Weak Ties and Strong Ties

It was a theory of social networking before social networks. In 1973, Mark Granovetter published an essay on “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Rejected four years earlier by one of the major sociology journals while Granovetter was still a grad student, it ultimately made his name.

Strong ties are connections to people close to you. Weak ties—no surprise—link to the opposite: friends of friends, people you see at the pub or the gym, perhaps some distant family. Granovetter’s idea was simple enough: weak ties matter more than we think.

At the heart of Granovetter’s work was good old-fashioned survey work. He asked a sample of people in Boston who had just found a new job who helped them the most. It wasn’t those closest to them, he found, but those on the periphery: the weak ties. Thinking emotionally, we might assume that strong ties are most important for finding a job, since those people care the most about your success. But from a structural viewpoint, weak ties have a clear advantage: precisely because they aren’t the people you typically spend time with, they’re likely to be less similar to you. And that means they move in other circles—and hear about opportunities you don’t.

The finding is sometimes summarised as one more iteration of “It’s not what you know but who you know.” This obnoxious saying misses the point. For one thing, nobody ever traded facts for friends. They’re correlated. But anyway, Granovetter’s point was that it’s not who you know, but who they know.

Aside from the practicalities of getting hired, “Weak Ties” tells a quietly optimistic story: people don’t need an especially strong reason to help each other out. And our communities of support may be far larger than we realise.

The seduction of “strong ties” runs deep, especially with men (who often spend rather more energy on people they are hoping to work or sleep with than on friendships). It’s comforting to think that social life boils down to a few people whose names you definitely remember, but the truth is more complicated and diffuse.

In the UK, people still talk about the old boy network, meaning the connections between alumni of elite fee-paying schools, and other powerful institutions, who look out for one another out of group loyalty. This brings us to the other kind of “strong ties”: neckwear. You’d have to be graceless to wear the tie of your old school, university or regiment to a job interview as a selling point these days, but the metaphor still holds. 

Alumni garments aside, what about literal weak ties? That is, the ones you hardly ever wear, but which make up 90% of any collection. These, too, shouldn’t be ignored. The fantasy of “five essential ties” is not so different: get the key pieces and you can ignore the rest. (Let’s say a navy grenadine, a repp stripe, two neats and a knit. You’re welcome.) There’s nothing wrong with minimalism, but I don’t think these listicles generate so many clicks because everyone wants fewer possessions. I suspect it’s the desire to have all eventualities covered. To complete your collection.

As everyone who as painstakingly assembled their “essentials” knows too well, that’s never how it works. Situations and tastes change, as they should. Getting dressed or building a wardrobe isn’t a challenge to be completed, any more than reading books or having ideas is something you should hope to finish by thirty. Ditto social relations. What’s the message here? Keep the hot pink tie you wear once a year at most. And have a beer with that guy you’re on nodding terms with (and try to remember his name this time).

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