The Strength of Weak Ties
One of the pleasures of wandering around is to occasionally stumble across an idea that is heuristically useful: The very act of thinking about the idea and applying it in different settings reframes old questions in a new way and sets up the possibility of discovery.
The strength of weak ties theory, which has been around the social sciences for the past 40 years or so, is such an idea. I became interested in this a few weeks ago when I attended a Grantmakers in Health conference session on how to develop more powerful information and communication networks. One of the presenters, who spoke about the application of new technology in internet search engines, alluded to the “strength of weak ties” and their importance in creating “self-organizing systems.”
Intrigued, I tracked down the strength of weak ties hypothesis in the literature of social and organizational theory, and began to see the work of social change and community development in a new light.
The theory goes something like this: All of us have varying degrees of relationships with close friends and family (strong ties) and acquaintances (weak ties). Networks built on strong ties are generally compact, insular and self-reinforcing; networks with many weak ties are more diffuse, open and malleable. A number of studies suggest that disadvantaged and poor communities rely more on strong ties, while upwardly mobile professionals and “successful” people rely more on weak ties.
According to the theory, the heavy investment of social energy in maintaining strong ties has the effect of fragmenting communities into tight networks with poor connections among the various groups. Without the chief advantage of weak ties – outreach to new information, connections and opportunities – such communities tend to perpetuate the conditions (poverty, lack of education) that define their strong tie network. Conversely, those individuals who break out of this cycle of deprivation almost always succeed in establishing bridging ties to other networks, information and opportunities.
It follows that if we wish to build healthy families and communities, we need to focus our efforts on establishing more weak and bridging ties between strong tie networks. The same is true for building strong organizations: minimize strong ties and encourage weak ties. This is the way a culture of learning and self-organization is extended, whether it occurs within an internet search engine or a large hospital system.
This is not to suggest that strong ties are less important. Take the example of Arizona’s public mental health system, which is routinely criticized for failing to provide adequate community health services for persons with serious mental illnesses. Despite the efforts of the system to provide weak ties for consumers (access to housing, training, health services, etc.), case managers and other “mediators” between “clients” and services are by definition outside the strong tie network of family and friends that sustain and nourish each of us through both the good and bad times. Due to the nature of serious mental illnesses, a significant number of people in the public mental health system have few family members or close friends to whom they can turn for support in between the mandatory case manager visit, the trip to the clinic or a social outing with other consumers. The one thing they need – strong ties to at least a few people who care deeply about them – is the one thing most large public mental health systems, the rhetoric of “caring” aside, are unable to provide.
While we turn to strong ties for social and emotional support, we turn to weak ties to promote innovation, learning and positive change. In many respects, developing healthy communities is like developing a healthy brain. There are multiple networks, or nodes, of concentration and power in the matrix, but they have to be connected by channels of energy and information in order to work together for maximum effectiveness.
Feed the weak ties. Change will surely follow.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.