Ramblings & ephemera

Notes on The Strength of Weak Ties revisited

From Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength Of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited” [Sociological Theory, Volume 1 (1983), 201-233.]:

The argument asserts that our acquaintances (weak ties) are less likely to be socially involved with one another than are our close friends (strong ties).Thus the set of people made up of any individual and his or her acquaintances comprises a low-density network (one in which many of the possible relational lines are absent) whereas the set consisting of the same individual and his or her close friends will be densely knit (many of the possible lines are present). …

The weak tie between Ego and his acquaintance, therefore, becomes not merely a trivial acquaintance tie but rather a crucial bridge between the two densely knit clumps of close friends. To the extent that the assertion of the previous paragraph is correct, these clumps would not, in fact, be connected to one another at all were it not for the existence of weak ties (SWT, p. 1363).

It follows, then, that individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market, where advancement can depend, as I have documented elsewhere (1974), on knowing about appropriate job openings at just the right time. …

The macroscopic side of this communications argument is that social systems lacking in weak ties will be fragmented and incoherent. New ideas will spread slowly, scientific endeavors will be handicapped, and subgroups separated by race, ethnicity, geography, or other characteristics will have difficulty reaching a modus vivendi. …

In the evolution of social systems, perhaps the most important source of weak ties is the division of labor, since increasing specialization and interdependence result in a wide variety of specialized role relationships in which one knows only a small segment of the other’s personality. … the exposure to a wide variety of different viewpoints and activities is the essential prerequisite for the social construction of individualism. …

She relates this difference to Basil Bernstein’s dis- tinction between restricted and elaborated codes of communication. Restricted codes are simpler-more meanings are implicit and taken for granted as the speakers are so familiar with one another. Elaborated codes are complex and universal – more reflection is needed in organizing one’s communication “when there is more difference between those to whom the speech is addressed” (p. 256). …

At a more mundane level, I argued (SWT, pp. 1369-1373; 1974, pp. 51-62) that weak ties have a special role in a person’s opportunity for mobility-that there is a “structural tendency for those to whom one is only weakly tied to have better access to job information one does not already have. Acquaintances, as compared to close friends, are more prone to move in different circles than oneself. Those to whom one is closest are likely to have the greatest overlap in contact with those one already knows, so that the information to which they are privy is likely to be much the same as that which one already has” (1974, pp. 52-53). …

Administrative or managerial employees had a pattern very much like the one I reported: 35.5 percent using weak ties, 15.8 percent strong ones, and 48.7 percent intermediate. Professionals and office workers also were heavy users of weak ties (30.8 percent and 25.8 percent but, unlike managers, used strong ties even more frequently (51.0 and 44.4 percent). Semiprofessionals found only 13.1 percent of jobs through weak ties and blue-collar workers 19.1 percent; the former found 44.9 percent of jobs through strong ties, the latter only 19.1 percent. …

One set of results is of special interest, however. Ericksen and Yancey found that less-well-educated respondents were those most likely to use strong ties for jobs …

The argument of SWT implies that only bridging weak ties are of special value to individuals; the significance of weak ties is that they are far more likely to be bridges than are strong ties. It should follow, then, that the occupational groups making the greatest use of weak ties are those whose weak ties do connect to social circles different from one’s own. …

Consistent with this interpretation is the finding of Lin and col- leagues (1981) that weak ties have positive effects on occupational status only when they connect one to high-status individuals. For those of lower status, weak ties to those of similar low status were not especially useful, whereas those to high-status contacts were. In the latter case the status difference alone strongly suggests that the ties bridged substan- tial social distance. …

Weak ties provide people with access to information and resources beyond those available in their own social circle; but strong ties have greater motivation to be of assistance and are typically more easily available. …

Pool argues, for example, that the number of weak ties is increased by the development of the communications system, by bureaucratization, population density, and the spread of market mechanisms. Further, he suggests that average family size affects the number of weak ties, since where “primary families are large, more of the total contacts of an individual are likely to be absorbed in them” (p. 5). …

In my study of job finding, for example, I found that those whose job was found through strong ties were far more likely to have had a period of unemployment between jobs than those using weak ties (1974, p. 54). …

A number of studies indicate that poor people rely more on strong ties than do others. Ericksen and Yancey, in a study of Philadel- phia, conclude that the “structure of modern society is such that some people typically find it advantageous to maintain strong networks and we have shown that these people are more likely to be young, less well educated, and black” (1977, p. 23). …

Stack (1974) studied a black, urban American, midwestern ghetto … Stack: “Black families living in the Flats need a steady source of cooperative support to survive. They share with one another because of the urgency of their needs. . . . They trade food stamps, rent money, a TV, hats, dice, a car, a nickel here, a cigarette there, food, milk, grits, and children. . . . Kin and close friends who fall into similar economic crises know that they may share the food, dwelling, and even the few scarce luxuries of those individuals in their kin network. . . . Non-kin who live up to one another’s expectations express elaborate vows of friendship and conduct their social relations within the idiom of kinship” (1974, pp. 32-33, 40). …

At the same time, I would suggest that the heavy concentration of social energy in strong ties has the impact of fragmenting communities of the poor into encapsulated networks with poor connections between these units; individuals so encapsulated may then lose some of the advantages associated with the outreach of weak ties. This may be one more reason why poverty is self-perpetuating. Certainly programs meant to provide social services to the poor have frequently had trouble in their outreach efforts. From the network arguments advanced here, one can see that the trouble is to be expected. …

Furthermore, many cultural items never transmitted by the media are known throughout an extensive network: “Youth cultures offer excellent examples of subcultures which provide a set of communication channels external to the media. Much material which is common knowledge among young people – dirty jokes, sexual lore, aggressive humor . . . is not communicated by the adult-controlled media” (p. 9). …

What makes cultural diffusion possible, then, is the fact that small cohesive groups who are liable to share a culture are not so cohesive that they are entirely closed; rather, ideas may penetrate from other such groups via the connecting medium of weak ties. It is a seeming paradox that the effect of weak ties, in this case, is homogenization, since my emphasis has been the ability of weak ties to reach out to groups with ideas and information different from one’s own. The paradox dissolves, however, when the process is understood to occur over a period of time. The ideas that initially flow from another setting are, given regional and other variations, probably new. Homogeneous subcultures do not happen instantly but are the endpoint of diffusion processes. … Fine and Kleinman note that “culture usage consists of chosen behaviors. . . . Culture can be employed strategically and should not be conceptualized as a conditioned response. Usage of culture requires motivation and, in particular, identification with those who use the cultural items. Thus, values, norms, behaviors, and artifacts constitute a subculture only insofar as individuals see themselves as part of a collectivity whose members attribute particular meanings to these ‘objects'” (1979, pp. 12-13). …

The importance of this notion is clear. If “the innovativeness of central units is shackled by vested intellectual interests (or perspectives) then new ideas must emanate from the margins of the network” (p. 460). Furthermore, as I suggested in SWT for the case of high-risk innovations (p. 1367), Chubin points out that marginals, in science, can better afford to innovate; the innovations, if useful, are seized on by the center. …

Weimann finds also, however, that strong ties are not irrelevant in information flow-the speed of flow, credibility, and especially influence are all greater through strong ties and, in fact, “most of the influence is carried through strong ties” (1980, p. 12). He suggests a division of labor between weak and strong ties: Weak ties provide the bridges over which innovations cross the boundaries of social groups; the decision making, however, is influenced mainly by the strong-ties network in each group (p. 21). …

In the bureaucratic solution, the ties are hierarchical; in the democratic clinics, many of which have reacted against the formal model, “tena- cious ties provide a matrix of close primary group relations unifying the entire structure. These strong ties strikingly resemble patterns observed in small communities, summer camps, and Jesuit monastic orders” (p. 20). …

In their analysis Breiger and Pattison studied three types of ties in the two communities-social, community affairs, and business- professional-and found that social ties function as strong ties, that business-professional ties are weak, and that community-affairs ties are strong in relation to business ties but weak in relation to social ones (1978, pp. 222-224). …

I have not argued that all weak ties serve the functions described in SWT-only those acting as bridges between network segments. Weak ties are asserted to be important because their likelihood of being bridges is greater than (and that of strong ties less than) would be expected from their numbers alone. This does not preclude the possibility that most weak ties have no such function.

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