Friday, February 15, 2008

Weak social ties and on-line connections

Last summer my wife was looking for a summer job, and she did the usual things—read the employment bulletins and sent out applications. Ultimately, though, she got a job through an acquaintance. We see this person a few times a year, and she heads up an administrative unit here on campus. My wife applied, got the job, and we all lived happily after.

This story illustrates the somewhat cynical mantra of all job seekers that it’s not what you know but who you know. Sociologists call this phenomenon the strength of weak ties.

A “weak” social tie, in every day language, is an acquaintanceship—someone with whom you are familiar with but not too close. In contrast, a “strong” tie would be a good friend or close family member, someone with whom you interact a lot. An “absent” tie would be someone who you know but don’t reclip_image004ally have any kind of relationship with.

In a famous sociological study, Mark Granovetter interviewed several hundred business people and asked them how they got their jobs. Seventeen percent reported learning about their jobs from a close friend (strong tie), 28% reported learning about it from someone they barely knew (absent tie), and a full 56% of the respondents reported learning about it from an acquaintance (weak tie).

It’s a bit of a paradox: Why are acquaintances, people we sort of know, more important in the job search process than our close friends and family? Our strong ties, after all, care about us more and would be much more willing to help us.

The answer, according to Granovetter, is that weak ties are a unique social resource: they connect us with a wider set of social networks than do social ties. clip_image008Your acquaintances each have their own strong ties—family and friends to whom they are very close to. Through your acquaintances, you gain access to their strong ties—and to the social networks to which they belong. All social networks offer various resources, such as information about job opportunities, and so by connecting with a greater number of social networks, via weak social ties, you gain access to more possible employment opportunities.

Strong ties, in contrast, connect us with fewer social networks. Your best friend in the world would probably do anything for you, but chances are that the two of you know many of the same people. As such, it’s not that your close friends and family don’t want to help you in a job search; it’s just that they have less to offer because you probably already know about most of the contacts that they would offer. You already share many of the same networks with them. So, there’s a trade-off. Strong ties are more willing and available toclip_image006 offer help, but weak ties typically have more resources to offer.

In this context, it’s interesting to think about the many social ties created by the Internet. About a year ago, I started blogging, and through that I have had contact with dozens, if not hundreds, of people with similar personal and research interests as mine. Likewise, most college students have Facebook accounts in order to keep track of their friends and make friends with their friends’ friends (got that?). As a result of this on-line networking, this generation may have more casual social ties than any before.

The question, then, becomes the nature of these online ties. Granovetter studied fairly conventional acquaintances—people you see in person at places like the work place or social gatherings. Online acquaintances are different. If I met some of the people I know from online, I don’t think that I would even recognize them. Yes, we’ve exchanged many comments on our blogs, and I know a fair amount of information about them, how they think, what they do, but I’ve never met them in person.

Would these on-line ties be as useful in a job search? The answer is… I don’t know. The focus of these on-line relationships is social networking, getting to know each other pretty much for the sake of getting to know each other. The interactions with these people tend to be more social—what you’re doing, what interests you share in common. I’m not sure how often instrumental concerns come up. In everyday conversation, it’s easy to drop in the information that you’re looking for a job, but it might fit in more awkwardly in online interactions.clip_image010

Perhaps more importantly, though, is that the social networks and resources offered by online connections are often too distant to be of much value. For example, one of the people I interact with online lives in Kenya. Now, he may know of great job opportunities for me, and be very willing to help, but unless I’m willing to relocate to Africa they don’t do me much good. This maybe why in-person acquaintances remain so will remain so important—by virtue of meeting them face-to-face, you occupy the same physical location, at least briefly. Chances are, therefore, that the social resources they have to offer would also be close and thus of greater value.

So, do you want to get a job? Make sure to let your acquaintances know since they may be very helpful. You’re online connections might be as well, but probably not as much.

Originally posted on .


Brad Stewart said...

Wouldn't a more straightforward explanation of why weak ties provided more people jobs than strong ties be that we simply have a lot more weak ties? According to the stats you gave, about 3.3x as many people got jobs through weak ties than through strong ties -- but at least for me, I can say that I have a lot more than 3.3x as many weak social ties than strong ones... I know I'm going on a sample space of one here, but if this is generally true, then close ties would still be more likely, per friend, to get you a job -- it's just that since you have more weak ties, you're more likely to get a job through one of your many weak ties than through one of your relatively few close friends.

Have I missed the point here?

Brad Wright said...

Good question. Before Granovetter's work, people assumed that the depth of our fewer close ties would have far greater impact than the breadth of our numerous weak ties. So it is the numbers, as well as the social distance, of weak ties that makes them so useful.

By the way, nice photographs on your website!

Crockhead said...

Another explanation might be that one is more reluctant to recommend a strong tie person because if the person turns out to be a poor hire, there is more of a reflection against the recommender. I know I have refrained from recommending some people with whom I have strong ties for just that reason. There is less risk in recommending a weak tie person.

Brad Wright said...

Crockhead... that makes sense. I hadn't thought about it that way.

Ben said...

Hey Brad, come on over to Kenya. My program really does need a good sociologist like you. One of my colleagues just walked out of our study room to go fight with her supervisor over methodology. They can’t find a sociologist to guide her through some field work she thinks is essential to her dissertation on Ephesians and ethnicity.

Unfortunately (in addition to your family being willing to relocate around the world) there is this one thing at my school about westerners having to raise their own salary, but you could become a missionary sociologist. (A sociologist who has churches in the wealthy US pay his salary for the benefit of African Christian scholarship.) You would get to write off your US Taxes, get cheap resident rates to all the great game parks, and you could make someone very happy by paying them more than the going rate (50 cents an hour) to clean your house, cook your food, wash your cloths and do your dishes. Give it some thought ;-). On the other hand, if these Kofi Annan talks fail, do you know of any potential jobs for me in New England?

Really interesting article. I wonder if weak-social ties work the same way in fundraising?