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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Strength of Weak Ties

Written by: on March 8, 2021

My attention has been captured by the research around social capital. As Robert Putnam painstakingly and thoroughly popularizes the use of the term in Bowling Alone, leadership scholars like Simon Walker also find it helpful as they address a way forward in the future. I’ll briefly address Walker’s use of the term and investigate social capital for developing innovative ideas and fostering a culture of creativity.

As Walker moves from the hard work of personal character, an analysis of power, and moves towards the external “so what?”, he begins to look at issues of external impact. In so doing, he explores the social fabric through examples of policing, elderly care, and the welcoming of outsiders (The Undefended Leader, 381-384). Like many, he grieves the decline of social capital and sees these needed bonds as the “magic ingredient” for healthy societies (381).

Social capital also impacts the generation and implementation of new, creative ideas. In his seminal work, Everett Rogers explores networks, creativity, innovation, and flourishing. To that end, he employs the strength-of-weak-ties theory. This theory was developed by Mark S. Granovetter in the early 1970s and has since been used to evaluate the bridging capabilities of weak ties (Rogers, Diffusion of Innovation, 339-340). Within intimate groups and cliques, these acquaintances and weak ties are the glue for the whole. The myth of the lone genius has been unequivocally debunked and has been replaced with the idea of collective genius. We each possess a slice of that genius that works itself out in the community, even if there is a lynchpin person or spokesperson.

As we near the one-year mark for the United State’s national impact of COVID-19, I’m hearing more and more people say, “I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to the office. I can’t get anything done there.” If by that they mean checking off their to-do list, I can agree, but we need a culture-wide shift of understanding the social connections that happen with “distractions” at work and understand the strength of weak ties. It remains necessary to reframe those connections as potential collaborative moments and instances for inspiration. The oft used metaphor of cross-pollination is very apt, as the bee flies quickly from flower to flower, bringing life to the whole ecosystem. I implore organizations to return to the office if they are making that decision for productivity and economic reasons. Of course, the Internet allows for connections to be made at distances never before possible, but even in that scenario, organizations need to formally provide opportunities for in-person weak ties to be made and fostered.

Box checking organizations will remain viable in a post-COVID-era, but those who pray for, dream about, and develop new, fresh ways will be those that foster the strength of weak ties.

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Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York, Simon and Schuster: 2020).

Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York, Simon and Schuster: 2003)

Simon P. Walker, The Undefended Leader (Carlise, UK, Piquant, 2010)

Photo credit: Visible Network Lab

About the Author

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Shawn Cramer

6 responses to “The Strength of Weak Ties”

  1. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Your concept of “weak ties” is similar to mine of “micro-interactions.” It’s the hundreds of small, seemingly ignorable interactions with real human beings (outside of our direct family members) that, pre-pandemic, saturated our lives. These tiny distractions or points of connection remind us of our own humanity and that of one another. I didn’t know how important these “weak ties” were until I no longer had them. I wonder their lack of impacted my sense of my own humanity and that of others.

  2. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    I think of our virtual advance last fall when I read your post, and how much I missed the side conversations that happen in between lectures and locations. Something magical does happen in those small interactions. How are you in your ministry context facilitating such moments, both currently and in the future, so that innovation and imagination are fostered in those touch points?

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Shawn,
    I appreciate you connecting Putman and Walker and the importance of social capital. I also am glad you brought in the idea of weak ties. Walker’s concept of child ego’s and social capital are an interesting combination. Young people have an entirely different type of social interaction than I did when I was growing up. There was limited TV, no social media and the no such thing as political correctness. Social capital was built face to face through interaction with others. Depending on the group you hung out with would depend on what kind of social capital you were building. Not all social capital was created equal. In your work do you see a link between child ego’s that young people are dealing with and their ability to build social capital?

  4. mm John McLarty says:

    This is really good. We’ve been wrestling with the same concern in the church. Online worship and virtual meetings and Bible studies accomplished a portion of the goal of maintaining a semblance of church life. But what of the connections that had previously been the occasional interaction? It might be easy to dismiss those as superficial, but your post rightly pointed out how necessary they are as a means of orienting us in a space bigger than our own bubbles. If church shifts to an individualized, on-demand kind of experience, I fear that we’ll lose a key component of what the community of faith is supposed to be about.

  5. mm Dylan Branson says:

    I think of how the small interactions act as a spark to developing deep relationships and how in literature, it’s often the quieter moments of seemingly irrelevant dialogue between characters that actually set up big reveals or deeper development for the characters. Thinking of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives, one of the main characters builds status with his military squad through small interactions that are basically checking up on them. Although the others are resistant to it at first, the more they have these little moments the more they begin to open up to the leader.

  6. mm Chris Pollock says:

    By fostering the strength in weak ties, do you mean in the possibility that lies in surprising, less connected places?

    So, the weak tie becomes the place of strength; that ‘other’, unassuming avenue leading to new openings and understandings within a community/organization?

    I can see the expanding collective genius in this! New exploratory tinkerings in marginal places. Yes, CoVid has totally presented a time for us to imaginatively tinker around with our connections! I like the idea of a new thing beyond ‘box-checking’…FOR SURE!!

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