weaknesses of strong ties

Continuing a series from several years ago, on "weak" and "strong" ties in community...

I've been doing a little more thinking and research on the value of "weak ties." And found another paper by Mark Granovetter (written about ten years after "The Strength of Weak Ties"). In it, he brings in the work of a couple other sociologists, who expanded on his ideas.

Rose Coser observed that being deeply enmeshed in close-knit communities (made up mostly of strong ties) can limit our ability to understand and communicate to others outside our group. "In a Gemeinschaft [close-knit community] everyone knows fairly well why people behave in a certain way. Little effort has to be made to gauge the intention of the other person." Therefore these more complex interpersonal skills are not developed. Further, when our interaction with people quite different from us is limited, it also limits our understanding of ourselves. Being drawn out into "weak tie" relationships helps us see ourselves in relationship with the wider outside world, and forces us to explain ourselves (and our beliefs) to people who do not share our background or assumptions about the world. It also helps us understand that what happens to us is influenced by forces far beyond our local community. Coser saw this as especially important to people of lower socio-economic backgrounds, who tend to live in close (and very disadvantaged) communities and have great difficulty moving beyond them.

Carol Stack studied a black, urban American, midwestern ghetto, and Larissa Lomnitz a shantytown on the fringes of Mexico City. They found very close, strong ties within these communities, driven especially by the economic necessity of sharing and the feeling of security provided by a close group. But the strength of the ties in these areas also tended to fragment the people into small groups, making any collective action very difficult. It also made it more difficult for individuals to adapt to the world beyond their groups, or understand the social and economic forces that were contributing to their condition, thus (in another way) perpetuating the poverty that helped form these close groups.

In this paper, Granovetter made a point of saying that strong ties are not to be dismissed, that they very important in our lives. But it is also important to see their limitations. This is a good reminder at a time when "community building" is becoming more and more emphasized (and especially within communal settings like the one I live in).