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This paper is a critical review of the popular article The Strength of Weak Ties by Mark S. Granovetter (1973). After an introduction to the paper at hand and a summary of the texts main points, a closer look at some of the premises on which the author builds his arguments is taken as well as examining the arguments themselves. Followed by that, the articles major contributions to the field of civic networks and social capital and its importance in this realm especially for the contemporary society are examined. Finally, I will conclude by summing up the points and highlighting the significance of the article.
Mark S. Granovetters article The Strength of Weak Ties (1973) is one of the highly influential and most cited works of our times. By emphasizing a part of social networks which had hitherto been neglected, the author clearly caused a stir (not only) within the scientific community of sociology and social sciences.
Granovetter is a contemporary sociologist and professor in the school of humanities and sciences at Stanford University. His main fields of interest are Economic Sociology, Social Stratification and Sociological Theory. Contributing to these realms, he published several articles and books.
Here, we will focus on the input he gives through the paper cited above.
In his renowned and influential paper The Strength of Weak Ties (1973), Mark Granovetter makes a basic distinction between the respective functions of strong and weak ties and points especially to the importance of the latter. He defines the strength of a tie by the combination of time spent together, the emotional intensity, the intimacy and the reciprocal services (p. 1361) present in a particular relationship. He states that the stronger a tie between two individuals, the higher is the proportion of common friends due to three main factors: the time committed to each of ones friendships, similarities that connect friends and the logic of Heiders cognitive balance theory which serves as explanation why the combination of a positive relationship between person A and person B as well as between A and person C will most probably result in a positive relationship between B and C (1958). Concluding from these statements, he points out that only weak ties connect one group of people (friends) and another, as strong ties already imply an overlap between two groups. Relationships that are the only connecting point between two groups are bridges or "if a tie is not the only but the shortest connection between members of different groups - local bridges (p.1364).
According to Granovetter, in the process of diffusion of e.g. new ideas or concepts these bridges play an essential role as they allow for the spread of an idea from one group to another.
The author presents a set of studies that demonstrate how new ideas spread (most rapidly) through people with few strong but several weak ties. This seems to be especially so if the idea introduced is rather unconventional and deviating from a certain norm and the spread of which requires a considerable degree of freedom from peer pressure.
After clarifying the overall importance of weak ties, Granovetter takes a closer look at their significance on two levels: the individual and the community level.
He explains that for the individual, the maintenance of weak ties (e.g. former working colleagues) is crucial as those are usually bridges that provide access to groups of people and to information that one would otherwise not be able to obtain. For the community, on the other hand, bridges are essential in order to prevent pure clique building which would inhibit community cohesion and hinder collective action.
Weaknesses of the argumentation
Not without any reason is Granovetters The Strength of Weak Ties considered a highly influential and important paper. In contrast to many other sociologists writing about social theories or social capital, Granovetter makes a clear distinction between interpersonal (strong ties) and mere transaction (weak ties) relationships and he adheres with it throughout his argument " an important step that many sociological argumentations around social capital lack.
There are, however, a number of weaknesses in his argument which I will outline in the following.
One of the premises he builds his argument on, is that the proportion of overlapping friendship circles of two individual is related to the strength of these individuals tie. Thus, a weak relationship between two people implies that there are only few common friends or acquaintances. This, however, does not have to be true. Take former class mates as an example: Person A and person B were class mates several years ago, but nowadays they are only in loose contact, they thus have a weak tie. However, each of them does have an approximately equally strong tie to most of the people from the former class. Hence, there is an overlap of acquaintances even though they are only very weakly bonded to each other. Furthermore, a friendship that developed over a longer period of time may remain a very strong one even if the two individuals involved do not see each other frequently anymore. This would then imply that there is a strong tie between the two friends but obviously not very much overlap of their friendship circles where they live. This facet becomes ever more important with new communication technologies evolving, which facilitate keeping contact despite spatial separation, and the general globalization which leads to ever more people changing their location more easily and more frequently.
Hence, the definition of the strength of a tie, though quite precise at first sight, does not cover every kind of tie and is thus not completely comprehensive.
Another premise Granovetter states is that due to the similarity which friends usually share it is very likely that if person A is a friend of person B and of person C, then B and C do become friends, too. If one always chooses ones friends because they have much in common can be doubted, though. Not without cause is the proverb opposites attract so well known and often used. Often people tend to feel comfortable around someone that is different in his personality and character, this being an anti-pole to ones own weaknesses and strengths. Thus, the similarity that the author implies here rather refers to sharing an interest in or commitment to something, be it in the labour world or common hobbies. However, if A likes B because of their perpetual discussions about politics and A is a friend of C because of their shared passion for soccer, B and C are not necessarily likely to build a deep friendship as well.
When writing strong ties lead to overall fragmentation (p.1378), Granovetter clearly underestimates the importance of strong ties. His paper is unique in emphasizing a thitherto neglected part of human interaction. Nevertheless, strong ties build the basis for any kind of trust to evolve, which again is a main component of social capital and community cohesion. A person who does not have any intimate relationships will have a hard time trusting people. Now, one could state that everyone is bonded in at least one strong relationship and hence, this remark is redundant. However, nowadays the number of weak ties people have is increasing steadily as online platforms such as facebook allow for an easy way of handling the climbing number of relationships. Still, these relationships do demand some input to remain present and thus it can be questioned if people still invest in their strong ties or if the number and intensity of friendships is declining in recent years. What one can be sure about, though, is that for community cohesion to evolve and remain, both weak and strong ties are needed, rather that seeing strong ties as a threat to social cohesion.
Last, one can question if the generalization of the importance of weak ties is legitimate. It may, very well be the case that they facilitate the spread and diffusion of and thus gives access to information that one could otherwise not obtain. This function (enhancement of diffusion) is, however, one that does not require reliance on the vis-Ã -vis one interacts with. Take the example of an old colleague telling a person about a job offer. This widens the job seekers horizon but he does not have to rely on this single job offer. Here, weak ties fulfil their function beautifully. As soon as something is at stake, though, one has to doubt that people would still make extensive usage of weak ties. Here, they would rather rely on someone they know and well enough to be sure that he can be trusted. This holds true not only for interpersonal issues but also in a mere trade relation.
Strengths and contributions of the article
Nevertheless, one can not possibly question the importance of this article. One major contribution is a solution to the threat of an in-group bias that may occur: As recently found out in a study by Hooghe, Reeskens, Stolle and Tappers, generalized trust, which furthers social cohesion and is a core component of social capital, develops more easily and in greater amplitude within homogenous groups whereas heterogeneity of a group decreases it (2009). These findings bring along some troublesome issues: How can collective action and social cohesion take place in heterogeneous societies? Naturally, heterogeneous groups will divide into subgroups which can lead to fragmentation. With the linkages, the bridges, between these groups, the threat of fragmentation and a resulting lack of participation in public life can be allayed.
Furthermore, it clearly gives the basis for several important publications not only in the fields of civic networks and social capital.
Richard Floridas The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), for example, explains the crucial importance of the spread of information through weak ties for the facilitation of creativity in the labour sector. This is just a representative of the many contemporary influential theories that build on Granovetters paper.
The Strength of Weak Ties contributes to the discussion around the concept of social capital not only by making a clear distinction between different types of ties (as stated above already) but also by showing how weak ties can be a connecting point between leaders and a group and the resulting trust and participation in the leadership and by emphasizing the significance of the spread of information which can ultimately lead to collective action and the involvement of the majority of a society in public matters.
Finally, as already shortly mentioned above, Granovetters stress on weak ties does not become outdated by new findings although the publication lays more than 35 years in the past. In contrast, it should acquire even more importance by the introduction of new technologies and online platforms that alleviate the maintenance of a vast number of loose relationships, even bridging great distances. This trend is crucial for understanding nowadays (Western) societies and hence, for many fields of sociology and social sciences.
Considering the points made above, one can clearly state that the publication is a basic contribution in civic networks theory despite the weaknesses it may have.
There are scholars that tend to favour strong ties and disregard the significance of weak ties "such as Robert Putnam foremost in his book Bowling Alone (2000). This only makes Granovetters article more important providing an anti-pole to such neglect.
Even though there are flaws in the argumentation and the premises on which the approach is built, those are minor ones.
Furthermore, Granovetter states himself that his work is a limited, basic one that is a fragment of a theory (p. 1378). He does not claim to offer a comprehensive and elaborated concept that does not need further improvement. As part of a theory and by drawing the attention to an entirely neglected part of human interaction, it paves the way for further research in this direction.
Granovetter, hence, managed to contribute greatly to several fields of research and this piece of work will not loose significance in the future as it is the basis further studies and will not be replaced by those.