Background: Existing literature on the design of interventions and health policy about self-management have tended to focus on individual-centred definitions of self-care and there is growing recognition of the need to extend consideration beyond individual factors, which determine self-care, to examine wider influences such as the health service, the family and the wider social context.
Aims: To explore the theoretical and empirical links between social networks, social capital and the self-care practices associated with chronic illness work and management in the context of people's everyday lives.
Method: A realist review method was used to search and appraise relevant quantitative and qualitative literature.
Findings: The review findings indicate that social networks play an important part in the management of long-term conditions. We found that social networks tend to be defined narrowly and are primarily used as a way of acknowledging the significance of context. There is insufficient discussion in the literature of the specific types of networks that support or undermine self-care as well as an understanding of the processes involved. This necessitates shifting the emphasis of self-care towards community and network-centred approaches, which may also prove more appropriate for engaging people in socially and economically deprived contexts.