Strong nodes and weak ties

Disclaimer: This is a project management post, *not* a graph theory post!

About a year or so ago, I worked on networks visualization for a while, hoping to integrate such visualizations to my edition (that will still take a while, but I am confident that it will happen someday). So far, I have not really published anything conclusive or very elaborate on that topic, but it is at the core of this paper I gave in Stuttgart, and I strike the subject in this more theoretical paper I gave in Toulouse as well (both in French). (Incidentally, there is a “networks” category on this blog, where you can follow the evolution of my readings and thoughts last winter and spring)

One of the major papers in network analysis (although I arguably do not know much about graph analysis and have mainly worked on network visualization), even for people working on historical corpora/questions /settings, is that by Granovetter from 2001 on the strength of weak ties. Granovetter argues in this seminal paper that friendship networks are too often studied with a focus on the strong ties, while weak ties actually do play a major role in the overall structure.

In general, networks (& their visualization) give an overview, they allow to seize a structure that would, otherwise, remain invisible to the naked eye because too many elements are at play. The question of the critical size from which on graphs allow a significant knowledge gain is an interesting one. I, as a humanist, am quickly overwhelmed by rhizomes, more specifically by the multiplication of the little strings between the dots. What do they mean exactly? This can vary. And their importance can come, as Granovetter points out, not necessarily from their obvious strength (rendered as a wider arrow between two dots, showing an intense connection for instance), but sometimes from other connection factors.

Now let’s imagine that the dots are the members of a team and that the team leader stands in front of a mass of dots connected in ways unknown to him/her, always moving around according to no visible scheme. Let’s also assume that the stability of the dots is uncertain (will they stay, will they disappear? – unsure). From which mass of dots on is it impossible to address this issue on a strictly personal level, as one person to another? From which mass on do you have to work on actively constructing the network in order for the whole system to work? This is exactly the question I have been confronted to in the past 10 days. It has been hard work to be able to sort things out in order not to get lost in micro-management. For the first time, I understood why sociologists consider networks as a system. Because there has to be a system.

So basically, we were all somehow whirling around for these past weeks, more and more volunteer teachers, more and more pupils, more and more donations. This sudden growth in everything made structure all the more necessary and all the more complicated, because the network keeps growing as it is structured.

The people that are most important in the structure (for me as the person trying to stabilize the whole) are the solid, reliable nodes, e.g. such persons from whom I can expect reliable (and not superfluous) feedback and initiative. I don’t need to know the nature of the ties that connect them with the different other nodes, I simply know that they are in a position to filtrate the relevant information to and from a certain area of the network. I just love these people right now. They allow me to extend the network to the outside and build new connections between the outside and the inside. A network, as I experience, can quickly close on itself, keep busy with itself. If you want to open it, the solidity of these reliable nodes is crucial.

It is surprising to see how thinking of 100+ people in terms of a structured network can be helpful. When I lead my research group, the ties played a much more crucial role in my managing of the team, because I did not see nodes, but persons. The nature of the ties was what I considered most crucial in terms of team management. Now with over 100 people, not only do I not know every single person and need the “nodes” to help me affiliate people to the right area of the network, but I also need to define the structure while it grows and with (smaller) nodes occasionally disappearing. As a result, I can’t pay much attention to the strength of the ties. What is more, there is no stable state to be expected, the overall moving is the stable state. And that is why the reliable nodes matter so much for me to conceive the next steps: because the strength of the ties within the areas is almost invisible to me, I only see the strength emanating from the nodes (or not, and then I know I have to be that node myself).

So this is a somewhat different team management experience. But just as when I was leading a group of 6, I consider that the most important thing about my current work with the volunteers is to make me as replaceable as possible. I hope to have reached the point where I can say that this is the case in a few weeks. For now, I am still working on the structure… and being whirled around.

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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