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If You Want to Test a Man’s Character, give him power–Abraham Lincoln.

This week’s readings made me realize a basic fact of the study of social networks, it’s all about power: access to it, maintaining it, struggling to get it and gatekeeping newcomers to the power circle.

In the beginning, there was Grannovetter’s Strength of Weak Ties (1973). He said that the social network ties that joined people are strong or weak. Strong ties form a dense network. Ron Burt would say these networks are full of redundant information because if A has strong ties to B and C it is likely that B and C share a tie as well; the information would just roll around those three actors. He went on to describe a situation where A might also have a tie to Z who isn’t connected to B or C and is situated within their own network. Granovetter called this a weak tie and likened it  to a bridge. Whereas a cluster of strong ties share similar information among their network, the weak tie serves as a conduit for information and innovation that might be otherwise unavailable. He illustrates this point by demonstrating that political power of community groups attempting to preserve their neighborhood. While networks of strong ties imply high levels of trust, weak ties carry a level of trust which is earned over time by the sharing of timely and helpful information (Burt 1993). It is the networks that had weak ties to others outside of the community that received and shared the information necessary to seize power, mobilize and take action. Those without those ties had insufficient information to form powerful coalitions, were hampered and lost their fight.

In 1993 Burt expanded on this with the concept of structural holes in an article about the social structure of completion. Competition for what?  Power, which can take the form of information, resources or finances. He connected the concept of tie strength to economic power by positioning it as an element of structural holes. Structural holes look at the superstructure, the junction where networks connect.  Structural hole theory says that where there is a hole, two networks that have no connection to each other, there is an opportunity for someone to position themselves as an intermediary between the two networks and serve as a bridge to that chasm. The person who bridges that structural hole also positions themselves to enhance their personal social capital. Lin’s definition of social capital reinforces the power dynamic of social networks: investment in social relations with expected return” (p.6). Later he cites Coleman’s definition, of social capital being the resources embedded in a social structure which are accessed and /or mobilized in purposive actions. Social capital is mutual and dynamic, both parties bring something to the table. The social capital of the individual nodes, enhance the social capital of the group.

Social Capital. What is it? What does it do? The 4 elements to explain the need for social capital are completely about retention, enhancement and control of societal power:

  • Facilitating the flow of information that can aid in finding opportunities and choices not usually available
  • Exerting influence (putting in a good word for someone lower on the social scale)
  • The certification of social credentials
  • The reinforcement of identity and recognition

Lin provides an understanding of social capital by beginning with definitions of capital put forth by economic theorists such as Marx and sociologists such as Bourdieu who discuss capital as a tool of the dominant class to incent and control the working classes. (Whereas Marx saw it solely as an oppressive tool, Bourdieu conceded that the working class might adopt and become invested in meanings of the symbols used by the dominant class for their own benefit.) According to Lin, Marx presented capital as being about antagonistic class struggle and neocapitialists presented it as a layered series of discourses.

So how do weak ties, social capital and structural holes all come together?

Weak ties provide the basic structure that spans structural holes in a network. The motivated individual can cultivate a weak tie in a disconnected network and by sharing information that is timely and relevant to the interests of his or her weak tie’s network, build individual social capital that adds to the social capital of the group. The weak ties close the structural hole. In closing that hole social capital is built.[1]

That this becomes about power is evident in Cote and Erickson (2009) where they look at the role of social capital in how Canadian ethnic minorities are viewed. One of the findings was that people with more education and people in higher socio-economic strata were more tolerant of minorities. One of their comments is that the tolerance among these groups is that racial minorities pose no threat to their societal, political or economic power. I would add that another element of power is the ability of these groups (which carry a great deal of overlap) is the power to determine which individual members of a given minority group can “cross over” to more powerful strata through actions including college admissions, the distribution of scholarships and grant money, promotions, letters of recommendation, etc. These actions serve to enhance the social capital of the individual who is a member of the dominant culture by bringing new blood into the dominant network and in the dominated culture by positioning them as a friend and ally of the group.

[1] I suspect the Ron Burt would take issue with my use of the phrase “close the structural hole” but that is very much how I see it. The hole exists because of the absence of a weak tie. Let’s say you have two networks that share no connections. They are like two islands. The person who steps in to bridge that gap between the two is closing that gap (and putting him or herself in a position of power. They can control the content, flow and direction of information.

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I might be thinking about social network ties in the wrong way.

First let me give a rundown of the different types of social networking ties (this list is adapted from a paper I wrote in 2012):

  •  Absent: People an individual does not know or person meets in passing like a mailman
  • Weak: A tie to a person who would generally be deemed as acquaintance. She or he serves as a local bridge between social networks that would otherwise be disconnected. Weak ties are associated with bridging social capital
  • Strong: A tie to a person who is generally a close friend or family member. This type of tie bonds people who have a high degree of similarity and forms the core of an individual’s social network. Strong ties are associated with bonding social capital (Granovetter, 1973)
  • Latent: A tie for which a connection is available technically but that has not yet been activated by social interaction (Haythornthwaite, 2002, p. 389).
  • Dormant: Situations where two people had a social network tie in the past (strong or weak) but drifted apart and no longer communicate with each other. The social network tie can be considered severed. (Levin, Walter, and Murnighan 2011)
  • Diminished: A tie, weak or strong that has weakened. This might occur when a neighbor moves out of a neighborhood or a co-worker goes to a new department
  • Spontaneous: When one individual actively seeks to connect with a stranger with whom they have something in common or seek to obtain information from.

Absent, weak, and strong ties relate to existing social networking ties that serve a purpose in the present. Weak ties serve as conduits for the exchange of new and innovative information and strong ties form our mutual support system.  Even an absent tie, if put in the context of your mailman or barista, serves an immediate purpose: a pre-programmed interaction that nets you information or a commodity but does not add any appreciable weight to a given individual’s social network.

However, the other types of ties I mentioned describe the ways in which people are (re)introduced into or slip out of a given social network. In the case of a spontaneous or latent tie, the two people may have little or no knowledge of each other at all until one of them finds the other in some technological database and initiates an interaction. Dormant ties are essentially a broken link and no longer serve the social network until they are reactivated. A diminished tie is ultimately a going to be either a weak or absent tie; the designation “diminished” refers the movement of the tie within the social network.

I feel as though the diagram I developed is too facile. I’m imagining something  that needs to be 3 dimensional I just can’t wrap my mind around what it should look like.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360-1380.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2002). Strong, weak, and latent ties and the impact of new media. Information Society, 18(5), 385-401. doi:10.1080/01972240290108195

Levin, D. Z., Walter, J., & Murnighan, J. K. (July/August 2011). Dormant ties: The value of reconnecting. Organization Science, 22(4), 923-939. doi:10.1287/orsc.1100.0576

Relationships of Social Network Ties (Diagram Jeter, 2012, unpublished)

Relationships of Social Network Ties (Diagram Jeter, 2012, unpublished)

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