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Having looked at the structure of social networks, we see that they consist of weak and strong ties. Structural holes create gaps over which value cannot cross, but they are also opportunities for those who bridge them. As well as being important in business networking and innovation, weak ties and strong ties begin to explain echo chambers, political and religious extremism, and why some people end up stuck in socioeconomic ghettoes.

These networks require skills to navigate them, rely on something to hold them together, and contain a form of social currency that allows value to move around within them. They also need to be policed and managed. Within the fabric of our social networks, social capital, role sets, and norms help hold the networks together and provide us with a social currency that can be earned and spent.

Role Sets

The importance of weak ties in developing a broader perspective on the world by bringing nonredundant information across structural holes is explained more by the idea of role sets. In 1975, sociologist Rose Coser wrote about how people have different roles depending on who they are relating to. The classic example from the academic literature is that of a medical student.

While “medical student” is a single role on its own, when you pair it with other roles, it forms multiple role sets. So, a medical student has a complex set of different roles in relation to a patient, nurse, professor, other medical student, etc. Learning to interact within these different role sets requires the medical student to empathize — to imagine what it’s like to be a nurse talking to a medical student, to be a patient, and so on.

In particular, this ability to see the world from other people’s perspectives is required to avoid or deal with conflicts. When the medical student is challenged by someone in a different role, it is necessary to think like that person to diffuse the conflict. This is the basic human interaction that happens in complex social networks: People encounter differences of opinion and perspective and must negotiate to find common ground to diffuse the conflicts. This is the case from agreeing on the economic value of a product or service to passing someone on the street.

To make things more complicated, these different role sets also incorporate different status sets. Medical student to medical student is an equal status set, but medical student to professor is one in which the student is of a lower status. As well as negotiating a different role set, where the medical student has to understand the professor’s perspective, the different status set requires a parallel adaptation of behavior to account for the different status.

So, the medical student is involved in a very complicated range of role sets and status sets, which within the hospital are all happening at once. To navigate through this successfully, and therefore to succeed in her career, the student needs to learn a very complex set of social skills to vary her behavior for each of these role and status sets.

Coser argues that learning how to think like these other people and adapt rapidly to all these different social situations is intellectually challenging and develops a sophisticated way of perceiving and navigating the world of social networks. The student will only succeed if she can work out what it’s like to be a patient, nurse, and professor and can vary her behavior accordingly, otherwise she’ll rapidly fall out with people.

This involves empathy, compromise, negotiation, and many other complex social tools. Someone who develops these skills is in a strong position to move up, down, and sideways through social networks, which is an important life skill. Someone who cannot do this will find it hard to find and keep a job or hold down a relationship and will encounter frequent conflicts.

Empathy: It’s complicated. Photo: Rémi Walle on Unsplash

If we combine this insight with the idea that weak ties matter, then we see that value lies in connecting with people you don’t know, who are not like you, and to do this you need to deal with complex role and status sets. Being immersed early in complex social networks is invaluable to learning how to navigate through them without treading on toes and, in effect, being likable.

In fact, research looking at disadvantaged young people with very limited social networks shows that they do not regularly meet people outside their immediate social network. Their networks are usually rich in strong ties but poor in weak ties, so everyone is similar to them.

These sorts of networks are strong in trust, loyalty, and conformity, so they are good support networks, but they do not teach people to manage complex role and status sets, which makes it much harder for them to move through social networks. It is harder for them to develop weak ties in their social network, because this involves them engaging with people different from them and their immediate social group, and they have not learned that skill.

Disadvantaged, isolated strong-tie networks, rich in trust and loyalty, can, for example, manifest themselves as gangs. It is hard for people to move out of their social network and do things like find jobs — which sociologist Mark Granovetter shows is mainly achieved via weak ties.

Social Capital

Role sets provide the education and tools people need to navigate social networks, and they lead to people knowing how to behave and earn trust and friendship outside their immediate social network. These intangibles of trust and reputation are described by social capital theory.

The concept of social capital could be said to be the glue that holds networks together; it is “trust.” It is also the currency of social networks, alongside human capital and economic capital. However, social capital is really hard to define, and it is unlikely there is any single definition that everyone would agree with.

Here are some definitions from the academic literature:

Social capital “refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.” (Robert Putnam, 1993)
“Social capital is the resource available to actors as a function of their location in the structure of their social relations.” These can include market relations, hierarchical relations, social relations. (Adler & Kwon, 2002)
“Social capital is captured from embedded resources in social networks. It is the investment in social relations with expected returns.” (Nan Lin, 1999)

I have no doubt that as many people who read this will come up with as many different definitions of social capital. I would suggest that social capital could be seen as the trust that holds networks together and functions as a currency that can be accrued and spent, much like money.

If social capital is to networks what money is to economies, then you could describe it as “a favor.” And just as money’s value goes up and down in relation to things and in relation to different money, social capital also includes reputation, popularity, and trustworthiness, which can increase or decrease in value relative to the network around it.

Social capital lies in the links between nodes in a network. You can’t have social capital in a vacuum; it has to reside in a network — you can’t grant and owe favors to people if you live alone on a desert island, so they are the result of you interacting with people and operating within a network.

As “trust,” social capital holds networks together. A network with no trust collapses, and we see this when societies fall apart.

We describe some societies by “people leaving their doors unlocked” or “not going out at night.” These very tangible actions are responses to how much trust exists across the society, and in the end, that aspect of social capital makes a society more or less successful. When there is no trust, business becomes difficult because contracts (money, promises, debts) cannot be enforced, and social contracts like law and order start to fail. Consequently, and quickly, basics like eating and caring for people become difficult.

But equally, social capital is the form of reward and payment that is the currency of social networks—favors and reputation. Some people, who have an instinct for this, will do favors for others in their work network, knowing that at some point they can call in those favors. This is a form of currency: earning social capital by doing favors, accruing it, and then spending it later when those favors are called in.

That aspect of social capital can also be converted into other currencies. If you use accrued favors to get recommended for a job, you have converted your social capital into economic capital (money), and if you use them to get people to teach you things you didn’t know, you have converted it into human capital (an investment in yourself, your knowledge, and prospects).

Norms: Trust and Reciprocity

Trust is very complex. Within social networks, trust is an outcome of social capital and of social “norms.” All social groups develop norms: the rules, the way things are done, the collective code the group has adopted.

A social network polices norms by sanctioning people who behave against the norms and rewarding people who stick to them. That common set of rules and the communal (often unwritten) way norms are policed are also reflections of social capital.

A network where people have strong bonds, shared values, and effective communication can share and police norms very well. Everyone knows how to behave; when someone misbehaves, it is known about quickly and widely, and the group will come together to sanction or punish that person. That is a network with strong social capital.

An important norm in social networks is reciprocity. People who reciprocate develop more social capital. You are more likely to do a favor for someone when you think they may return that favor. Equally, when someone keeps asking favors of people but never reciprocates, they generally find themselves pushed away from the core of the network, and the favors stop.

Quite often, the most effective sanction is to sever the social ties of the person who breaches norms and ostracize them from the group. If value lies in ties within and beyond networks, and social capital is a currency that can be transferred across those ties, then severing the ties denies someone their social value and ability to create value.

Think back in history to when a monarch would banish someone from court, or from the country, as a punishment. That banishment was not just about missing friends and losing wealth; it was also about removing that person’s power and ability to create value by ostracizing them from a social network, robbing them of their social capital (influence, reputation, trustworthiness, ability to grant favors).

This form of sanction and reward is called “strategic tie formation and dissolution,” and it requires a dynamic social network in which ties are formed and broken quite rapidly. In a dynamic social network, reciprocity is managed by returning reciprocity and by dissolving or forming social ties as a sanction or reward.

A stagnant network with few new people coming in and little movement within the network does not have such a dynamic nature, so reciprocity is policed more through whether or not it is returned. But in a larger, dynamic network, cooperators are quickly pulled into the network through tie formation, and noncooperators are pushed out through tie dissolution. (The full article by Rand, Arbesman & Christakis, 2011, is here.)

This mechanism also means that behaviors can be amplified within a network. If people who conform to a norm, like reciprocity, are rewarded with tie formation, then the network attracts cooperative people and becomes more cooperative as a result. Over time, the network of cooperators will grow in size. Noncooperators will be forced out of it and would struggle to form another network precisely because of this mechanism, so reciprocity becomes a selective attribute.

Consequently, social capital is important to get things done. A social network with strong internal ties and multiple weak bridging ties is rich in social capital. There is trust through well-communicated and policed norms and a good flow of new ideas and opportunities. A network with weak social capital has no trust, no norms or sanctions, and no opportunities.

However, a network that has strong internal ties and weak external ties can be rich in internal social capital, but it risks becoming introverted, isolated, and myopic as a result. People are incentivized by the strong internal social capital to protect each other, to obey very strict norms, and not to challenge the status quo or popular ideas.

There are no bridging or weak ties to bring in new ideas or people to challenge things, and people end up with simple role sets, so they lack the skills to affect things within their network or to escape. Such groups rapidly develop corruption, conspiracy theories, and echo chambers. This describes gangs, dictatorships, and cartels. We will further explore echo chambers in the next essay.