Virginia Sturm: The Strength of Weak Ties

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Sometimes, its not the most intimate social relationships that matter, but the more casual ones. Virginia Sturm has this Perspective.

Prior to COVID, there was a woman I saw every day at my bus stop. Sometimes, we would say good morning and stand quietly as we waited for the bus. If the bus were late, we would compare what the apps on our phones said about its expected arrival time, or, worse, we commiserated if the bus didn’t show. I never learned her name or where she went to work each day, but during lockdown, I found myself wondering how she was. Was she working from home nearby? Was she on Zoom all day like I was?

I’ll admit that, before COVID, I didn’t think twice about our brief conversations. But when I was stuck at home—all day, every day—the loss of these simple everyday social interactions added up. I missed the connections I used to have with the people in the periphery of my daily life.

Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Mark Granovetter, a sociologist from Johns Hopkins University, wrote an influential paper called, “The Strength of Weak Ties.” Unlike previous work, Dr. Granovetter didn’t focus on the relationships that people typically think of when asked about their social networks—the strong connections we have with trusted friends and family members. Instead, he emphasized the “weak ties”—the people with whom we interact infrequently, those we do not know well at all.

He argued that the weak ties in our social networks are more important than we realize. Our strong ties allow us to form a dense, close-knit network of people who are very familiar to us. Our weak ties, however, expand our networks by creating links between different groups.

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Compared to strong ties, weak ties are more often to be the source of new knowledge, ideas, and opportunities because people who inhabit different social circles often have access to different information than we do. Our weak ties allow us to reach more people across larger social distances than our strong ties, which is critical if we seek to do big things and to create change around the world.

In recent months, I began to take the bus to work again, but I haven’t seen my old companion. Perhaps she has changed jobs and no longer takes the bus. I’ll probably never know. But that’s ok. Someone new will appear in her place. And when she does, I’ll say hello.

With a Perspective, I’m Virginia Sturm.

Dr. Virginia Sturm is an associate professor at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center and the Global Brain Health Institute.