Preschoolers' Social Network Structures and the Employment of Joint Attention Requests


  • Guilherme Henrique Lima Marques Silva University of Vienna



Social network analysis of preschool peer groups is highly interdisciplinary, combining the methodology and conceptual perspective from distinct fields. The strongest focus of these studies has thus far been on the connection between socio-ecological factors and adaptive group features within ethological frameworks. However, very few studies have explored the relationship between well-established socio-cognitive constructs (e.g. mentalization processes) and social network features.

Contrastingly, Dunbar and colleagues [1] provide a distinct perspective on social network theory. These authors propose that humans’ complex social life is cognitively costly and agents must selectively employ cognitive resources in order to efficiently manage social relationships. This selectivity, in turn, constraints individuals’ social network size and structure [1]. Moreover, Dunbar and Stiller [1] propose, for example, that humans’ social networks are composed of one innermost layer of closest friends (i.e. support group), followed by an outer layer of frequent interaction partners (i.e. sympathy group) and (in adults at least) several additional layers. The authors claim that the size and relative proportion of the support clique can be predicted by the individual’s capabilities to employ mentalization processes efficiently, whereas the size of the sympathy group is only predicted by an individual’s memory capacity [1].

Research Questions and Hypothesis

It is, however, not yet clear whether the same relationship exists in young children. Therefore, I will investigate (2) if these network structures can be found in preschool children’s social networks and (2) if the number of children’s affiliative relationships (within the sympathy group) is predicted by an individual’s successful employment of socio-cognitive resources (i.e. joint attention requests instances).


In contrast to asking children about their number of friends [1], I will employ an ethological approach, composed of behavioral observation of peer proximity within an ecologically relevant setting (i.e. free play) in order to analyse the social network structure of 66 preschoolers. Following, I will investigate the relationship between these structures and the individual’s use of joint attention requests (i.e. individual’s frequency of pointing gestures) as an age-appropriate proxy for the successful employment of socio- cognitive resources [2].


[1] J. Stiller and R. Dunbar, “Perspective- taking and memory capacity predict social network size”, Social Networks, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 93–104, 2007.

[2] M. Tomasello, M. Carpenter and U. Liszkowski, “A New Look at Infant Pointing”, Child Development, vol. 78, no. 3, pp. 705– 722, 2007.