Malcolm Gladwell represents the contribution often made to important discussion in American life by journalists and public intellectuals. He gathers together, summarizes and draws implications out of a significant amount of writing and research building on the work of Stanley Milgrim and Mark Granovetter in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Stanely Milgram conducted the famous “small-world experiment,” which was the source for the concept and now common catchphrase, “six degrees of separation.” His research illustrated the often hidden closeness inherent in human societies. Milgram randomly selected individuals in two Midwest cities and sent them information packets with the instruction to forward the packet to a target person in Boston. Since the randomly selected individuals were not expected to know the target personally, they were instructed to send it on to a friend or relative that was more likely to know them. This ensured that each step taken by the packet toward Boston was through a personal connection. Each person who received the package was to write their name on a roster included in the packet and in turn send it on to someone they knew personally . Among the packages that did eventually reach the intended destination the average number of steps along the way was about six. This brilliantly devised research thus suggested the possibility of hidden underlying social connectivity.
Gladwell also reviews the research on seeking employment done by Mark Granovetter who argued that when it comes to gaining new information or looking for new ideas, weak ties tend to be more important than strong ties. Granovetter interviewed several hundred professional and technical workers asking them about their employment history. He found that 56% of those he talked to found their jobs through personal connections which is not shocking. However, what was surprising is that of those who used a contact to find a job, 84% reported that they saw their contact only “occasionally” or “rarely.” In other words, people were getting their jobs not through their friends but through their acquaintances. It was this finding that lead Granovetter to coin the phrase “the strength of weak ties.”
In fact, as Gladwell states “the most important people in your life are in certain critical realms, the people who aren’t closest to you, and the more people you know who aren’t close to you the stronger your position becomes.” That is because weak connections lead you to people who are different than you, and know things and people that you don’t know. They therefore open up new opportunities and connections that you would not otherwise have.
To argue that these theories have implications for how we work in our communities, Gladwell uses the life of Chicago resident Lois Weisberg to show how these seemingly abstract theories can be embodied in daily life. As her delightful story unfolds we see that Lois Weisberg knows how to stop and talk and build strong connections. But Gladwewll claims that people like Lois also, “…spread ideas and information” and often “connect varied and isolated parts of society.” Through her work with booksellers, railroad buffs, youth workers, artists, authors, etc. she (demonstrating the power of weak connections) is someone who holds an exponential amount of social power because of the role she plays linking people from different social worlds to each other.
Finally, according to Gladwell, equality cannot be engineered by simply providing equal access to superior educational resources or access to a particular cultural environment; but rather by increasing individuals’ access to acquaintances outside their own social world. Poverty he argues is not deprivation; it is isolation.
Gladwell, M. (1999). Six degrees of Lois Weisberg. The New Yorker: Annals of Society.