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Networks, Ties, and Collective Action

In the introductory discussion of graph theory and social networks, bridges were defined to be “an edge whose removal would put its endpoints in different components.” There was also discussion of strong and weak ties, and in Granovetter’s essay “The strength of weak ties,” he explains that strong ties reflect a significantly greater amount of time, emotional intensity, intimacy, and reciprocal services. In friend groups, weak ties tend to be acquaintances, or people that one knows but does not feel particularly close to. Granovetter points out bridges tend to be weak ties, and these weak ties have a cohesive power. He claims, “the removal of the average weak tie would do more ‘damage’ to transmission probabilities than would that of the average strong one” (Granovetter 1366). In other words, linking components together is highly dependent on weak ties, and these weak ties are important for creating new opportunities and exposure to information. However, how might weak ties affect community involvement and collective action?

In The New Yorker article “Small Change,” Malcolm Gladwell explores the effectiveness of online activism and the impact of social media on collective action. He opens his article with describing the 1960s civil rights sit-ins. He argues that these demonstrations relied heavily on the activists’ close relationships with one another—or in other words, strong ties. He claims that online activism through social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook cannot achieve the same degree of impact because “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties.” Demonstrations like the civil rights sit-ins are a form of “high-risk activism,” which Gladwell argues seldom results from weak ties. Thus, Gladwell would believe that a social action movement organized primarily through Twitter would not achieve significant change, because the participants in the movement would not have enough “at stake” to emotionally and physically commit themselves to the movement.

The article “Weak Ties in Networked Communities” furthers this point that collective action relies heavily on strong ties. The authors claim that social networks and groups with strong ties among members have “bonding social capital.” If a group has a high amount of bonding social capital, this group is more likely to mobilize effectively for collective action, “because they have high levels of social trust.” The article contrasts bonding social capital with bridging social capital, which is defined by weak ties across groups. While groups containing bridging ties may be less able to organize collectively, people with bridging ties show peculiar characteristics. The authors of this article examined a community in Blacksburg and Montgomery County and administered surveys to study the relationship between ties, Internet usage, community involvement and collective action. The authors defined a “bridge” respondent to be an individual who is a member of two or more groups (“member bridges”) or a leader of two or more organizations (“leader bridges”). These bridge individuals are the weak ties between the two or more groups they belong to. In addition, leader bridges tended to have a higher number of weak ties. The authors found, “Bridges are more extraverted, better educated, more informed, and more activist than nonbridges.” They tend to have a greater sense of group belonging and higher levels of trust, community attachment, and community participation than nonbridges (Kavanaugh, Reese, Carroll, Rosson 125). They believe in their community’s ability to work together to solve collective problems.

Thus, communities composed of many weak ties may not organize for collective action as effectively (especially for high-risk action). However, individuals possessing many weak ties are more likely to be involved in their communities and to be activists themselves.


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September 2015