This is a lovely compact intro, which is perfect for a non-sociologist like me 🙂 Quick notes follow.

Superimportant articles that everyone quotes (especially the first)

Mark Granovetter: “The Strength of Weak Ties”, American Journal of Sociology, vol 78, 1973.

Mark Granovetter: “The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited.” Sociological Theory, Vol 1 1983.

[Goodness, Terje’s a very clear, calm lecturer. I bet his students are happy.]

Granovetter studied people in Chicago, asked how they got a job. Slightly more than half got their jobs through aquaintances – not advertisements or good friends. (I’ve read about this before, I realise.)

Granovetter lifts this up from the micro-level and his own empirical studies to examine how society works. Not a total theory like Durkheim, but a starting point (?).

It’s really unlikely that A knows C and A knows B but B and C don’t know each other, at any rate if A is pretty good friends with both B and C: B and C will probably know each other too.

If A needs a job, she’ll ask B and C. They probably won’t have any new information, because A already shares most of the information that B and C have. There’s a far greater chance A will get new information — for instance about a job that might suit A — from her weak ties, that is from aquaintances and people that she doesn’t see very often. The greater social distance between A and D means that D knows more things that A doesn’t already know.

Weak ties also important because they work as bridges between social groups. People who are bridges between two groups may appear to be socially isolated but actually have weak ties with two or more groups which gives them very early access to new information.

Small worlds networks – Stanley Milgram’s experiments in the 60s (he was the guy who made people think they tortured other people which led to severe trauma and raised questions of research ethics) – another of his experiments was asking people to send a parcel to a person in another city via friends and aquaintances. Using some creative arithmetics, Milgram worked out that every person on the planet is connected by a maximum of six degrees (A knows B knows C knows D etc) It’s the bridges (people connecting groups) that make the world seem this small.

[I’ve heard or read all this somewhere but for some reason I’m enjoying listening and typing it out. Maybe because I hadn’t realised that I already knew social networks 101 and it’s satisfying to discover it.]

This discovery casts new light on other sociological issues.

For instance, there was a very tightly integrated group of people in a suburb of Boston whose suburb was going to be destroyed by a freeway. Sociologists thought they’d fight the renovations, because of the strong social network. But no, they did nothing! Another suburb in Boston, less tightly integrated, fought efficiently against a similar situation.

Granovetter’s analysis: the first suburb had lots of families with few connections out of their group, whereas the others worked various places and had lots of weak ties to other areas of society and therefore successfully organised. Ethnical minorities easily end up without enough weak ties out of their own group.

If you want to learn how to write a good article in social science, the first of Granovetter’s articles about is a perfect example, Terje says. He has a clear, simple idea, and uses it to show problems (?) in previous research and shows how the idea suggests new ways of viewing the world (or something).

Sociologists like using averages to explain things, though of course they know that averages hide differences that are crucial. Quantitative network theory has always assumed that networks are randomised. We all have the same number of social relations in their graphs, although of course that’s not true.

[Ooh, we’re coming to the power law, aren’t we! Cool, reading Many2many for a year or two is equivalent to Sociology 101! Or at least to a half hour lecture on sociological network theory.]

Graph of power law graph with some getting lots and most getting not that much. You both get individuals with a lot more or fewer relationships, and clusters that are more densely interlinked (hubs).

Sociologists have been too keen on talking about distributed networks — e.g. Paul Baran’s drawing of centralised, decentralised and distributed networks, where he described how the Internet should be set up. In a distributed network everything’s equally distributed, everyone’s equal, you know. If we imagine that network to be a social network, it’d be a network that was less efficient than a decentralised network which has hubs, clusters and strong and weak ties.
Will digital technology support strong and weak ties? How can we uses these ways of thinking about social networks in thinking about technology and social software? Should we aim at adecentralised rather than a distributed structure?

15 thoughts on “notes: terje rasmussen on sociological approaches to networks

  1. Matt Whyndham

    > Milgram worked out that every person on the planet is connected by a maximum of six degrees

    This must be bad meme of the decade. I thought it was “on average” six degrees. Sometimes much less “oh yeah I know B”, sometimes not connected at all.

  2. kyan gadac

    Love your writing – this reminded me of the economics of POW camps. The importance of weak networks and “short cuts” is seen in the ‘6 degrees of separation’ theory as well. i.e. what makes it work(the six degrees) is the existence of people who act as short cuts between clusters. In POW camps it’s the person who speaks Italian,Norwegian and English who can barter for goods who then becomes the most important figure in this description of the ‘simplest’ kind of an economy.

  3. Jill

    Actually according to Terje, Milgram came to this result (I can’t remember if Terje said “average” or “maximum) based on rather creative arithmetic too so it’s probably not entirely sound.

  4. Matt Whyndham

    A team Columbia repeated Milgram’s small-world experiment recently, and the results are here: They find that the Median number of steps is between 5 and 7, and identify factors other than network structure that make a difference to real-world interactions.

  5. Matt Whyndham

    Also, they don’t support the Connector theory (pace Gladwell).

  6. Jill

    I think I was a participant in that study! Can’t find the blog post, though, maybe I didn’t write one…

  7. Matt Whyndham

    Me too. I think my branch of the network had infinite length, IYSWIM.

  8. Jill


  9. tormodh

    Jill… Google.
    IYSWIM (Chat Expression) If You See What I Mean.

    I had no idea either, until I asked the oracle that is Google 😉

  10. Jill

    And how could I not have Googled it. Foolish me 🙂 Thanks, Tormod!

  11. […] oman too: that brings us to about 2% women speakers) is quality. You know I was just at a seminar on social networks. Strikes me the point about the importance of weak ties must be relevant here. Most people […]

  12. […] How tight do you really want networks to be? Shows social network of a high school class, with various kinds of connections between individuals. Loose ties (Granovetter) between cliques, gangs, dyads and groups – these are extremely important. If mobile telephony only strengthens the clique, does that weaken the weak ties? […]

  13. […] A student wants to do his bachelor thesis on Web 2.0 and social software, so I’m looking for literature to recommend to him. He should, obviously, read Granovetter (here are my old notes from a talk Terje Rasmussen gave about this), and as he suggests, O’Reilly’s “What is Web 2.0?” is obvious, but apart from that he needs more academic texts. He’s interested in tagging, so something about classification would be good – is there a classic work about that? I came over a great list danah posted a few weeks ago of a dozen or so recent, peer-reviewed articles about social networking sites, so some of them might be good. Any more suggestions? […]

  14. […] A quick rundown of some of the sociological background to social networks. […]

  15. […] As the voice from academia I started by talking about strong and weak links, as Granovetter theorised them in the 70s, and went on to talk about how some social network sites, like LinkedIn, primarily try to help us use and develop our weak ties, whereas others, like dating sites, are more about finding new friends and contacts. Unlike LinkedIn, Facebook has become a social site where all sorts of networks are mixed – I have contacts there ranging from acquaintances from high school, students I had three semesters ago, neighbours, colleagues I met once at a conference, through to colleagues I see or talk with regularly and close friends and family. The collision of networks is one of the problems with sites like these, as “boyd’s law”, formulated by Cory Doctorow expresses: ìAdding more users to a social network increases the probability that it will put you in an awkward social circumstance.î According to Doctorow, that’s one of the reasons social networking sites only tend to last for a couple of years – once there are enough people in your “network” that you don’t want to have contact with you’ll move to another site. I then told boyd and Heer’s story about the teacher whose students found her Burning Man style profile on Friendster (PDF, and noted that services like Spock and Open Social are making these kinds of collision more and more likely, even when we try to keep our networks separate. danah boyd’s post yesterday was great as a round-up: Tim O’Reilly’s argument that this kind of openness is a kind of vaccination against the foolish belief that we can be private online (”We have a moral responsibility to eliminate “security by obscurity” so that people aren’t shocked when they are suddenly exposed.”) vs. danah’s argument that that’s all very well if you’re privileged, as tech geeks in Silicon Valley are, but if you’re not in a position of power – say, if you’re a teenager, or a dissident in a dictatorship, or queer in an oppressed society, or a whistle blower – that vaccination may damage you badly, or even get you killed. Filed under:General — Jill @ 10:05 [ ] […]

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