About Me

Currently a graduate student at the University of South Carolina, I study urban sociology and inequality. Originally from Western Pennsylvania, I am particularly interested in how changes in regional economic structures effect stratification and mobility opportunities, particularly for the working class. I also participate in the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Reflection on the Strength of Weak Ties

I just want to take a moment to reflect on networking.  I was out with a couple of guys I know around town the other night, and I mentioned how I was setting up this blog.  We got to talking about social networks, and the conversation kept coming back to the idea of the strength of weak ties.

The original strength of weak ties concept and research by Granovetter is one of the most important and interesting topics in Sociology in the last few decades. If you’re unfamiliar and interested, you can read the original article here.

Basically, the idea is that your strong ties are certainly important. They are the ties that help you establish your identity and create your own unique personality.  Strong ties are the folks you hang out with the most.  They are the trusted friends who are there for you when things are difficult.

But, your strong ties can only help you so much. Because they are such good friends, both you and your strong tie friends know the same information. If you are looking or a job, you and your closest friends probably know about the same job opportunities.  If you are single and looking for a new person to date, you probably already know most of the people your close friends might recommend.

This is where your weak ties come in.  The folks who you know, but aren’t very close with, your acquaintances, they know about people and opportunities that you don’t.   So, you’re weak ties are the folks in your social network most likely to make you aware of new opportunities or to provide you with interesting information. 

People use their weak ties every day.  For example, when I learn about a new mountain biking trail I should try, it’s not from the guys I ride with every week. I learn about the trail from a friend of one of those guys, who lives another town over.   Often these weak ties aren’t even friends of friends; they may be folks who you get to know through organizations or work.

Another example of the strength of weak ties was shared by one of the guys in this conversation I was having the other night.  He explained that he was able to leverage weak ties when he convince the folks organizing an event at his favorite bar to turn the event into a donation drive for his favorite social service organization.  He said the folks in the organization and the folks at the bar would have never communicated about the bar’s event or about the organization’s need, but he served as that connection that brought the two together. 

For decades sociologists have written about the change in social patterns from the past to the present, from rural areas to cities.  A few weeks ago I was re-reading Richard Florida’s (2002) book The Rise of the Creative Class  In this book, he gave a more contemporary spin on the concepts of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft. He wrote:  “In virtually every aspect of life, weak ties have replaced the stronger bonds that once gave structure to society. Rather than live in one town for decades, we now move about. Instead of communities defined by close associations and deep commitments to family, friends, and organizations, we seek places where we can make friends and acquaintances easily and live quasi-anonymous lives. The decline in the strength of our ties to people and institutions is a product of the increasing number of ties we have” (7).

Of course, there are always debates about this transition. Is the social order falling apart? Is this “quasi-anonymity” actually bad for society? Don’t we need close friends?

My close friends are important to me. But my weak ties are as well.

Either way, people are becoming more aware of the importance of their extended social networks.  Because of arguments like this, we think about concepts like network diversity – the diversity of the individuals you interact with in your social network, or the concept Malcolm Gladwell refers to as social intelligence – your ability to navigate social interactions in a way that results in favorable outcomes for you.  Your skills alone do not always determine your success.  Often you need to operate on opportunities found in your social network by activating your social intelligence in order to convince others who provide an opportunity to invest in your skills.

And yes, here I am writing a blog as an attempt build my social network, and also to be appealing to any potential employer that finds my blog.  Yes I am doing this blog to be engaged with topics related to my research, and to produce interesting content.  But, I am conscious of the concerns presented in this article , I am working to promote myself, but hoping not to come off as too self-involved. 

.. and there’s a good meta thought with which to end this post.