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What kinds of social ties can be 'capitalized on'?
Clearly, almost all kinds of social ties can potentially be 'capitalized on'. What is more interesting is what sort of social ties are likely to prove the most useful. But even an answer to that question carries few implications for the average reader. What we really want to know is what sort of social tie it is best to cultivate - which in simple terms is a function of the effort, or expected effort, to cultivate it and its expected use. The kinds of ways in which a social tie might prove useful seem almost limitless; one could, for example, lead to a romantic relationship, a job, an inheritance or simply an informative or pleasing conversation. Clearly I cannot hope to give such a wide account of the utility of social ties here, so I therefore restrict this piece to jobs, for which there is the most literature available. Secondly, since I am interested in making suggestions which have implications, I restrict myself to social ties that are to an extent voluntary: friends and acquaintances. Obviously, some familial ties, such as spouses, are voluntarily created, but most, although their intensity is at least in part a voluntary matter, are not (although there are exceptions even to this, such as adoption). Within this limited domain, the most significant debate is probably over the relationship between the intensity of a tie and its usefulness. This debate was spurred by Granovetter's (1973)1 suggestion, which is perhaps counter-intuitive,
that less intense ties are in many ways more significant. At this point though it is worth clearing up a misconception, which is unfortunately implied by the title of Granovetter's aforementioned piece, that weak ties per se are more significant than strong ties. In fact what Granovetter seems to emphasise is that it is bridging ties (which he argues are almost always weak) that are significant. A bridging tie is defined as a tie for which there is a path of one degree between the nodes and no other path between the nodes of less than three degrees. The argument given, in respect of jobs, is that bridging ties are more likely to connect one to non-redundant information and to the sorts of contacts who are in a position to help. What follows, however, is several arguments for the importance of strong ties for getting a job. Firstly I will suggest that weak ties look artificially valuable, but that on a per capita basis they are less so. Secondly I suggest that,
for all the strength of weak ties (Hereafter, SoWT) thesis may have held in the past, important aspects of the modern job-search process weaken the argument. Thirdly I suggest that the lifecycle point at which a tie is formed may be more important than the intensity of the tie, and may exert a confounding influence on the SoWT thesis. Fourthly I suggest that, perhaps counterintuitively, it is weak bridging ties which are harder to cultivate/develop, which, as argued above,
means that even if the crude SoWT holds, its implications are at least partly undermined.
Firstly, we should re-assess the value of weak ties in a way in which takes heed of their frequency. In Granovetter's (1995)2 study, he reports that "Of those who found jobs through personal contacts (N = 54), 16.7% reported seeing their contact "often" (at least twice a week),
55.6% reported seeing their contact "occasionally" (more than once a year but less than twice a week), and 27.8% "rarely" (once a year or less)." At times this seems to be seen by Granovetter as evidence for the alleged importance of weak ties - not necessarily in the chapter in which 1 Granovetter, Mark S. "The Strength of Weak Ties." American Journal of Sociology 78, no. 6
(1973): 1360-380 2 Granovetter, Mark S. 1995. Getting a job: a study of contacts and careers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. these figures are first reported but in the chapter about policy implications. There is a problem with this argument. It seems quite obvious that the average person has many more weak than strong ties. Per capita, strong ties may still be more helpful at finding someone a job. That is the conclusion of one empirical study3 (Gee et al 2017). The fact that some work following
Granovetter, such as Langlois (1977)4 finds the use of weak versus strong ties varies by occupation - in general higher status people were more likely to find their positions through a weak tie - may reflect nothing more than the mundane reality that higher status people have a greater number (and perhaps proportion) of weak ties. This is an observation made by Homans
(1950, 185-186)5 and an implication of Lin's (1981)6 observation that those to whom one is weakly tied are on average of higher status - therefore, if tie strength is mutual, high-status individuals must have more weak ties. Secondly, it is worth thinking about contacts seen more than twice a week. Other than immediate family members, many such contacts are likely to be workmates, and it seem unlikely that workmates will help someone get a job outside one's current firm (as I discuss later, Granovetter ignores within-firm changes), since they, by definition, work for the same organisation as the job-seeker. Additionally, this operationalisation of tie strength as a function of (in person) contact frequency is questionable (beyond the implications of modern forms of communication, which has facilitated not-in-person contact).
Frequency of in person contact is often a reflection of something which looks quite different to other possible operationalization of tie strength we might think more central to it, such as mutual affection. Workmates and neighbours are, for most people, by and large, in reality acquaintances, albeit ones seen regularly, and it is not surprising that these ties are less commonly used. Granovetter (1985)7 himself acknowledges that strong ties, "have greater motivation to be of assistance", and one suspects that would be especially true if tie strength was operationalised according to something like intimacy rather than frequency of contact.
Secondly, the increased efficiency of the modern job search process may undermine the utility of friends as 'alerters'. The increasing number of jobs one can discover and the increasing ease of the discovery of each (both effects caused by the internet and by rules and norms in favour of advertising jobs) may mean ties, or chains, are only useful insofar as the people reached through the tie or chain are able to recommend you to an employer - a mere 'alert' to a job is less useful when it is more likely that, if it is a good fit, the potential taker has discovered it on an online jobs board. Thus the utility of connections nowadays is not so much to affect odds of job discovery but odds of job-attainment net of job discovery odds. The latter type of utility is presumably best served by strong ties not weak ties. You may be able to discover a job through a person at one end of a two degree chain, but it is unlikely they will recommend you so 3 Laura K. Gee, Jason Jones, and Moira Burke, "Social Networks and Labor Markets: How Strong
Ties Relate to Job Finding on Facebook's Social Network," Journal of Labor Economics 35, no. 2
(April 2017): 485-518 4 LANGLOIS, SIMON 1977 "Les Reseaux Personnels et la Diffusion des Informations sur les Emplois."
Recherches Sociographique 5 HOMANS, GEORGE 1950 The Human Group. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 6 LIN, NAN, ENSEL, W., AND VAUGHN, J. 1981 "Social Resources, Strength of Ties and Occupational
Status Attainment." American Sociological Review 46(4): 393-405.
7 Granovetter, Mark. "The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited." Sociological Theory 1 (1983): 201-33.
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