Monthly Archives: September 2011

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past work has been on how distrust hurts low-income blacks in the job referral process, but this new work, as of yet unpublished, is more general.]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.

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Using evolution to improve neighborhoods: The Neighborhood Project

David Sloan Wilson is undertaking an interesting project to try to learn the rules for evolving cooperation while improving his community (Binghamton, NY), a city of 47,000 in upstate New York that has fallen on hard times with the industrial flight of corporate mainstays. A March 2011 Gallup poll found Binghamton to be one of the five least liked cities in the US.  His effort is change all that is called the Binghamton Neighborhood Project (BNP).  It raises all the usual interesting questions about being dispassionate and objective in one’s research, and not attempting to alter the very metrics one is measuring.

BNP has done interesting mapping work (relevant to those of you that are interested in doing the same thing in your areas). For example, students dropped lost letters in different parts of the community and measured the percentage that reached their destination.  They charted the density of Halloween and Christmas decorations as an indicator of community pride, participation, and goodwill.  And they mapped their data in interesting ways, using krig maps to show pro-social peaks as well, peaks.  [See: Wilson, D. S., O’Brien, D. T., & Sesma, A. (2009). Human Prosociality from an Evolutionary Perspective: Variation and Correlations on a City-wide Scale. Evolution and Human Behavior, 30: 190-200.]  [See great sample of 3-D visualization of crime data for San Francisco here.]

Efforts include: a design your own park effort, a Regents Academy for at-risk youth where students are incentivized for good behavior and cooperation, the Binghamton Religion and Spirituality Project to survey and map Binghamton’s religious diversity.

The Design Your Own Park initiative seeks to transform abandoned lots into community playgrounds. Groups submit ideas and the community votes on the idea the most like.  The United Way of Broom County helps secure funding for the transformation and community groups agree to maintain the park.  The goal is to foster parks throughout the city and there are 5 park projects underway including a BMX bike park and a dog park.

At Binghamton’s Regents Academy, a higher percentage of at-risk students took and passed state tests than in other Binghamton schools, but no formal assessment has been done of the school.  Moreover, at least as of June, the regime of rewards was still changing weekly and the principal, Miriam Purdy, while believing in the importance of the incentives, did not believe that the incentive program is about evolution.

The Religion and Spirituality Project is motivated by Wilson’s belief that religion can play a central role in producing community cohesion and giving residents a sense of life meaning.

Wilson believes that community residents (using his biological training) can behave either like water striders (which pursue their goals single mindedly, ignoring others) or wasps (which work together subconsciously for their collective good).  Pro-social groups can outcompete those lacking social cohesion, so he believes there is an evolutionary element to encouraging prosocial behavior.  He believes the seven key elements to more effective collective efforts are: 1) a strong sense of group identity; 2) proportional costs and benefits for all residents; 3) consensus decision-making; 4) monitoring those who are anti-social; 5) providing graduated sanctions (ranging from minor slaps on the wrist to more serious sanctions for chronic infringers); 6) fast, fair conflict resolution system; and 7) autonomy/authority, nested within polycentric governance (which links these localized efforts together).  Above and beyond these factors, he believes that residents need lots of practice at cooperating, and often our affluence buys us out of community, in the same way that David Brooks refers to the Haimish line.

Listen to NPR story ‘Can Evolution Breed Better Communities?

Interesting Nature story (9 June 2011) on this called “Darwin’s City

Read “The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time”; excerpt available here.