The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Social Sciences has gone in this edition to Mark Granovetter, “probably the most eminent economic sociologist in the world,” in the words of the citation, for revealing the power of loose social ties or networks of “acquaintances” as a source of social capital.
Granovetter “incorporates previously ignored, seemingly weak connections into the study of social relations,” pointing up their determining influence in individuals’ social and economic outcomes. His 1973 article “The Strength of Weak Ties” is recognized as the most widely cited paper in the social sciences, with over 65,000 citations.
“Granovetter’s innovative perspective,” the committee adds, “is the foundation of contemporary economic sociology. His substantial reputation rests on a select set of highly influential articles, all of which represent significant scientific advances that are relevant not only to sociology and economics but also to social psychology, political science, communication, marketing, and computer science.”
Dolores Albarracín, committee secretary and Professor of Psychology, Business and Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (United States), singles out the cross-cutting impact in the social sciences of Granovetter’s conclusion that “it is distant acquaintances rather than those closest to us that may exert most influence in areas of our lives by opening up new networks and creating opportunities that we could not find in our immediate circles. That was not a finding that was easy to anticipate.”
Granovetter was nominated for the award by Francisco Pérez, Research Director at the Valencian Institute of Economic Research (Ivie). For Pérez, the new laureate’s contributions to economic sociology have “broadened economists’ perspective on the behavior of individuals and groups. We now understand that not only strong personal ties – based on longstanding relationships, shared interests and mutual trust – are important, but also weaker, at times indirect relationships that can help us build and extend our social networks.”
Granovetter’s ideas, he adds “illuminate the study of such important topics as corruption, corporate governance, organizational forms and the emergence of new industries.”
In the view of Emilio Castilla, one of his disciples and currently a professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management as well as co-director of its Institute for Work and Employment Research, “Granovetter was not just a pioneer in economic sociology, but also a moving force in numerous other disciplines and intellectual movements, among them behavioral economics. Many of the economists in this field are studying empirically what he postulated decades ago.”
The foundations of contemporary economic sociology
Academic research on the role of social ties in the economy is far from new, said Granovetter yesterday in an interview granted after hearing of the award. The Joan Butler Ford Professor at Stanford University remarked that Max Weber – one of his main inspirations – was exploring the relationship between economic processes and social structure as early as the start of the 20th century.
“Economic sociology has made fundamental contributions in pointing out that people who engage in economic activity are embedded in networks of people oriented to social and cultural norms, and also in political structures,” the awardee explains. “The economy is embedded in larger structures of culture, power, norms, and historical patterns that are difficult to overcome in some cases, as we are seeing now in Eastern Europe.”
Today Big Data and technology mediated social networks offer a whole new scope for analysis, assuring that interest in Granovetter’s groundbreaking research of the 1960s has not only not faded but is, if anything, stronger: “What I find astonishing,” he says, “is that 97% of the citations received by my paper on the strength of weak ties date from the year 2000 onwards.
The importance of “weak ties” in finding work
Granovetter launched this line of research to study how people found jobs. He did so on the basis of personal surveys and questionnaires in the Boston suburb of Newton (Massachusetts), which immediately laid bare the difficulty of obtaining data on social relationships: “One of the main challenges is the huge amount of data that have to be handled,” Granovetter explains. “If each individual knows around 500 people, which is the average size of a lot of networks, and each of them knows another 500, the study object quickly becomes unmanageable. And until Big Data came along it was hard to imagine how to approach it. Now we are improving, although we have yet to get a firm grasp on social relationships. What I mean is that there is a technical challenge but also one of understanding, of knowing what questions we should be asking those networks.”
When doing these interviews in Newton, he realized that people were not finding work through close friends and family members, but through extended networks of “acquaintances.” These weaker yet highly effective connections, which researchers were aware of but whose theoretical and practical importance they had had largely ignored, were in reality a powerful force.
It is “the kind of idea, that once you get it, you wonder how you didn’t see it earlier”, the laureate said yesterday. “People you are very close to tend to know one another, and talk about things you already know. So if you’re trying to get new information, talking to those you’re close to is not the best way. Whereas those you are only acquainted with are likelier to be associated with different networks from your own. So those people, who are your so-called weak ties, actually connect you to a wider community; they are, you might say, your windows on the world. That is the strength of weak ties.”
Granovetter was surprised, he admits, at being the first to write about the concept. “In the very technical literature on social networks, it was already sort of known. But how important it was for the larger set of issues in the social sciences had not been appreciated. So my role was to point out how interesting it was and how far we could take it.”
Incidentally the manuscript of “The Strength of Weak Ties” was turned down by the first journal Granovetter approached, in 1969, because its academic reviewers considered it not suitable for publication.
Networks and inequality
Granovetter’s insights into the importance of superficial relationships have opened the door to many other questions: from how to access wider networks to their role in creating a less unequal society. In his book Getting a Job, he addresses the problem faced by those without access to facilitating networks: “If people from certain ethnic groups do not have the right connections,” he points out, “they will not have the same opportunities as others.”
Another conclusion of his work is that a network tends to grow in size along with the number of times a person changes jobs: “Each time you change your job you enter a new network, with other people who are also moving, and so those networks proliferate. I think of it as a snowball rolling down a hill, getting bigger and bigger as it accumulates more snow. If you move through different settings in the course of your career, that makes it likelier that you can move again if and when you want to.”
The “networking” industry
A new industry called “networking” has recently sprung up, teaching people how to build their personal networks. Granovetter has followed this phenomenon but feels that it is an applied area that so far lacks a solid grounding. There are, for instance, courses that recommend “meeting three people every day. But that’s not natural and could be counterproductive. The trouble is that those people suspect that you have an ulterior motive, and want something from them. It is difficult to meet someone if it doesn’t arise naturally.”
“Ironically lots of business schools teach Granovetter to students as a way to explain social networks and help them network effectively,” Emilio Castilla observes.
What is beyond doubt is that the impact of superficial or weak social ties goes far beyond the labor market. “In any aspect of the economy where people are in touch with other people and have relationships, these networks ideas are going to be important,” Granovetter affirms. They also operate, he observes, across large geographical distances: “In international trade, dealings between large groups of firms or to understand the economies of different countries.”
The influence of technology
The emergence of technology mediated social networks has brought a series of changes that have yet to be the subject of an in-depth study. For example, they have ushered in new kinds of strong ties that do not emerge from the typical tight network: “For the first time we are seeing cases of people making close friends online before they meet them in real life,” Granovetter relates. “We still don’t know how that is going to change the world, but it’s something we need to pay a lot of attention to.”
He is also struck by the fact that, while many couples meet through online matching sites, people still find jobs through real-life contacts. “So the pattern for finding partners and the pattern for finding jobs have diverged. Why is that? I’m not sure I know the answer but I think it’s an important and interesting question. I have some students who are looking at that, and I hope they figure it out.”
The new laureate is still actively engaged in his line of research. “I am working on a book called Society and Economy, which flips the title as well as shifting the emphasis of Max Weber’s famous Economy and Society. I published the first, mainly theoretical volume in 2017, and right now I’m working on the second, which is more about cases and applications, like what kinds of personal relationships matter in the economy. I expect also to have a chapter on corruption, and another on labor markets. I’m having a good time doing that.”
Mark Granovetter was nominated by Francisco Pérez, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Valencia and Research Director of the Valencian Institute of Economic Research (Ivie).
Laureate bio notes
Mark Granovetter (Jersey City, New Jersey, United States, 1943) received his BA in American and Modern European History from Princeton University (1965), then went on to earn a PhD in Sociology from Harvard University (1970). He held his first academic positions at Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities, before moving to the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he became Chair of the Department of Sociology in 1989. After a period as Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, where he headed the Program in Business Institutions, in 1995 he joined the faculty at Stanford University, where he is now Joan Butler Ford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences. He has twice chaired the Department of Sociology at Stanford, and currently serves as an affiliated professor for the Interdisciplinary Program on Environment and Resources and for the Woods Institute for the Environment.
His published output includes such influential titles as The Sociology of Economic Life and Society and Economy, whose first volume (Framework and Principles) came out in 2017, with the second (Cases and Applications) due to follow. Editor since 1986 of the Structural Analysis in the Social Sciences series (Cambridge University Press) with over 45 volumes in print, and co-editor (with Dan Jung Wang) since 2020 of the same publisher’s book series Element: Structural Analysis of Culture, Social Organization, and History, he also serves on the editorial boards of a long list of learned publications, among them Journal of Trust Research, Socius (the online journal of the American Sociological Association), Review of Social Economy, Journal of Institutional Economics and Journal of Consumer Culture.
Humanities and Social Sciences committee and evaluation support panel
The committee in this category was chaired by Jon Krosnick, the Frederic O. Glover Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences, Professor of Communication and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University (United States), with Dolores Albarracin, Professor of Psychology, Business and Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (United States) acting as secretary. Remaining members were Bruno Cautrès, a research fellow of the French National Research Centre (CNRS), attached to CEVIPOF, the Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po (France); Cees Midden, Professor Emeritus of Human-Technology Interaction at Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands); Brian Parkinson, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Oxford (United Kingdom); and Simone Schnall, Professor of Experimental Social Psychology at the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom).
The evaluation support panel of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) was coordinated by M. Victoria Moreno, the Council’s Deputy Vice President for Scientific and Technical Areas, and formed by: Marta Fraile Maldonado, tenured researcher at the Institute of Public Goods and Policies (IPP); Ana López Sala, research professor at the Mila i Fontanals Institution (IMF); Ignacio Montero Ruiz, Deputy Coordinator of the Society Global Area and scientific researcher at the Institute of History (IH); Cristina Sánchez Carretero, tenured researcher at the Institute of Heritage Sciences (INCIPIT); and Sebastian Rinken, tenured researcher at the Institute of Advanced Social Studies (IESA).
About the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards
The BBVA Foundation centers its activity on the promotion of world-class scientific research and cultural creation, and the recognition of talent.
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards recognize and reward contributions of singular impact in science, technology, the humanities and music, privileging those that significantly enlarge the stock of knowledge in a discipline, open up new fields, or build bridges between disciplinary areas. The goal of the awards, established in 2008, is to celebrate and promote the value of knowledge as a public good without frontiers, the best instrument at our command to take on the great global challenges of our time and expand the worldviews of individuals in a way that benefits all of humanity. Their eight categories address the knowledge map of the 21st century, from basic knowledge to fields devoted to understanding and interrelating the natural environment by way of closely connected domains such as biology and medicine or economics, information technologies, social sciences and the humanities, and the universal art of music. They come with 400,000 euros in each of their eight categories, along with a diploma and a commemorative artwork created by artist Blanca Muñoz. The award in Humanities and Social Sciences alternates annually between these disciplinary domains, with the 14th edition devoted to the Social Sciences.
The BBVA Foundation has been aided from the outset in the evaluation of nominees for the Frontiers Award in Humanities and Social Sciences by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the country’s premier public research organization. CSIC appoints evaluation support panels made up of leading experts in the corresponding knowledge area, who are charged with undertaking an initial assessment of the candidates proposed by numerous institutions across the world, and drawing up a reasoned shortlist for the consideration of the award committees. CSIC is also responsible for designating each committee’s chair and participates in the selection of its members, thus helping to ensure objectivity in the recognition of innovation and scientific excellence.