May 21, 2018

Small Worlds, Degrees of Separation, and Social Network Analysis

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

A few weeks ago, I noticed a student in one of my classes was wearing a shirt from a business in the town where I went to high school. I told him that I went to school there and he said that his father did too. I asked him how old his father is and when I found out we are the same age I suddenly remembered his father. It turns out we were classmates.

On the one hand, it’s not too surprising that I have this connection with my former classmate. After all, I teach at a State University of New York (SUNY) college where many of the students who attend happen to come from the area (Long Island) where I grew up. But on the other hand, SUNY is the largest system of higher education in the United States, New York is one of the most populous states, and Long Island has over 7 million people. In addition, my high school was relatively small. Given all of this, the odds of me having the child of a former classmate seem pretty remote.

Experiences like this are often referred to as small world stories because they illustrate how we are more intimately connected than may seem evident. The small-world phenomenon suggests that any two people are connected by a series of acquaintances—usually friends of friends of friends. In popular culture, the small-world phenomenon is often referred to as six degrees of separation because the original social scientific experiments on the small-world phenomenon (carried out by Stanley Milgrim in the 1960s) revealed that most people are connected by no more than six connections.  

Within sociology, the small-world phenomenon and six degrees of separation fall under the banner of social network analysis. Dating back to some of the research of Émile Durkheim and Georg Simmel (especially his work on dyads and triads), social network analysis looks at the relationships between individuals, groups, organizations, and even societies. It considers how actors (often referred to as “nodes” because they may not be actual individuals but could be organizations, societies, or other nonhuman units of analysis) engage in relationships (often referred to as “ties” or “edges”) with other actors. These relationships or ties are often the main focus of study in social network analysis.

One of the main themes for social network theorists is whether the ties among actors are strong or weak. Strong ties exist between actors who are close and familiar with each other; they are usually long-lasting and enduring. Examples of strong ties might include family, friends, and teammates. Weak ties are less stable in that they involve individuals with whom we are not as tightly connected. Examples of weak ties might include acquaintances, friends on social media, people you meet at a conference, or even an old classmate from your high school days.

The distinction between strong ties and weak ties comes from one of the most cited sociology articles of all time: Mark Granovetter’sThe Strength of Weak Ties.” In this article, Granovetter points out that it’s just as important to tap into your weak connections as it is to tap into your strong connections. Doing this will provide you with greater opportunities and allow you to be tightly integrated into more social networks.

One of the exciting aspects of social network analysis is that it has so many applications—both within sociology and in other domains. Although network theorists often use abstract and complex diagrams, it shouldn’t be too difficult to recognize the value of mapping the social networks or degrees of separation that connect people.

Whether it’s developing a better understanding of diseases and how they spread (such as tracking an E. coli outbreak in a nursery school), pursuing criminals or terrorists in order to reduce crime rates (Carrie Mathison’s evidence wall from the show Homeland is a great example), or even using social networks to make sense of the characters of Star Wars, there is much to be gained from studying social networks. Here are two concrete applications of social network analysis that should be somewhat relatable.

  1. Someone To Talk To. This is the title of sociologist Mario Luis Small’s latest book (the book cover below is a great example of a 9780190661427social network diagram). Small is a social network theorist who, among other things, tries to better understand human behavior by uncovering the weak and strong ties individuals use to navigate their social worlds. In Someone To Talk To, Small uses both in-depth interviews and large-scale survey data to examine who individuals turn to in times of need. When faced with “loss, victimization, failure, and other debilitating stressors,” who do you think individuals usually turn to: those closest to them (strong ties) or those who are outside of their inner circle (weak ties)?

Interestingly, Small found that individuals do not always call upon their family and friends to help them navigate through rocky waters. When faced with trying and troubling times, individuals often seek out weak ties for support. Small does not argue that individuals never utilize strong ties; instead, he makes the point that our web of support is not so obvious, linear, or concentrically small. Like many facets of social life, Small finds that “intimacy, trust, and social isolation are complex phenomena that operate in often counter-intuitive ways.”

  1. LinkedIn. It’s tempting to argue that LinkedIn, the social media site that facilitates professional networking, is a direct outgrowth of social network analysis and Mark Granovetter’s article. When you create an account in LinkedIn you are essentially buiding your own social network. Like other social media sites, your network grows when you gain connections (similar to friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter).

The main purpose of LinkedIn is to tap into these connections to find jobs and job candidates. When you preview job postings, you will actually see if anyone in your network (including alumni from your college) is employed there. And if there is a particular individual with whom you want to connect, LinkedIn lets you know how strong or weak your ties are to that person by telling you how many degrees of separation you are from them. When I have a staff person from my campus career resource center speak to my senior seminar class, one of the top pieces of advice she offers students is to create a LinkedIn account and start building your social network.

When I graduated from college, social media sites such as LinkedIn were not around yet. But that doesn’t mean that social networks were any less important. After college, I lived in Colorado for a year and then moved to New York City. It was because of a weak tie I developed while working in Colorado that allowed me to land a desirable job in the Big Apple. When I left that job to start graduate school at Stony Brook University I still had no knowledge of social network analysis. Then, in my second year of graduate school I moved into a new office that had been vacated a few years earlier by none other than Mark Granovetter. As the saying goes, it’s a small world after all.

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