Sunday, February 3, 2013


(As promised, I'm taking a break from my series on Issues in Community to talk about a book I'm currently reading.  I'll do this from time to time.)

Connected is the name of a book by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. Subtitled 'The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives', it's written by two men who were originally studying at Harvard University at around the same time.  They didn't know each other and were in different departments studying what at first might look like very different things.  Christakis is a physician who was studying how illness in one person might affect someone close to them.  Fowler is a political scientist who was studying "how one person's attempt to solve a social or political problem influenced others".  A mutual friend introduced them to each other thinking that they might have a lot in common.  They cite this as a perfect example of what they are studying, social networks and how we are connected through friends and friends of friends.

They begin by looking at the influence each of us has on others.  And while they cite the 'Six Degrees of Separation' phenomena (experiments have shown that two random people in the US--and in one experiment, the world--can reach each other by using a connection that they already have, with that person using a connection she or he has, and so on through just six connections), the authors claim what is more important is that each of us has Three Degrees of Influence.  What that means is that we not only influence our friends, but our friends' friends, and even our friends' friends' friends. To quote the book, "Our influence gradually dissipates and ceases to have a notable effect on people beyond the social frontier that lies at three degrees of separation.  Likewise, we are influenced by friends within three degrees but generally not by those beyond."

The authors go on to look at the ways that illness and STDs are transmitted, how people connect as friends and sexual partners, how we can influence people we don't know (but are within the three degrees) in terms of behaviors like joyfulness and depression, suicidality, smoking, drinking, and weight gain, as well as looking at phenomena such as bank runs, market transactions, finding jobs, creativity (not surprisingly, Christakis and Fowler also cite Brian Uzzi's study of Broadway musicals that I mentioned in my review of Imagine, 1/18/13), political polarization, and the interconnections of the internet.  It's all interesting but it might be a bit much at times, especially when they illustrate it all with diagrams of social networks.

One chapter, however, particularly spoke to me.  It's entitled 'It's in Our Nature' and focuses on how social networks form and function.  The authors look at cooperation, 'free riders' (I want to look at the 'free rider problem' in the future as it impacts on communities), loners, and what they call 'punishers' who are the people who deal with free riders.  They claim that any system will evolve to have all of these.  They also claim that Homo economicus ('Economic Man'), that 'rational', selfish person that economists rely on for their market model, leaves out altruism and even why people want what they want in the first place.  The authors suggest, instead, that we look at Homo dictyous ('Network Man' [sic]), people that are part of an interconnected network.  From there they go into genetics and religion and end the chapter by looking at 'Dunbar's number', the optimal size for social groups, around 150 members.  They note that "The Hutterites explicitly regard a community of 150 to be the limiting size, and they make arrangements to split into two groups as they approach that number."  I would say that if you don't have the time or inclination to read through the whole book, those interested in social change and intentional communities should at least read this chapter.

They end the book with a thought provoking chapter on social networks as 'superorganisms'.  Just as cells in our bodies are able to function more effectively together (as parts of organs and organisms) than by themselves, human beings are able to function better together (as part of groups, social networks, and humanity) then we can alone.  This book can be pretty inspiring (when it doesn't get bogged down in details).  It truly is an invitation to connect.

Quote of the Day:
"...the surprising power of social networks is not just the effect others have on us.  It is also the effect we have on others.  You do not have to be a superstar to have this power.  All you need to do is connect.  The ubiquity of human connection means that each of us has a much bigger impact on others than we can see.  When we take better care of ourselves, so do many other people.  When we practice random acts of kindness, they can spread to dozens or even hundreds of other people.  And with each good deed, we help to sustain the very network that sustains us." - Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler


Austan said...

Fascinating subject... I'll have to read this. Thanks!

MoonRaven said...

Thank you!