for future studies at the meso and macro levels.

For future research, it is planned to replicate our study in more university residences even in the months of the next school year, since we will always live with preventive measures. It will be interesting to observe the behavior of the networks in this new situation.


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