the strength of "weak" ties

Yesterday I overheard a radio show that mentioned a very influential work by sociologist Mark Granovetter, "The Strength of Weak Ties" (available here, in pdf). The title intrigued me, so I looked it up.

And discovered something very interesting. Granovetter found that "weak ties" (acquaintances—as opposed to the "strong ties" of family and close friends) play a crucial part in both the lives of individuals and in the health of social groups. Our weak ties tend to be with people who are somewhat different from us, and who usually circulate with people we don't know. So they are better able to expose us to new ideas and new opportunities. Groups formed mostly of strong ties tend to think alike and pass the same information around and draw on the same resources. They are usually trustworthy and familiar, but are limited in their ability to produce innovations or prepare us to move beyond the ideas or resources of that particular group. Our weak ties with people are much better at helping us branch out.

Granovetter also observed that "strong ties, breeding local cohesion, lead to overall fragmentation." Meaning that groups that pull closely together usually do so in a way that cuts them off from others outside the group. (I've observed this myself, in my experience with intentional communities.) It's our weak ties, with those outside our close-knit groups, that serve as bridges connecting us with the wider community. And these outside connections can also help keep our groups from becoming isolated and ingrown.

I'm not sure what the implications of this are, but it seems important. Jesus strongly emphasized connections beyond our limited families and social cliques, presenting the "kingdom of God" as the one, true community. These connections are usually dismissed as weak or theoretical (or "mystical") by most people, including Christians. Even so, they may be much more important than we think.

And, from the way Jesus talked about our "kingdom of God" ties, they probably can be a lot stronger than we think, too...