The BBVA Foundation presented the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Social Sciences to Mark Granovetter, “the most eminent economic sociologist in the world,” for revealing the power of “loose social ties” among individuals for people's economic and social performance.
The Stanford professor’s work has led to significant scientific advances that are relevant not only to sociology and economics but also to social psychology, political science, communication, marketing, and computer science. His 1973 article “The Strength of Weak Ties” is the most widely cited paper in the social sciences, with over 65,000 citations.
Dolores Albarracín, the award committee secretary and Professor of Psychology, Business and Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (United States), singles out the cross-cutting impact on the social sciences of Granovetter’s conclusion that “it is distant acquaintances rather than those closest to us that may exert most influence in areas of our lives by opening up new networks and creating opportunities that we could not find in our immediate circles. That was not a finding that was easy to anticipate.”
The strength of weak ties when getting a job
Granovetter launched this line of research to study how people found jobs. He did so on the basis of personal surveys and questionnaires in the Boston suburb of Newton (Massachusetts), which, despite covering a far smaller sample than those brought together later on, immediately laid bare the difficulty of obtaining data on social relationships: “One of the main challenges is the huge amount of data that have to be handled,” Granovetter explained in an interview after learning he had won the award. “If each individual knows around 500 people, which is the average size of a lot of networks, and each of them knows another 500, the study object quickly becomes unmanageable.”
Today Big Data and technology-mediated social networks offer a whole new scope for analysis, assuring that interest in Granovetter’s groundbreaking research of the 1960s has not only not faded but is, if anything, stronger: “What I find astonishing,” he said, “is that 97% of the citations received by my paper on the strength of weak ties date from the year 2000 onwards.”
The BBVA Foundation presented the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Social Sciences to Mark Granovetter. - Fundación BBVA
When doing these interviews in Newton, Granovetter realized that people were not finding work through close friends and family members, but through extended networks of “acquaintances.” These weaker yet highly effective connections, which researchers were aware of but whose theoretical and practical importance they had had largely ignored, were in reality a powerful force.
It is “the kind of idea, that once you get it, you wonder how you didn’t see it earlier”, the laureate said. “People you are very close to tend to know one another and talk about things you already know. So if you’re trying to get new information, talking to those you’re close to is not the best way. Whereas those you are only acquainted with are likelier to be associated with different networks from your own. So those people, who are your so-called weak ties, actually connect you to a wider community; they are, you might say, your windows on the world. That is the strength of weak ties.”
Personal networks and inequality
Granovetter’s insights into the importance of superficial relationships have opened the door to many other questions: from how to access wider networks to their role in creating a less unequal society. In his book Getting a Job, he addresses the problem faced by those without access to facilitating networks: “If people from certain ethnic groups do not have the right connections,” he points out, “they will not have the same opportunities as others.”
Another conclusion of his work is that a network tends to grow in size along with the number of times a person changes jobs. Granovetter explains: “Each time you change your job you enter a new network, with other people who are also moving, and so those networks proliferate. I think of it as a snowball rolling down a hill: if you move through different settings in the course of your career, that makes it likelier that you can move again if and when you want to.”
On social media it’s easier to find a partner than a job
The emergence of technology-mediated social networks has brought a series of changes that have yet to be the subject of an in-depth study. For example, they have ushered in new kinds of strong ties within networks that do not involve physical proximity: “For the first time we are seeing cases of people making close friends online before they meet them in real life,” Granovetter relates. “We still don’t know how that is going to change the world, but it’s something we need to pay a lot of attention to.”
He is also struck by the fact that, while many couples meet through online matching sites, people still find jobs mostly through real-life contacts. “So the pattern for finding partners and the pattern for finding jobs have diverged. Why is that? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I think it’s an important and interesting question. I have some students who are looking at that, and I hope they figure it out.”