Having large numbers of weak ties doesn't necessarily help you perform

By January 18, 2012
Keywords : Digital Working, America

Cultivating relationships with a wide variety of individuals in social networks isn't necessarily an indication that a person is adapting well to different networks or performing strongly.


Does having a highly diversified social network lead to a dispersal effect ? This is what researchers at the University of California at San Diego, in partnership with the Hewlett-Packard laboratories in Bristol, U.K., seem to have found out after carrying out a study with a body of students. The researchers' starting point was the well-known report by Mark Granovetter on social networks, "Strength of Weak Ties", published in 1973. Granovetter's stance, as in the Wikipedia summary, is that a network is made up of strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are those which, for example, you have with close friends. These relationships are focused and sustained. At the other extreme, the ties you form with mere acquaintances are described as weak. These latter ties are however characterised as "strong" if they are diversified and enable a person to penetrate social networks other than those made up of his/her strong ties.

When are weak ties just weak ?

Where that is the case, weak ties could well be a factor for good performance. In theory, yes, but in fact the results of the San Diego-Bristol research seem to demonstrate the opposite. The Californian sociologists worked with a sample of 290 university students, representing nearly 80,000 interactions through their social networks, both online and offline. This is the most complete study to date, analysing almost three times as many students as previous studies on educational networks.  The results showed social diversity, which is so beneficial in Granovetter's theory, correlating negatively with performance. What seemed to be happening was that the high-performing students were interacting only in groups of similarly high-performing peers, on a regular and sustained basis - i.e. strong ties.  Moreover, "this effect is stronger the higher a student's performance level is" the researchers point out. Meanwhile at the other end, low-performing students tended to initiate many "transient" - i.e. not regular/sustained - interactions and with more varied groups.

Theory of weak ties doesn't seem to work

"Social network diversity seems to be at the very least a strong structural signature for the (negative) academic performance of students" say the researchers. So weak ties are not synonymous with performance, at least not when it comes to academic performance. However that still doesn't tell us whether high-performing students perform because they are operating in a homogenous and sustained social network, or, quite simply, because they stay within a serious working environment. The researchers believe that this kind of analysis should help to create better strategies for social interaction and consequently for education as well.

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