Weak Ties Forever Strong Cultural Studies Essay

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An Analysis of "The Strength of Weak Ties"

The aim of this paper is to critically assess the The Strength of Weak Ties (hereafter SWT) by Mark Granovetter (1973). This is a highly influential sociology paper which dismisses the until-then commonly held assumption that strong ties bring about more social capital. In a descriptive, intuitive fashion he highlights the great potential of the weak ties. Although SWT was written 37 years ago, its findings are still perceived as valid and are applied to modern society. Therefore, the research question of this paper will be inquiring about the present relevance of SWT's findings.

In order to answer this question, it will start by giving an overview of the Granovetter's initially theory. Within the same section it will include the remarks Granovetter made ten years later in a revised version of SWT: The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. Before indulging into an analysis Granovetter's thesis, this paper will offer a depiction of bridging and boding social capital. Furthermore, it will focus on the implication of the weak ties at micro-individual level and macro-societal level. The first part will zoom in the case of social mobility while the latter will look at social organization. These two sections will confront Granovetter's argument with other empirical studies. At the end, this paper will conclude with the relevancy of Granovetter's theory especially with the emergence of online social platforms.

Granovetter's Argument

This section will review Granovetter's hypothesis as presented in 1973 in SWT. Furthermore, it will clarify some of the theoretical aspects as presented in the revised version of SWT in 1983 in regards with the importance of strong ties.

The Strength of the Weak Ties

Granovetter's argument asserts that weak ties are essential for individuals' opportunities, at a micro level and societal cohesion, at a macro level. He highlights that weak ties are channels for information dissemination, spread of ideas and influence, encapsulation counteraction, social mobility and social and political organization. These features are intrinsic characteristics of social capital as they can translate into civic cooperation and social collective action (Welzel, 2010).

In order to support his argument he gives the example of a randomly selected individual called Ego and analyzes his social network structure. He differentiates between his acquaintances (weak ties) and his close friends (strong ties). He defines the strength of a tie as a "combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie" [1] . Furthermore, he claims that weak ties are less likely to know one another. Hence, they will create together with the Ego a low-density network, while strong ties, a densely knit one. The strength of the weak ties consists in the fact that they are more likely to become bridges of highly dense networks than strong ties are.

The SWT offers, however only a fragmented theory. It is an exploratory paper and its claims are partially supported by author's own previous empirical findings [2] or by other studies.

The Strength of the Strong Ties

One of the criticisms of SWT consists in being overly optimistic regarding the benefits of the weak ties. Ten years later, Granovetter revised his theory and highlights that weak ties are of special value only if they are bridges of different social circles than one's own. [3] Granovetter acknowledges that strong ties are generally more easily available. Those ties are also more motivated to be of assistance. Therefore, in situations of insecurity or need, they play an important role. In a situation of sudden job loss or economic distress, individuals perceive close friends and family as the ones most likely to be of help.

However, Welzel (2010) points out that "relations of choice" are more beneficial than "relations of need". Granovetter, in his revised paper, gives the example of the poor who, in response to economic pressures rely more than others on strong ties (within their own social class) as they consider themselves as without alternatives. However, this leads to encapsulated networks which perpetuate poverty.

Consequently, the importance of strong ties should not be neglected. However, weak ties are crucial for the integration of the individual both at micro and macro level. The following sections will depict different types of social capital in relationship with the strength of the tie involved in supporting it.

Bridging Social Capital vs. Bonding Social Capital

In order to give full credit to the importance of Granovetter's theory in relation to social capital, it is essential to make the distinction between bonding capital and bridging capital. The following section will offer a literature definition, will exemplify the role of the two and will define the types of ties on which they are based on.

According to Shirky (2008) "bonding capital is an increase in the depth of connections and trust within a relatively homogenous group; bridging capital is an increase in connections among relatively heterogeneous groups. " The bridging capital happens therefore, between clusters. It is based on weak ties and has a higher population reach. The bonding capital on the other tends to be more exclusive - it is a within group capital and it is the result of strong ties.

In order to illustrate the different potential of the two types of capital, the example of the 2003 Howard Dean's presidential campaign as presented by Shirky (2008) is very useful. The campaign was targeted at young enthusiastic students. Well funded and publicized, the campaigned was build around a handful of ardent supporters. It created value for everyone who participated. However, the downside of this campaigned was that it was based on bonding capital, accidentally generating a movement of the passionate few. The result was that the opposition won because they were able to get people to vote for their candidate through bridging capital. By avoiding a highly dense network, the opposition spread their message through weak ties and was able to mobilize the greater majority. The weak ties bridged small communities or groups of interests who turned out to vote.

The following section will address the role of weak ties at a micro -individual level in mobility opportunity and at a macro societal level in community organization as presented is studies which preceded SWT.

Mobility Opportunity

This section discusses the role of weak ties in the context of mobility opportunity. Current literature supports Granovetter's theory, pointing however at particular circumstances in which the weak ties are beneficial. This section will offer a brief overview of Granovetter's stand on this issue and will confront it with other studies.

Granovetter argues 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). This explains the special role weak ties have in a person's mobility opportunities.

Langlois (1977) [4] analyzed the recruitment process in a branch of Quebec provincial government. His findings support Granovetter's theory as only 15.8 percent found employment through strong ties, while 35.5 percent through weak ties and 48.7 percent through intermediate. However, the study revealed the professionals and higher educated people were more likely to use weaker ties as compared to uneducated workers who would rather rely on strong ties.

These findings were also supported by Lin, Ensel, and Vaughn (1980) who further look at the relationship between the tie type and occupational status attainment. Their results point out that weak ties are mainly used in finding a new job when that job is considered a higher occupational achievement. At the same time, weak ties have positive effects only when they connect one to high-status individuals [5] .

Nevertheless, in case of urgent need of a job or persistent unemployment, people are more likely to rely on strong ties because they are perceived as more available (Boorman, 1975 [6] ). Ericksen and Yancey (1980) [7] highlight that "strong networks seem to be linked both to economic insecurity and a lack of social services. As long as the unemployment rate is high the threat of living in poverty is real, and as long as large segments of the population find access to medical services, day care, and social welfare services problematic, we can expect to find reliance on strong networks to continue among them" (p. 28). This however, leads to what Granovetter calls societal fragmentation. These groups, due to lack of weak ties are encapsulated and the result can only be unemployment perpetuation.

Consequently, mobility opportunities through weak ties, although undeniable beneficial, happen only within certain circumstances and economically secure, educated people are more likely to benefit from them. They lead to bridging capital. Once again, bonding capital generated by strong ties triggers fragmentation and segregation of community.

Community Organization

Another important aspect of weak ties is their role in establishing intergroup connections which results in societal cohesion. This section will consider the role of weak ties in group organizations. In order to illustrate it, the focus of this part will be on weak ties in the digital sphere.

Granovetter highlights that "intimate relations tend to be confined to small and closed social circles… they fragment society into small groups. The integration of these groups in the society depends on people's weak ties, not their strong ones, because weak social ties extend beyond intimate circles (1973, 1373). Groups formed on strong ties tend to discriminate on basis of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic background, etc.

In his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2008), Shirky presents the impact of the Internet on group dynamics. An important point he makes is the fact that their openness, availability, low transaction and low managerial costs of the online tools enables loosely structured groups to form and operate. The internet can therefore easily bridge small communities and create societal cohesion at a macro level.

A relevant example of the use of online social tools in generating collective action would be the Moldovian riots from April 2009. An estimated 20,000 people gathered to protest against the presidential elections which were supposedly rigged. With no recent history of mass protests, the "revolution" was coordinated through online social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. "The messages were spreading quickly and the senders were asking everyone to forward them to all the people they know," said Vasile Botnaru (2009), who manages RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau. According to Granovetter, if this would have been a closed network, the information flow would have been at one point stopped. However, both Twitter and Facebook are platforms which make the weak ties more visible and more easily activated and hence the reach of the message and the mobilization was very effective.

Shirky also highlights that "every webpage is a latent community. Each page collects the attention of people interested in its contents, and those people might well be interested in conversing with one another too" (2008, 102). During the riot, the Moldavian newspaper Ziarul de Garda asked its readers to send in instances of voter abuse. "In just half an hour, we had tens and hundreds of cases," Alina Radu, the editor claimed. This case exemplified the latent community which turned into an active one.

Consequently, through the power of information dissemination of the weak ties, the bridging capital created through social networks and the availability and openness of the internet, group organization at a macro scale become fairly easy.

Conclusion

The value of Granovetter's theory is irrefutable. Granovetter's pioneer work highlighted the importance of the weak ties for individuals' opportunities, at a micro level and societal cohesion, at a macro level. Weak ties are channel for information dissemination, diffusion of novelty and ideas, social and political organization, etc. Given the fact that these can translate into collective action and civic cooperation, they are intrinsic characteristics of social capital. The seemingly paradoxical structure "the strength of the weak ties" was proved empirically by the studies which followed it. The theory has been refined throughout the years but its initial underlying assumptions still hold true.

Furthermore, SWT seemed to predict an area of research long before the existence of the actual phenomenon: namely, social capital in online social networks. With the large geographical reach, its openness and its network visibility, the internet fully exemplifies the power of Granovetter's weak ties for construction of social capital. Therefore, the paper written 37 years ago is not only still valid but is also a pioneering in current sociological areas of research.

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