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The Strength of Weak Ties

Groups come into existence when two or more individuals become linked in a relationship of some kind, where relationship implies interdependence and influence. These relationships, or “social ties,” vary considerably in terms of their durability, strength, and intensity. Two objects can be tied together in many ways–with threads, with ropes, string, chain, with plastic tiedowns, a steel weld–and so can group members.

Granovetter, in his classic 1973 analysis “The Strength of Weak Ties,” identifies a number of factors that influence the nature of these ties between group members: duration, emotional intensity, intimacy, and exchange, as well as directedness (reciprocal or one-directional) and valence (positive or negative). These factors generally combine to influence the overall strength of the relationship, where strong relationships are ones that generate (a) enduring, repeated, frequent interactions, (b) strong feelings of attachment and emotional contagion, (c) the exchange of personal information in copious quantities, and (d) interdependency. But, he cleverly notes that weak ties–once that typify the links between people who would describe themselves as “acquaintances” rather than “friends,” also substantially influence group dynamics.

First, weak ties are sources of new information. When individuals are linked through strong ties, they share the same experiences and alliances, and so their knowledge base is shared. If one individual is removed from such a tight-knit group, the impact is relatively negligible, in terms of information, because their knowledge was shared rather than unique. Weak ties, in contrast, connect individuals who hardly know each other, and also have less in common. In consequence, they provide more varied types of information, which Granovetter illustrates with example of job search. He discovered that many people who are seeking employment learn of positions not from their close friends, but from acquaintances. Their close friends can only tell them about jobs they are already aware of, whereas acquaintances know about jobs they had not discovered on their own.

Second, weak ties join groups together. Individuals are members of many different groups, which are joined together by weak rather than strong ties. For example, A, B, C, and D may be all very good friends, but A may also be acquainted with X–who is good friends with Y and Z. The weak tie between A and X links together the two groups of A-D and X-Z.

Barabasi, in his book Linked, provides some backstory to Granovetter’s publication. Granovetter, it seems, submitted his strength-in-weak-ties for publication while he was still a graduate student at Harvard. Granovetter had developed the idea after listening to a lecture by Harrison White, who did early work on social networks. Inspired, Granovetter carried out a field work in Newton, Massachusetts, where he discovered that most people seeking jobs learned about positions from acquaintances rather than friends. But when he sent the paper to American Sociological Review for review and possible publication in August of 1969, he got less than favorable evaluations: one reviewer said it should not be published for an “endless series of reasons” (Barabasi, 2003, p. 42). Granovetter, after recovering from the sting of rejection, recouped and rewrote, and submitted a revised paper to the American Journal of Sociology–where it was published in 1973. Google indicates this paper has been cited 19,134 times!

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