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Examining the linkages between Social Connections and Resilience in South Sudan: The Development of a Culturally-Contextualized Household Survey

This blog was authored by Jeeyon Kim, Carly Schmidt, and Anastasia Marshak

This is the second post in a two-part blog series. It draws from ongoing research in South Sudan funded by USAID/OFDA and implemented by Mercy Corps and the Feinstein International Centre at Tufts University. In the first post, Alex Humphrey and Vaidehi Krishnan discuss qualitative research findings on the importance of social connections for coping and recovery in South Sudan. In this second post, we focus on our quantitative efforts to measure the linkages between households’ social connections and their resilience during crisis. Notably, while the findings and recommendations presented in this blog post are based on research from South Sudan, they may be applicable in other conflict/crisis contexts.

“When the crisis started, I ran for safety. I found people in the bush who gave me food. I was lucky to have found good-hearted people who gave me assistance and helped me emotionally. They advised me not to worry about my children and assured me that everything would be fine.”
-Returnee, Rubkona Town, South Sudan


Social connectedness plays a crucial role in determining how resilient households are during crisis. In South Sudan—where ongoing conflict has resulted in violence, famine, and mass displacement—local support systems serve as key survival mechanisms. With the goal of better understanding the linkages between social connectedness and resilience, our research asks: How is a household’s social connectedness associated with its resilience, and how does this association vary by a household’s displacement status?  In this blog post, we describe our efforts to answer these questions by developing a culturally-contextualized household survey to quantify social connectedness in South Sudan. We hope that our methodology will help aid actors begin to think about how they might measure social connectedness as part of their own programs.


Research in a variety of contexts demonstrates the importance of a household’s social connectedness to their resilience, or their ability to cope with, manage, and recover from shocks and stressors. For example, research on Mercy Corps programming in Ethiopia found that reciprocal support—primarily sharing of food, cash, and water—was one of the main coping strategies used by households to respond to drought conditions (Smith, Frankenberger, & Nelson 2018). This is also true in the context of recovery after natural disasters — as was the case in Nepal, where Mercy Corps research found that households with strong in-group connections had higher food security and better shelter after the 2015 earthquake (Petryniak, Kurtz, and Frischknecht 2015). Membership in a social network can also help households survive in times of conflict by giving them access to migration pathways and new livelihoods opportunities (Maxwell and Majid 2016).

Previous efforts to measure social connectedness, including those in the resilience space, have tended to focus on the economic resources which individuals can mobilize through their social networks in times of hardship. However, these endeavors often lack contextual relevance and fail to account for the nuances and dynamics of peoples' social connections, especially in terms of how they relate to their abilities to cope and recover during crises.

Our work adopts a more holistic perspective. In addition to the number, strength and reliability of people's social connections, we also account for whether the support they share and receive is reciprocal and whether certain types of social connections are accompanied by potentially unwelcome obligations. This conceptualization of social connectedness acknowledges the importance of going beyond a capitalist focus on resource mobilization to also account for the norms inherent to people’s social linkages. It also highlights potential negative aspects of social connectedness, where certain households and/or groups may be marginalized or excluded to the benefit others (Maxwell, Majid, Adan, Abdirahman, Kim 2016).

Development of a Culturally-Contextualized HH Survey

In South Sudan, social connectedness is a complex interplay of individual identities, vulnerabilities, power dynamics and social structures. Much has been written about the complexity and the critical importance of local support systems in South Sudan (See for example, the seminal works of E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Luka Biong Deng). To develop a culturally-contextualized household survey that quantitatively examines the linkages between social connectedness and resilience, we relied on the rich literature, key experts, and qualitative insights to ensure that our survey questions reflected the lived experiences of the population (Figure 1) (Humphrey, Krishnan, Krystalli 2019).

Figure showing the steps for developing a culturally contextualized HH survey in a graphic
Figure 1: Survey development process

Through this approach, we identified six culturally-relevant dimensions of social connectedness and designed contextually-relevant survey questions to measure them.

In addition to these six components of social connectedness, we also identified three important aspects of resilience in our research sites, and developed survey questions to measure them.

1.    Adaptive livelihood strategies: We measured whether, and if so, how households are able to adapt their primary livelihood activities in the context of crisis.

2.    Household food security status: We used Household Hunger ScaleFood Consumption Score, and Months of Adequate Household Food Provisioning to measure food security in our research sites. We selected these food security measurements because a) they are used by the World Food Program (WFP) in context, b) they capture diverse dimensions of food security, and c) they allow us to assess distributions across two time periods and research sites.

3.    Self-reported resilience: We measured how confident households are in their own abilities to recover from future shocks and stresses.

We designed a household survey which included questions based on these social connectedness dimensions and resilience measures, along with modules on household displacement history, experience of financial, economic, and conflict-related shocks, and livestock and asset ownership - to name some illustrative examples. We worked with local team members to translate each question into Nuer, the primary language spoken by our survey respondents. We then tested the quality of the translation and the cultural appropriateness of our survey questions with entrusted local enumerators who were familiar with our research efforts and the context.

Recognizing that both social connectedness and resilience – and in turn, their linkages - are dynamic, we used a panel design where the same respondents are surveyed twice to capture changes over time. Between late April and May 2019, we surveyed a total of 933 households in our research sites in Panyijar and Rubkona counties, including in the Bentiu Protection of Civilian (PoC) site. Currently, we are conducting additional in-depth qualitative interviews to better understand our quantitative findings. In November 2019, about six months from the first round, we plan to survey the same households a second time. Tufts University received permission to collaborate on this research with Mercy Corps through the Tufts University Institutional Review Board.

Below we present some preliminary findings from the first round of data collection.

How have people’s social networks changed since displacement?

Figure 2: Chart showing network size. Titled Change in Network Size Displacement
Figure 2: Network size

Many of our respondents noted that the size of their social networks has decreased since their displacement (Figure 2), while many others reported that their network size has stayed the same. In fewer cases, some respondents even noted that their networks had grown since displacement. During qualitative interviews in Panyijar County, community members explained that new IDP arrivals would take strategic and intentional steps to grow social connections with the members of the host community. For example, they would share non-food items which the internally displaced tend to receive from aid agencies more often than host community members. Conversely, hosts described sharing resources to build relationships with the internally displaced, in hopes of broadening the geographic scope of their networks once the displaced returned to their communities of origin.

Who do people turn to for help?

Figure 3: Showing Sources of Help chart
Figure 3: Sources of help

While households report turning most to their kin - relatives by blood or by marriage - in times of need, there is a wide variety of people and/or groups who households can turn to for help. In the Bentiu PoC, for example, we found that livelihood associations which are self-formed and regulated have become extremely important sources of support for households. These non-kinship based social connections are especially important in the PoC, where kinship networks have eroded as a result of displacement and separation.

How confident are people that they can get help in a time of need?

Figure 4: Confidence of Getting Help chart
Figure 4: Confidence

In Rubkona and Panyijar counties, the majority of respondents are somewhat or very confident about their ability to get help when they need it (Figure 4). However, in the PoC, respondents are far less confident. As noted above, many respondents in the PoC shared that with their displacement, they lost touch with their social connections and as time passed, they felt less confident in their ability to rely upon those people for support. As one respondent shared, “If they don’t hear from you, they forget about you(Key informant interview with NGO staff member, Juba, July 2018).

How food secure are people?

Figure 4: Household Hunger Scale chart
Figure 5: Food security

Turning to household food security, one of our welfare measures to assess resilience, we find that despite the diverse and reliable sources of support, the majority of respondents report moderate to severe levels of food insecurity (Figure 5). Qualitatively, respondents have shared that this may be related to norms and obligatory sharing of resources, which may operate to a household’s detriment. We plan to quantitatively explore this double-edged nature of social support following the second round of data collection.

How resilient do people believe themselves to be?

Our other measure of resilience, three subjective resilience questions, paints quite a different picture (Figure 6) (Jones and Tanner 2015). The majority of the households, across the three research sites, agree or strongly agree that they’re able to bounce back from challenges, change primary income or livelihood source, and are able to get by during more frequent and intense threats.

Figure 7: Subjective Resilience Chart showing Change income or livelihood chart
Figure 6: Subjective Resilience

While we await the second round of data collection to assess the linkages between households’ social connectedness and their resilience, these preliminary results showcase the overall complexity of capturing and make sense of resilience, which encompasses both tangible (e.g. food security) and more subjective aspects.

Our efforts to develop a household survey involved multiple formative steps to ensure contextualization. Yet, for those who are unable to engage in such intense preparation, we believe there are still lessons to be learned from our efforts. Underpinning these lessons is the need for self-reflexivity. Such efforts should be attuned to picking up on the power dynamics and exclusion to avoid perpetuating and/or worsening the local support systems that you’re trying to better understand.

  1. Any effort to quantitatively measure social connectedness must reflect and honor the lived experiences of the men and women in the research and/or programmatic areas. Qualitative research, whether in formative stages and/or as follow-up, is key not only to survey development but also helps to unpack the dynamics which may be hidden in survey responses.
  2. Local team members can offer key insights about context and cultural appropriateness.  Engage these team members in developing contextually relevant survey questions to reflect the lived experiences of the men and women in the context you are working in. Working with local team members to double-check the translation of survey questions, while time-consuming, is a worthwhile exercise to ensure accuracy and cultural appropriateness.
  3. Don’t reinvent the wheel! Rely on the literature and the knowledge of context experts. Engage experts early and iteratively to get insights on your approaches and feedback on survey design and questions.

Learn more about why social connections matter for resilience and recovery in our September 5th webinar and read our first blog post