Understanding strong and weak ties within social networks

I’ve just read an interesting article by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker regarding the depth of connection within social networks. Apart from some interesting comments on the differences between networks and hierarchies and the nature of Iran’s Twitter uprising; what is more widely interesting is the differentiation between the role of “strong ties” (eg your close friends) and “weak ties” (eg your more general acquaintances) in motivating any change whether that is behavioural or, primarily in the case of the article, political.

Generally it is argued by those exploring the field of social capital, that building weak ties – described in the concepts of bridging and linking social capital – is a good thing to encourage, especially within local communities that lack them. As the article states:

“There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism”

The article also explains, that weak ties of wider “social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires”. In other words they lower the entry costs to participation and this is very much a good thing.

However when it comes to a deeper motivation for forms of commitment and activism and sustaining the course of an activity, the article argues it is strong ties and bonding social capital that counts. Describing research into those who stayed in or dropped out of the 1960’s Freedom Summer campaign to end segregation in the Deep South of the United States, the article reports that:

The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.

From the point of view of pro-social behavioural change, what these studies may be important in telling us, is that there may be a range of actions one needs to take as part of any intervention. This might firstly start from building wider social networks so as to increase initial local participation on the assumption that will then indirectly lead to the development of a wider range of strong ties that create stronger motivation within any target group to sustain activity. Often strong ties are seen in a negative light and weak ties are said to be what less-well off communities need. The reality is that we probably need both developed at different stages of an intervention. This insight might prove important to longer-term interventions in the public health field or for building the Big Society.

As recent RSA research into social networks has shown, it is clear that we are all still developing our understanding  as to how they work. The RSA research looked into distribution of networks within communities, focusing on “weak ties”, but did not at this stage explore the values that are generated or reinforced within any given network or the narratives that are expressed within the community as a result. Many of these may be quite pessimistic or negative narratives, that may, for example, reinforce negative behavioural outcomes in a community. We are currently doing work into how values and narratives develop within social networks and will report further on our findings.

As the New Yorker article illustrates, understanding the varying roles of strong and weak ties within local social networks is something that needs to be more clearly understood too.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer in the The Campaign Company

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One Response to “Understanding strong and weak ties within social networks”

  1. The interplay between Social Networks and Values? « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] have written a number of times (1. Weak ties; 2. Nudges; 3. Public Health) about the importance of social networks for building social capital […]

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