Tag Archives: Mark Granovetter

The science of friendship

Flickr/JimBoudThere is an interesting article by Robin Dunbar in The New Scientist: Dunbar’s Number was named after Robin, from his theorizing that humans only had the brain capacity to manage roughly 150 relationships, although depending on gender, social skills and personality, this number could vary from 100-250.  Dunbar observes that communication often breaks down when one exceeds 150 individuals (as evidenced in the Crimean War by the Charge of the Light Brigade) and the modern military and businesses only exceed these limits through strict hierarchies.

Dunbar theorizes that language, laughter and communal music-making evolved as a way to stay connected to a larger group of individuals than possible through physical acts like grooming. Dunbar: “[N]ot only can we speak to many people at the same time, we can also exchange information about the state of our networks in a way that other primates cannot. Gossip, I have argued, is a very human form of grooming.”  Christakis and Fowler (in the excellent book Connected) note that “…language is a less yucky and more efficient way to get to know our peers since we can talk to several friends at once but only groom them one at a time.  In fact, in a conversation with a small group, we can assess the behavior, health, aggressiveness, and altruism of several individuals simultaneously.  Plus, we can talk to someone else while engaged in another activity, like foraging for food in a refrigerator.”  Christakis and Fowler note how radical the idea is that language evolved not primarily as a way to exchange information but to maintain group cohesion.   “Dunbar estimates that language would have to be 2.8 times more efficient than grooming in order to sustain the [average] group size seen in humans” (one speaker per 2.8 listeners).

While language may have originally evolved, as per Dunbar, to maintain a slightly larger group size, once developed it was in principle possible to use language to maintain social relations on a tribal or national level.

A few other excerpts from Dunbar’s article:

Group living needn’t tax your intelligence too much. In a loose herd, cues such as body size or aggressiveness may be enough to judge whether you should challenge or steer clear of another individual. In bonded networks, however, you need to know each member’s personal characteristics and those of the friends and relations that might come to their aid. Keeping track of the ever-changing web of social relationships requires considerable mental computing power.

As a reflection of this, there is a correlation between the size of a species’ brain– in particular its neocortex– and the typical size of its social groups. In other words, brain size seems to place a limit on the number of relationships an individual can have. This link between group size and brain size is found in primates and perhaps a handful of other mammals that form bonded societies such as dolphins, dogs, horses and elephants. In all other mammals and birds, unusually large brains are found only in species that live in pair-bonded (monogamous) social groups.

As group size increases so too does the number of relationships that need servicing. Social effort is not spread evenly. Individuals put most effort into their closest relationships to ensure that these friends will help out when they need them. At the same time they maintain the coherence of the group. As a result, social networks resemble a nested hierarchy with two or three best friends linked into larger groupings of more casual friends, and weaker relationships bonding the entire group. This hierarchy typically has a scaling ratio of three– each layer of decreasing intimacy is three times larger than the one before it….

HUMAN SOCIAL NETWORKS

Our social networks can have dramatic effects on our lives. Your chances of becoming obese, giving up smoking, being happy or depressed, or getting divorced are all influenced by how many of your close friends do these things. A good social network could even help you live longer since laughing with friends triggers the release of endorphins, which seem to “tune” the immune system, making you more resilient to disease. So what factors influence the form and function that our social networks take.

In traditional societies, everyone in the community is related to everyone else, either as biological relatives or in-laws. In post-industrial societies this is no longer true– we live among strangers, some of whom become friends. As a result, our social circles really consist of two separate networks– family and friends– with roughly half drawn from each group.

Because the pull of kinship is so strong, we give priority to family, choosing to include them in our networks above unrelated individuals. Indeed, people who come from large extended families actually have fewer friends. One reason we favour kin is that they are much more likely to come to our aid when we need help than unrelated individuals, even if these are very good friends.

Family and friend relationships differ in other important ways, too. One is that friendships are very prone to decay if untended. Failure to see a friend for six months or so leaves us feeling less emotionally attached to them, causing them to drop down through the layers of our network hierarchy. Family relationships, by contrast, are incredibly resilient to neglect. As a result, the family half of our network remains constant throughout most of our lives whereas the friendship component undergoes considerable change over time, with up to 20 per cent turnover every few years.

More than 60 per cent of our social time is devoted to our five closest friends, with decreasing amounts given over to those in the layers beyond, until at the edge of the 150 layer are people we perhaps see once a year or at weddings and funerals. Nevertheless, the outer reaches of our social networks have a positive role to play. The sociologist Mark Granovetter at Stanford University in California has argued that these weak links in our social networks are especially useful in the modern world. It is through this widespread network of contacts that we find out about job vacancies and other economic or social opportunities. More importantly, perhaps, 70 per cent of us meet our romantic partners through these contacts.

Read “Getting Connected” by Robin Dunbar (New Scientist, 4/3/12)

Why weak ties are strong for job searches

Flickr photo by pvickering

Mark Granovetter is famous for uncovering the strength of weak ties in job searches (i.e., that weaker ties ironically are more helpful in landing jobs than one’s close friends).  Granoveter, after interviewing job seekers, posited that it was because one’s close friends tie one back to jobs and job leads that one already knew about whereas weak ties connected one to jobs that one hadn’t heard of.

Sandra Smith, sociology at Berkeley, is doing interesting work uncovering the why.  She’s interviewed 157 workers of various races and various job levels at a public university (Berkeley?) to learn of cases where they did and didn’t help people land jobs and what was good or bad about the experience.  Smith notes that in Granovetter’s work the job seekers often don’t know exactly what or was not done by their strong or weak tie.  [Her past work has been on how distrust hurts low-income blacks in the job referral process, but this new work, as of yet unpublished, is more general.]

It turns out, that people generally don’t refer their close friends to jobs for two reasons: 1) they are more worried that it will reflect badly on them if it doesn’t work out; and 2) they are more likely to know of the warts and foibles of their close friends and believe these could interfere with being a good worker (e.g., Jim stays up late to watch sports, or Charles has too much of an attitude, or Jane is too involved with her sick father).  Weak friends one can more easily project good attributes onto and believe this will work out.

She spoke of one interesting case, “Redmond”, who worked in a growing university department that was hiring 30 new people and whose manager asked workers to help refer good employees.  Redmond was asked soon thereafter by the parking attendant at his church whether he knew of any jobs for his wife who had lost her job (both the parking attendant and his wife were Ethiopian immigrants in the US and lived at Redmond’s church).  Redmond barely knew either of them, but took many steps to advance her candidacy (driving her to the interview, introducing her to people at the office, checking on her candidacy, and getting information filled out again when the paperwork was lost, etc.).  Redmond also had 10-15 good friends who needed a job, but he only told 2 about the available jobs, and even for those 2, didn’t take any steps to advance their candidacy since he had reservations about them.

In some cases, people did intervene on behalf of family or friends, but sometimes this was more lukewarm (e.g., enabling their applicant-friend to put the job-holder’s name on the applicant as a referrer, but making no efforts behind the scenes to advance their candidacy).

The job holders seem to put the interests of the workplace generally ahead of the interests of their friends, perhaps because they are jealously guarding their workplace reputation would could be sullied by a poor referral.    The job holders act as “moral” gatekeepers, trying to keep out the unworthy.

Smith is working to try to categorize types of job assistance and what leads one to help a friend/relative vs. helping a weak tie, and whether this assistance is to help the friend or improve the workplace.

Best friends may provide the most new and valuable info

Flickr photo of BFF from nokapixel

Mark Granovetter in a famous 1973 article “The Strength of Weak Ties” observed that it is our weaker social ties that are most likely to provide us access to information we don’t already know about: job leads, cross-fertilizing information that we can use to great advantage in our jobs, new opportunities, etc.

A recent paper by Sinan Aral and Marshall Van Alstyne says that Granovetter neglected to include frequency of contact.  Yes, our weak ties are more likely per contact to provide us new information, but we contact our strong ties so much more often that a majority of novel information actually comes through those strong and demographically similar friends.

Aral and Van Alstyne analyzed nearly a year of e-mail from an executive recruiting firm (heavily dependent on e-mail for communication and where novel information was critical in finding the right candidates) and found that those with a tighter group of friends (which they define via less network diversity) actually got a higher ratio of new information per unit of time and produced higher revenue for the firm.  As the authors hypothesized, recruiters with more diverse networks suffered a big drop in the volume of communication (what they call “channel bandwidth”).  “Interestingly however, reductions in channel bandwidth associated with greater network diversity do not seem to be driven solely by time and effort costs of network maintenance, but also by the nature of the relationships in sparse networks.” Van Alstyne concludes:  “a smaller number of high-bandwidth relationships can be good for you.”

So no need to jettison your best friends for now…

Read “Buddy System” (WIRED May 2011, by Clive Thompson)

See Sinan Aral and Marshall Van Alstyne, “Networks, Information & Brokerage: The Diversity-Bandwidth Tradeoff” (2010)

The importance of building social capital accidentally (UPDATED)

Mario Luis Small, (University of Chicago, Sociology), who spoke this summer at our SCHMI 2010 workshop, has a compelling recent book that we commend.  Mario is a wonderful person and a smart applied researcher, undertaking research with societal implications.

In his ground-breaking recent book Unanticipated Gains (Oxford University Press, 2009),  Small both focuses on how important social capital is to the health of mothers but also uses the book to explore “how social capital is built” since he thought there was a lot of research on the importance of social capital and a dearth on how to create it.  It represents a major advance in our collective knowledge.

He studied new mothers and daycare centers in the New York City area for two reasons:

  1. Daycare centers are diverse institutions (they come in for-profit, non-profit, state-run, privately-run, and religiously-run flavors);
  2. They are prime place for observing new ties being formed since many American parents deal with these during in their lives, they have high turnover, and catch mothers at a phase of their life when they are often interested in and likely to make new ties (children are an important channel through which we make new ties).  Daycare centers also come at a time in mothers’ life when they have big responsibilities (children) but low knowledge, which also makes networking very important (e.g.,  Who is a good local pediatrician? When do you worry about a rash?  When should you start on formula?  How warm does it need to be? What museums are child-friendly?).

Part of his research was about how social networks at daycare centers helped make mothers healthier and less depressed; he found significantly less depression in daycare centers where parents made more social ties and the quality of their information was much better.

But equally important was his conclusions about how social capital was built.  This is an excerpt from a piece he wrote for RSA about his research.

Levels of commitment

We interviewed the directors of many different kinds of childcare centers – 23 in all, ranging from the commercial to the nonprofit, the secular to the religious, the corporate to the standalone – and observed what staff, children, mothers and fathers (though few of the latter were visible) did over the course of operations.

At the end of our study, nothing surprised us more than how much the centers differed in their social capital. In some, most mothers forged new friendships among the other parents; together, they organized parties, arranged play dates, attended movies and dinners, and developed what many of them referred to as a new community. Joining the center had measurably transformed their social networks…. In other centers, mothers knew few, if any, of the other parents; they did not party or dine with them, or babysit their children. These centers served as little more than drop-off and pick-up locations. In one rare example, the director had even tried to build social capital but failed: she threw a pizza party for parents to socialize and almost none of them attended.

Flickr photo by Jason L Park

Mario’s central question is “why” did some succeed when other centers failed in building social capital?  He concludes that social capital was often the unintended consequence of an administrative policy.

The socially effective centers did not differ from the others in the amount of leisure time the mothers had at their disposal; in all of them, most mothers worked full-time. Race, class, lifestyle and neighborhood did not explain the difference, and nor did these centers have particularly heroic directors committed to creating a sense of community among the parents. On the contrary, few directors displayed any interest in building social capital for its own sake. Like the rest of us, they were busy; they had a center to run.

Instead, social capital typically emerged when directors were trying to accomplish some other task, one that gave parents opportunities to interact or incentives to cooperate. For example, many directors believed strongly that children should be exposed to zoos, museums, libraries, children’s parks and farms. But trips to these locations require many more adults than are needed in the classroom, to prevent children from sticking their hands in monkey cages, wandering off in parks or slipping into ponds at apple-picking expeditions. Since hiring more staff for these occasions was costly, the centers needed parents to attend. No parent volunteers, no field trips. Centers needed volunteers for other activities, too, such as sanding and painting playgrounds at the end of the year, contributing food for various ceremonies and raising money to keep tuition fees moderate. In some centers in low-income neighborhoods, mothers were expected either to raise a certain amount over the course of the year – usually about US$300 – or pay it out of pocket. To avoid paying the fee, parents had to volunteer for group fundraising activities, such as selling baked goods or holding raffles.

All of these activities – field trips, clean-ups, ceremonies and raffles – required interaction and socialisation with others; they obliged parents to meet, talk, exchange phone numbers, arrange schedules and get organized. As a result, the centers that imposed greater demands on parents provided opportunities and incentives that, over the course of weeks and months, stimulated the formation of social capital.

Mario also talks about how the daycare schedule helped build social capital.  Some centers had strict drop-off and pick-up times, with fines often running at rates as high as $10 a minute for every minute that one was late.  Other centers had lackadaisical attitudes toward drop-off and pick-up times.  The centers with rigid times, in turn had parents all arriving at nearly the same time to drop-off and pick-up their children.  Invariably, that time (just before or dropping off children) was a social capital gold mine: parents would ask other parents whether their child had had a certain behavioral problem, or would arrange playdates or would get advice about equipment, toys or books for their kid.  Mothers would seek out useful connections to tap if they were unavoidably detained at work, got a flat tire, or were stuck in a train, to have that other parent to pick up their child.  They might ask other mothers to babysit their children some time during the week in exchange for reciprocal favors.  This is another example of administrative policies designed with no attention to social-capital-building that had big consequences.  Every parent who didn’t form a social tie with others in a daycare center, regardless of their social class, cited flexible drop-off and pick-up times as the number one cause (and this was confirmed by the data).

Mario also found that the existence of a parent-teacher organization in a daycare center was a strong positive predictor of how much social capital was built.

The implication of Mario’s book is regardless of one’s organizational post, one should be more attuned to ways to build (or not destroy) social capital in the everyday policies; this is far more important than the intentional but infrequent organizational group get-together or pizza party.  The pizza party is not counter-productive, but since it is a rarity, it’s unlikely to be as consequential as the daily rhythms and patterns of the organization.

Mario notes that other research comes to broadly similar conclusions about the importance of organizational features in the building of social capital:  for example, Mitch Duneier’s work on restaurants; Maureen Hallinan’s work on schools; Frida Kerner Furman’s work on barbershops and salons; and work by Omar McRoberts and Chaeyoon Lim/Robert Putnam on houses of worship.

One of Small’s interesting findings was that one of the reasons that the daycare centers were so successful in building social capital was their homophily: they tended to draw other parents of similar socio-economic backgrounds, partly through where the centers were located, through their pricing structure and through who was eligible for government-supported programs.  Small speculated in a visit to Harvard (October 4, 2010) that the social capital gains exhibited by daycare centers would be less successful for a hypothetically new daycare center located in a mixed-income housing center and available only to its residents.  He also speculated that it would lead to more task-oriented conflict, of the kind that he observed in researching Unanticipated Gains.

We highly recommend the book for those interested in rebuilding our stock of social capital.  The book focuses much more on inter-organizational variance in building social capital (i.e., which organizational settings are more successful) than on within-organization variation in building social capital (i.e., who within a daycare center succeeds in building social ties).  He agrees that more research is needed on this second question:  the “mating” part of “meeting and mating.”  His book focuses more on what about the organization creates an important opportunity structure for building social capital.

Small also noted that the ties generally being created at these daycare centers are a strange hybrid of strong and weak ties.  Scholars like Granovetter focused on the strength of weak ties for accessing information (job leads, etc.) and the importance of strong ties for getting social support.  In general, Small finds daycare centers produce “compartmental intimates”; daycare parents use these networks both for exchanging important information relating to their children, but because of the fact that young children share all kinds of private information about parenting and because parenting often relates to many other intimate things like the quality of one’s relationship with one’s spouse, these daycare friendships often provided strong social support and friends felt comfortable talking about many personal items that directly or indirectly related to their parenting.  In this sense, these compartmental intimates offered some of the best of strong and weak ties.

Small engaged in an interesting dialogue with Robert Putnam about to what extent the focus on daycare centers obscures the role of agency (individuals’ efforts to build social capital).  Does the existence of these daycare centers substitute for personal agency and effort?  Does it compound inequalities in social capital creation.  Small thinks in general that they daycare centers are likely to reduce the class-based inequalities in social ties and Putnam’s instinct is the opposite.

From a policy perspective, Mario Small’s work suggests that if one were hypothetically figuring out how to invest $5,000 in childcare per low-income resident in an area, one would be far better providing a voucher to be used for childcare in an organizational setting, rather than a voucher for family daycare or a $5000 voucher to the mother.  Small found that the publicly-run centers also tended to maximize the social capital building:  they typically had parent associations (founded in their Head Start roots) and ran a lot more field trips.  They were also better about connecting parents to things like assistance if there domestic abuse issues, or access to dental and health exams.

Chapter 1 of Unanticipated Gains can be read here.

Video of Mario discussing his work.

An article Mario wrote on his research for RSA Journal available here.