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Weak ties are relationships between individuals marked by relatively low intensity and emotional closeness; strong ties are defined as having the converse characteristics. The importance of weak ties to a variety of sociological phenomena has been most influentially articulated by Mark Granovetter (1973) in one of the best cited articles in sociology, ”The strength of weak ties” (SWT).
In SWT Granovetter introduces the concept of a bridge: a line in a network which provides the only path between two points. He also distinguishes between the former, and ”local bridges,” the latter being a line in a graph that provides the only local path between two points.
According to Granovetter, because of the principles of Balance Theory, weak ties are not automatically bridges, but all bridges are weak ties. Granovetter asserts that in large networks it is unlikely that a specific tie provides the only path between two points, but local bridges may be functionally important. The significance of weak ties is that those which are local bridges create more and shorter paths. Consequently, whatever is to be disseminated can reach a larger number of people, and cross greater social distance when it is diffused through weak ties rather than through strong ones.
Also based on principles of Balance Theory, Granovetter reasons that strong ties should tend to be people who not only know one another, but also have few contacts not tied to ego as well. An ego’s weak ties in general, by contrast, will not be tied to one another, but will tend to be tied to individuals not tied to ego. Thus weak ties are of importance because they are the conduits through which ideas, influences, or information socially distant from alters may reach her. In a later article, Granovetter clarified his argument by emphasizing that it is only bridging weak ties that are of particular importance, and reiterated that weak ties are far more likely to be bridges than are strong ties.
In his SWT article, and a related book, Granovetter goes on to describe the results of a study he undertook examining the role contacts play in helping one to get a job amongst recent professional, technical, and managerial job changers in a suburb of Boston. In his study the majority of jobs were obtained through weak ties. Granovetter’s SWT insights have spawned substantial work on the relationship between the tie strength between egos and contacts and job search outcomes.
Granovetter’s SWT insights also have implications for understanding collective action. Granovetter has argued that at the level of whole networks, weak ties are important because they are more likely (than strong ties) to serve as bridges between otherwise isolated cliques in a community.
Marsden and Campbell (1984) have provided a thorough conceptual and empirical review of the notion of tie strength. Based on an analysis of empirical data they concluded that closeness (the measure of the emotional intensity of a tie) is the best indicator of tie strength.
The SWT argument is implicitly connected to a number of substantive and theoretical problems in sociology; some of these include small world studies, network sampling, estimating personal network size, techniques for assessing and improving the accuracy of responses, and understanding the creation of weak ties.
- Granovetter, M. (1973) The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology 78: 1360-80.
- Marsden, P. V. & Campbell, K. E. (1984) Measuring tie strength. Social Forces 63: 482-501.
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