This paper aims to give a critical review of some of the ideas that Granovetter develops in his paper "The Strength of Weak Ties" published in 1973. A main focus will be put on his points how to link interpersonal relations and their effects to society. Here, it will be scrutinized how weak ties are important for Social Capital by the characteristics he introduces. The four points that will be reviewed are Diffusion, Social Mobility and Social Cohesion and Political and Community Organization. Besides close analysis of the given text, other sources will also be incorporated to come to a comprehensive conclusion and outlook.
Summary and Introduction
In his paper "The Strength of Weak Ties" published in 1973, Granovetter tackles the question of how important weak ties are in social networks and how these micro-level interactions can be related to macro-level patterns. First of all, a definition of the difference between strong and weak ties is in order. The author pins down the strength of a tie to the four highly intertwined parameters: amount of time spent together, emotional intensity, intimacy and reciprocal services. Second of all, the term Social Capital is quite loosely defined as well. For the purpose of this paper, it is suggested to mainly focus on the aspects of Diffusion and Political Organization as parameters for Social Capital.
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In the next part of Granovetter's paper, he moves on to define the term "bridges" which are a vital part of diffusion of information through society. Local bridges are weak ties that provide the only and shortest connection between two networks therefore a crucial role is attributed to them when it comes to Diffusion. Furthermore, he tries to prove that these weak ties also play an important role in terms of Social Mobility as well as Political Organization in a community. For that matter, he refers to studies or precise examples.
Granovetter concludes his paper by stating that making a connection between interpersonal relations and their connection to society is of extraordinary importance and the focus of upcoming papers should also be laid on weak ties and not only on strong ties. Furthermore, he states that he only provided a very small part of a theory and the main purpose was to give an incentive and to create a certain curiosity for the presented subject.
Before going into detail on the mentioned points some general comments will precede. Granovetter is quite right when he states that the analysis of weak ties has been neglected by many social scientists (Gans, 1974; Centola and Macy, 2007). Even though, he only differentiates between weak, strong and absent ties, he still makes very clear distinction between them since he introduces four very crucial factors (see above). One could argue that his distinction is too simple and that a better distinction might be personal and functional ties and then subdivide those into frequent and infrequent ties. However, he introduces quite striking characters which make his distinction quite valid.
Second of all, it will be brought up throughout this paper that Granovetter often lacks empirical measurements when it comes to the aspects of Social Capital. While this is legitimate criticism, it has to be acknowledged that a perfect measurement for Social Capital is yet to be found. As van Deth states in his paper (2003) it is hard to measure Social Capital since only definite situations can be measured which will then be taken out of context. Furthermore, one has to differentiate when it comes to structural and cultural aspects which impedes an empirical study further (van Deth, 2003).
According to Granovetter bridges play a vital role in the subject of Diffusion. While his theoretical demonstration sounds logical he lacks empirical proof since he states himself that the relationship between weak ties and Diffusion has not been measured since it is quite complicated. It does not suggest any solution how one could come close to measuring it and even though his aim is to only provide a fraction of a theory, this would have been expected.
Therefore, it has to be questioned whether or not his arguments can hold true even though there is no direct way of proving them. It leads to the assumption that his theory might be correct but since it has not yet been proven it could incite critics to challenge this paper's vital importance to bring forward the study of Social Capital under the parameter of Diffusion since no empirical evidence can be presented.
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However, one can rely on his findings due to plausibility. Since people have more weak ties than strong ties, weak ties give you access to more information especially if they are bridges and they form the only connection between two networks. This then also leads to more opportunities to participate in society and it counteracts social insulation (Baller and Richardson, 2009). Another vital aspect of weak ties is that Diffusion makes them have an integrative character since they connect networks and thereby contribute a vital part to the health of society.
On the other hand, a rather critical attitude is in order when applying his theory to large networks or for instance the society. Since Social Capital is always related to the whole society, all theories that are brought forward should be applicable to the society at least to some extent. Since Granovetter's arguments mainly rely on the fact that ties exist which build the only connection between certain groups, it does not seem to be applicable to the whole society since it is fairly unlikely that there is only one connection between two groups. Moreover, all examples that are brought up to illustrate the validity of the author's arguments are conducted on a very small scale further questioning the applicability to society.
When narrowing his definition down to local bridges which are the shortest connection between certain networks, the importance of weak ties becomes more apparent. Here, a good applicability to society and therefore Social Capital can be seen since it is obvious that Diffusion of information to a whole society is facilitated by weak ties since they represent the fastest and shortest paths.
Coming back to the personal level, a study conducted by Baller and Richardson (2009) has proven that closer friends have a higher potential to influence one another even though the number of weak ties an individual usually has is larger than the one of strong ties. This leads to the assumption that weak ties do not provide as much support as strong ties do which can have detrimental consequences.
Regarding detrimental consequences, the nature of diffused information should be scrutinized once more. While Granovetter only assumes that positive information will be diffused through weak ties, he ignores negative information or information that was not supposed to spread. Needless to say, the passing on of these kinds of information through weak ties does usually not have a positive effect on society. Spread of confidential information can lead to instability either of a local network, or if applied to a state, even the whole society. While this has not been proven, it has been shown that negative spread of information through weak ties can lead to a higher likelihood of suicide (Baller and Richardson, 2009). While this is on a very small level, it cannot be ruled out that negative effects of Diffusion through weak ties for a society do not exist.
Social Mobility and Cohesion
Granovetter further makes the statement that weak ties also facilitate Social Mobility when it comes for example to finding a new job. He cites empirical findings supporting his hypothesis, however, at the same time, he contradicts his own definitions made at the beginning of his paper. The author narrows down the distinction between a weak and a strong tie only to the frequency of contact disregarding his points of emotional intensity, intimacy and reciprocal services. Moreover, the differences in time range that he suggests are very unequal making no distinction between someone who has seen their contact once a week or twice a year.
The importance of weak ties in regards to Social Mobility can be further questioned on the ground of its applicability to society. Again, the example of the job hunt is a very specific example and it is also mentioned that the success is only apparent since short paths had been involved. In a society, many weak ties are present and through Diffusion (as described above) a success of this kind would not be detectable. Therefore, the author lacks to provide the link of his findings to the whole society and therefore making it vital for the study of Social Capital.
Nevertheless, towards the end of his discussion of Social Cohesion the author makes a very valid point stating that by changing one's job, a weak link between different networks is established. Since this leads to more and more networks being weakly linked a positive effect for the whole society can be seen since more and more people will be affected. Therefore, weak ties do affect Social Cohesion in a positive way and therefore facilitate the establishment of Social Capital to some extent. Again, one has to be careful as to whether or not an effect can only be seen on the small or the large scale.
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On the other hand, one must not forget that there is information that spreads more easily than other. While Granovetter suggests that everything can become diffused readily and therefore facilitate Social Mobility and Cohesion, he did not bear in mind that there might be matters such as information about new technology or the enthusiasm to take part in a social or political movement. It is suggested that due to reason of credibility as well as legitimacy, among others, these pieces of information would have to come from numerous exposures of weak tie interaction since the level of trust is lower than in strong tie interactions (Centola and Macy, 2007). Therefore, one has to differentiate again and some of Granovetter's explanations are just too simple.
Political and Community Organization
When Granovetter turns to weak ties and Political or Community Organization, he pins his findings down to two very specific examples. While these seem quite regional and again not valid for application to the whole society, it can be states that he makes very general assumptions which can be used to link his findings to the whole society. Even though he does not cite any empirical evidence, the strength lies in the theoretical explanations and its plausibility.
Throughout the author's explanations he refers back to Gans who firstly analyzed Political and Community Organization in West End and Charlestown. In a response to Granovetter's paper, Gans states that he agrees with him regarding the fact that social scientist have so far ignored weak ties, however, when it comes to the two examples in Boston, the absence of weak ties is too simple to explain what happened (1974). Granovetter's colleague argues that first of all, the networks in West End were fragmented for different reason than Granovetter suggests and he also questions whether the existence of weak ties would have been sufficient to lead to Community Organization and political involvement (Gans, 1974).
Other factors that need to be taken into consideration are of historical origin since the West End had not seen effective local protest before. Moreover, at the time the threat was perceived it was already too late to do anything about it. Another striking component was the lacking trust in politicians. While Granovetter comments on this, Gans disagrees by stating that even in an ideal network with many weak ties, people would not have trusted politicians since they were acting outside the neighborhoods. This stands in contrast to the successful Charlestown where people trusted in politicians and where they had moreover learned from the West End which incited their political action (Gans, 1974).
Coming back to Political Organization it needs to be mentioned that how well a community can organize oneself does not quite prove what the status of the Political Organization is. To make a meaningful statement here, Granovetter should rather have focused on concepts like voter turnout or campaign activity and looked at the actual communal activity closer as suggested by Dalton in his paper "The Good Citizen" (Dalton, 2008).
Conclusion and Outlook
To make some final remarks, it is needless to say that Granovetter does make a contribution to the study of Social Capital. Not only does he shift the focus onto weak ties - an area which had been totally neglected by social scientists before - but he also engages in close analysis how these weak ties interaction facilitate Diffusion, Social Mobility and Community or Political Organization. Even though, some criticism could be uttered to his points, it has to be taken into consideration that the aim of his paper was simply to provide an idea or a fraction of a theory. Often, he did not scrutinize all possibilities of his assumptions which was quite noticeable for the points of "Diffusion" or "Community Organization". Maybe a more comprehensive view would have been favorable, on the other hand, it might have gone beyond the scope of his paper.
Nevertheless, we do not want to forget about strong ties, either. While they certainly do not play such an important role in the facilitation of the development of Social Capital, they are quite important on the personal level fulfilling each individual's emotional needs. Since society is made up of individuals, a basic satisfaction of their needs is necessary to develop Social Capital and therefore a flourishing society.
For future studies it might be interesting to find out what other factors might be worth analyzing when it comes to weak ties. Since the paper was written in a time where no internet was present, a study or paper could have the objective of how the internet affected weak ties, their characteristics and their affect on the individual or society in today's world. Moreover, the effect of weak ties on other aspects of Social Capital could be the purpose of a study. Points that come to mind are generalized trust, direct political involvement, elite-challenging action or membership in voluntary associations. Furthermore, a cross-cultural approach that looks at differences between cultures bears potential.