Strong ties, weak ties, and information transmission

This post is a short overview of strong ties, weak ties, and transmission of information.  Different kinds of information move through social networks in different ways.  Easily codified ideas move efficiently through weak ties.  Tacit information, on the other hand, by definition requires a more extended or intense contact among strong ties.  These concepts have important implications on the woodland owner network model that best fits your particular situation.

(Pardon the formal tone–this is lifted from a draft of my dissertation prospectus.)

Strong and weak ties

In a seminal work on the “embeddedness” of rational economic decisions within social networks, Granovetter (1985) illustrates the importance of network effects on decisions and behaviors considered by classical economic theory as driven by atomistic, purely self-interested actors.  Granovetter’s embeddedness argument suggests that a variety of social influences constrain behaviors.  In fact, he argues, the notion of the atomistic, purely self-interested actor is overly simplistic and fails to account for the role of social systems in regulating human behavior.

The embeddedness argument says little about the details of network effects.  These are elaborated in Granovetter’s (1973) classic work on the strength of weak ties and subsequent work on the nature of strong and weak ties and high- and low-density networks.

The strength of weak ties argument demonstrates the value of weak ties for transfer of information across large social distances (e.g. across a large number of social ties).  Weak ties are an efficient way to access new ideas or codified information (Reagans and McEvily 2003; Wasserman and Faust 1994) such as quick answers on an online discussion board or participation in a one-off field workshop.

Weak ties allow easily codified information to travel quickly across social distance, because brief contact is often sufficient for the transfer of such information (Friedkin 1982; Granovetter 1973).  The value of weak ties is not their efficiency per se, but their numbers: each weak tie contributes little information, but in aggregate, a large number of weak ties gives access to a large number of pools of knowledge (Friedkin 1982), and a broader body of information.

Tacit information, on the other hand, is transmitted more efficiently through strong ties than weak ties (Friedkin 1982; Reagans and McEvily 2003).  By definition, tacit information requires a more intense, closer interaction, be it extended observation, direct instruction, or some other form of contact.  Information, or learning, that requires this kind of contact flows relatively inefficiently through weak ties compared with strong ties.

Different kinds of networks thus provide efficient access to different kinds of information.  Dense networks, composed of small numbers of strong and interconnected ties, produce more stable knowledge systems.  Less dense networks, composed of large number of unconnected weak ties, produce more dynamic, open access to different bodies of information and new ideas (Wasserman and Faust 1994).

Implications for woodland owner network organizers

Some behaviors are driven mostly by easily codified information.  For instance, an individual who has already decided to sell timber might be swayed by a friend’s testimonial that a professional forester increased his timber sale returns by 20 % over an offer already received, and thus be persuaded to (change behavior and) hire a consultant.

For other behaviors, however, information may not be enough.  For some landowners, easily codified financial information may be a minor consideration.  More central to their decision process might be factors like trust, a feeling that managing the stand might improve future growth or provide underrepresented habitat, a more abstract desire to do the right thing.  In these cases, personal contact from trusted, known individuals (strong ties) might be the only factor that would lead them to consider managing their woods.

Most woodland owner networks exist not to promote any specific behavior, but to help landowners feel supported, find answers to their questions, and make well-informed decisions.  Nonetheless, understanding how strong and weak ties affect information flow may help network organizers create learning spaces well suited for effective and efficient member support given the network’s, and members’, goals.

What do you think?  How do strong and weak ties operate differently within your networks?

Citations

  • Friedkin, N. 1982. “Information Flow Through Strong and Weak Ties in Intraorganizational Social Networks.” Social Networks 3:273-285.
  • Granovetter, M. 1973. “The strength of weak ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78:1360-1380.
  • Granovetter, M. 1985. “Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness.” American Journal of Sociology 91:481-510.
  • Reagans, R., and B. McEvily. 2003. “Network structure and knowledge transfer: The effects of cohesion and range.” Administrative Science Quarterly 48:240-267.
  • Wasserman, S., and K. Faust. 1994. Social Network Analysis: Methods and Applications. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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One Response

  1. […] node B a piece of information (or a disease) twice as likely as node C. If we are looking at the diffusion of information or diseases in a network, then the speed and route are clearly affected by the […]

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