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Weak Ties Theory

 

Explanations > Theories > Weak Ties Theory

Description | Research | Example | So What? | See also | References 

 

Description

We have both friends and acquaintances. Our friends are often a part of a close-knit group who largely know one another. Our acquaintances are far less likely to know one another.

In terms of connection with general society and staying in touch with what is going on in the wider world, the weak ties with our acquaintances are paradoxically much more important than the inwardly-focused conversations with our closer friends. Indeed, the information we discuss with our friends often comes from wider sources.

In the familiarity of strong ties we use simple restricted codes, where much is implicit and taken for granted. In communicating through the weak ties, we need more explicit elaborated codes for meaning to be fully communicated. When elaborating, we have more scope for creativity and the thought that it stimulates makes innovation more likely.

The more weak ties we have, the more connected to the world we are and are more likely to receive important information about ideas, threats and opportunities in time to respond to them.

Societies and social systems that have more weak ties are more likely to be dynamic and innovative. If the system is mostly made up of strong ties, then it will be fragmented and uncoordinated.

Some weak ties are better than others. Weak ties to friends of your friends are not as useful as weak ties elsewhere as the information and further connections are likely to be similar to those of your friends. Weak ties that join separate social groups are called bridges.

You can also find absent ties, where you might expect a tie but it does not exist, for example in a group of friends where two people are still distant from one another.

As there are usually more people in lower classes, they have greater choice of friends and greater chance of finding similar 'people like me' and so compensate by having more strong ties. Economic uncertainty also leads to the search for contingencies and poorer people invest far more in building multiple strong ties who will directly help them if they are in difficulty. However this may serve to anchor their status further and reduce the chance of upward social mobility.

Upper class people are more relaxed about weak ties and so tend to have more. However, they have to resort to expensive clubs and other filtering mechanisms to find 'people like them' with whom they can build stronger ties.

The modern approach to business networking is based on the principle of weak ties: having a wide range of acquaintances can be far more helpful than having just a few good friends. Weak ties are also useful for activists who need to mobilize large protest or action groups.

Weak ties are the channels of culture and are woven into successful organisations where many know many others on first-name terms. Three types of weak ties that may be found in towns and cities are social (casual friendship), community (eg. neighbors) and profesional (job-related).

Research

Granovetter's original 1973 research into the subject looked at how people find jobs. He discovered that information about jobs that led to employment was more likely to come from the weak ties with acquaintances than from closer friends.

There were several moderators of this finding, for example that this 'weak ties finds jobs' was more common in higher status individuals, and that people who had been out of work for longer were more likely to find jobs via their stronger ties.

Example

I have a wide circle of people I know, including many on the internet I have never met. I hear from one of these about a new communications system. I introduce this at my workplace and get many plaudits for my innovation and ability to be 'at the leading edge'.

So What?

Using it

Balance the comfort of close friends with the stimulation of external connection and exploration. Build a network of people you connect with occasionally. Keep tabs on them and feed them with useful information from time to time. Listen to them and ask for ideas and help with problem-solving.

You can also help change in organizations by encouraging weak ties between groups. One bridge can lead to a lot more harmony. Leaders and innovators in particular can make great use of weak ties.

Defending

Watch for casual friends who are becoming somewhat of a drain on you. Back off if the social balance is upset too much.

See also

Social Exchange Theory, Social Contagion, Small World Theory

References

Granovetter (1973), Granovetter (1983), Milgram (1967)

 

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