In social epidemiology, Christakis and Fowler (2007) reported on the increased risk rates for obesity in up to three degrees of separation from a target individual such that a person’s odds of becoming obese increased by 57% if they had a friend who became obese, with a lower risk rate for friends of friends, lower again at three degrees of separation, and with no discernible effect at further levels of remove. Moreover, if the friend is perceived to be a close friend then the risk rate is increased. Repeating this social network analysis for smoking, Christakis and Fowler (2008) found that smoking cessation by a spouse decreased a person’s chances of smoking by 67%, while smoking cessation by a friend decreased the chances by 36%. The average risk of smoking at one degree of separation (i.e. smoking by a friend) was 61% higher, 29% higher at two degrees of separation and 11% higher at three degrees of separation.
In “Connected”, Christakis and Fowler (2010) assessed the effect of social contagion in emotions and the extent to which this reaches beyond immediate social networks, which they refer to as hyperdyadic spread.
Using happiness as the topic for investigation, they reported that, if a person’s friend is happy, there is a 15% increase in the chances that the target will be happy, but that even at a further degree of separation there is an increase of around 10% and at three degrees of separation, the increased likelihood of happiness is 6%. This is a critical issue in the development of interventions and policies that attempt to promote recovery as it would suggest that focusing exclusively on individuals underestimates the impact of key icons of recovery and of recovery communities. Thus, there is evidence for the social transmission of some of the key elements of recovery capital, and we do not have to conceptualise it exclusively as the property of an individual. The development of recovery ‘champions’ as charismatic and connected community figures who are visible examples of success provides not only the opportunity for ‘social learning’ for those who claim that recovery is not possible, but also increases the waves of impact within local communities for recovery spread. Similarly, the growth of vibrant recovery groups and recovery-oriented systems of care may well provide ready-made social supports for individuals starting out on their recovery journeys (as has often been attributed to mutual aid groups, particularly Alcoholics Anonymous) while also providing the scaffolding for the development of the human and physical capital that are likely to be part of the developmental journey of recovery. In other words, recovery champions may be the key contagion that allows the ‘viral spread’ of recovery capital.
Within the addictions field, Best and Gilman (2010) have argued that the growth of recovery has a ripple effect that confers benefits on families but also serves to generate ‘collective recovery capital’ that provides support and hope for those in recovery and that engages people in a range of activities in the local community. This process translates into active participation in community life and ‘giving something back’ by creating a collective commitment in recovery groups to community engagement and immersion. In other words, the recovery community acts and is seen as a positive force in the local community and a resource for that community that goes beyond managing substance misuse issues.