Monday, May 3, 2010

The Strength of Weak Ties

I have been thinking a lot about how to understand poverty from the point of view of the properties of the social network. In this context, I thought I would share with you a very important paper by sociologist Mark Granovetter written in 1973 called ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’ which he has more recently revisited in a new paper called ‘The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited’. Here is an excerpt:
.....individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market, where advancement can depend, as I have documented elsewhere (1974), on knowing about appropriate job openings at just the right time. Furthermore, such individuals may be difficult to organize or integrate into political movements of any kind, since membership in movements or goal-oriented organizations typically results from being recruited by friends. While members of one or two cliques may be efficiently recruited, the problem is that, without weak ties, any momentum generated in this way does not spread beyond the clique. As a result, most of the population will be untouched. The macroscopic side of this communications argument is that social systems lacking in weak ties will be fragmented and incoherent. New ideas will spread slowly, scientific endeavors will be handicapped, and subgroups separated by race, ethnicity, geography, or other characteristics will have difficulty reaching a modus Vivendi.
I share this because villages, which are typically poor by nature, are generally insular, tending to rely much more on strong ties with very few weak ties outside their village. Given this, one strategy Madura takes as an organization is to bring in products, services and events that foster ties across villages and to the urban economy. This may all sound like common sense but what is surprising, if you get into the models and workings of networks, is just how profound the consequences of a few weak ties can be. (I've spent the last five years thinking about this mostly in the context of the brain and it is interesting to note that the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain where all the high level thinking gets done, is characterized largely by weak connections).


  1. I don't think you can stress enough, to people who aren't familiar with the study of networks, how non-intuitive they are. As you point out, its not surprising that weak ties are helpful. The degree to which they are helpful, however, is astonishing.

    Since I'm reading _Linked_, and he talks about Granovertter's findings, I immediately thought about weak ties when I read your post about the correlation between your borrowers who travel and their success. It is interesting to know that Madura already tries to foster weak ties. Have you have considered something like an "exchange program" between your borrowers in different villages? A borrower from Village A goes to visit borrowers in Village B, and a borrower from Village B goes to visit borrowers in Village C.

    Does theory predict it would be more affective to have A visit B and B visit C, or A visit B and B visit A? My reading of it suggests the first.

  2. That's a good idea - we would have to design an exchange program around something though so people feel there is a purpose to the exchange. I'll have to think more about that...

    As for how to structure the exchange as A to B and B to C or reciprocal you would be right from the point of view of diffusion of information and collapsing path length in the network although reciprocity could have other benefits to the quality of the link established.