The story behind the “small world phenomenon,” also known as the “six degrees of separation” theory, is that each one of us is connected to every other person by social chains of no more than six people. The evidence that backs the six degrees of separation theory comes from research conducted in the 1960s by Stanley Milgram, whose friends always asked him why it seemed as if the strangers they met at parties turned out to be friends of a friend. This led Milgram to determine the range of social networks by asking a man in Boston to receive chain letters from a bunch of folks living in Lincoln, Nebraska. The people from Nebraska were only allowed to mail letters to friends or relatives who they believed would be likely to know someone who might know someone who might know the guy in Boston. In the end, about 20 percent of the letters reached the man in Boston and the average trip length was just over five people. For this reason, a belief was created that in the U.S. there are no more than five people between any set of strangers, hence the name, six degrees of separation.
Later on, sociologist Duncan Watts detected that Milgram’s conclusions were only applicable to the letters that reached their destination. Thus, Watts carried out his own social science research, but this time on a global scale. His experiment comprised of using email and statistical models to estimate global connectedness and discovered that not everyone in the world is connected to everyone else, but “at least half the people in the world are connected to each other through six steps which is actually kind of surprising” (Conley, 2009b).
Along with small world phenomenon, “weak ties” and “social capital” are important network sociology terms. First of all, a tie can be defined as a set of stories that explains our relationship to the other members of our network. Essentially, a tie is the content of a particular relationship; it is how we know each other. Thus, weak ties are those that are not reinforced through indirect paths. The significance of weak ties rests in the notion that weak ties often tend to be quite valuable because they yield new information. To better understand the strength of weak ties, imagine that you are on the college soccer team and that is your primary social group. An old friend from high school who you really didn’t know too well, you now see because he plays lacrosse at the same college. If the soccer team isn’t doing anything on Friday night but the lacrosse team is throwing a party, then you have access to the party through this relationship that is much weaker than the ones you have on the soccer team. This opportunity is the strength of the weak tie you have with your friend from home.
Someone who has many weak ties is one example of what sociologists refer to as “social capital” which is the “information, knowledge of people and things, and connections that help individuals enter preexisting networks or gain power in them” (Conley, 2013). The significance of social capital is captured in the actually truthful cliché: it’s not what you know, but who you know. Social capital plays an integral role in a community by helping to prevent unemployment and neighborhood crime. For example, dense social capital underscores that people are linked to one another through a thick network of connections. As a result, they will feel motivated to look out for each other, return favors, and keep an eye on one another’s property. Overall, strong social capital binds people together and “weaves them into a tight social fabric that can help a community thrive” (Conley, 2013).
There are numerous social and economic benefits that come with having many weak ties or high levels of social capital. The strength of weak ties is especially advantageous when looking for a job. For example, a sociologist by the name of Granovetter interviewed professionals in Boston and discovered that “among the 54 respondents who found their employment through personal network ties, more than half saw this contact person less than once a week but more than once a year” (Conley, 2013). Additional evidence also reveals that weak ties are the most beneficial to job searchers who already have high status jobs and credentials. Having many weak ties provides endless opportunities from helping you get a spot on the college soccer team to helping you obtain the promotion you’ve been waiting for. Also as mentioned before, strong social capital can help improve communities by boosting employment and reducing crime.
Conley, Dalton. You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking like a Sociologist. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. Print.