The Ecclesial Quotient (EcQ): Connectors, Weak Ties, and the Small World

Recreational Theology
Well, I kept thinking about the EcQ all weekend.

You know, this EcQ strikes be as being a kind of recreational theology. In mathematics there is a long history of "recreational mathematics." These are puzzles and problems that both professional and amateur mathematicians work on for the sheer fun of it. Oftentimes, these recreational musings have led to legitimate scholarly breakthroughs. I'm thinking of my EcQ in this tradition. Silly theological musings for the fun of it, but on the lookout for something more serious should it pop up.

The Tipping Point and a Social Influence Term for the EcQ
After the Moral Exemplar Term I wanted to infuse the EcQ with some social dynamism, give the index some social kick. Why? Well, much of the church appears to be about influence.

What this means is that we should not just try to capture how good a person you are, but also how influential or impactful you are. This seems important to capture in that the church is trying to impact/influence people both inside and outside the church. And, for better or worse, this influence/impact of the church has to be delivered by its members. So the question is, how do you function/contribute to this process?

Well, to build this influence term on some theoretical structure I'm going to pull some ideas from Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book The Tipping Point.

The Tipping Point is often defined as the moment when the unique becomes common. As we watch society we can see various trends, ideas, or behaviors percolate through populations. What first started as a local phenomena reaches a point where it goes "global." The transition between unique-to-common and local-to-global is called "the tipping point."

Gladwell's book is a meditation and analysis of this phenomena, providing lots of interesting examples in American society and culture. At root he notes that the tipping point is fundamentally about people and social influence. More specifically, Gladwell identifies three kinds of people who he suspects to be behind the tipping point. He calls these "personality types" the Connector, the Maven, and the Salesman.

Given that the church is interested in the unique/common and local/global shift (i.e., the church wants her message or ministerial efforts to "expand"), it seems that Gladwell's Tipping Point analysis might be helpful. So, we are going to build our EcQ Influence Term around his idea of the Connector, Maven, and Salesman. Today I'm going to focus on the Connector.

Connectors at Church
Defining the Connector is fairly easy. A Connector is someone who appears to know just about everyone. We all live in a nexus of social associations, some strong (e.g., friends) and some weak (e.g., acquaintances). Well, for Connectors this nexus is simply larger than average, their collection of friends and acquaintances is greater than yours or mine.

We all know people who are Connectors. Perhaps you are a Connector. On a personal note, I'm married to one. And Jana, my wife, gives us a sense of just how important Connectors are to the mission of the church. For example, my wife and her friends had started a cooking club. It was a mixture of diverse women from all over the city and different churches. Some had been living in Abilene a long time and were well connected and others were new to town and were looking for social relationship through the club. On the first meeting of the club the women thought it would be nice, as they introduced themselves to each other, if they could tell about how they came to be in the club. Well, as they went around the room a familiar pattern emerged: Everyone there had some connection to Jana. Sometimes it was direct connection (e.g., "Jana asked me to join the club") and sometimes it was an indirect connection (e.g., "Jana invited me and I invited Sue."). But all the connections traced back to Jana. This is the behind-the-scences magic of connectors: They bring diverse groups of people together.

This talent, it seems to me, is valuable to the church. If lots of church life is about trying to bring diverse groups of people together than Connectors would be critical to this endeavor.

Interlude: Triadic Closure, Weak Ties, Bridges, and the Small World Phenomenon
I'd like to tell you, in some detail, the "Why?" of the Connector's magic. This little excursion will take us into social network theory and its literature. If you want to skip a technical discussion feel free to go on to the next section.

In his famous 1973 article entitled The Strength of Weak Ties, the sociologist Mark Granovetter gave us a social network theory that allows us to understand the power of Connectors.

First, let's start by distinguishing between strong (e.g., friend) and weak (e.g., acquaintance) ties. Technically, the Connector is someone who specializes in the weak tie. They simply know lots of different kinds of people. They are not friends with all these people. There are limits to their time. But they have a lot of acquaintances and potential friends. That is, the Connector may not have more strong ties than you and I, but they do have lots more weak ties than we do.

Let us now imagine a group of three people who can be weakly or strongly associated with each other. If all three people are strongly associated with each other we have a group of three good friends. If we imagine these people as all weakly associated we have three people who know each other as passing acquaintances. Or we can imagine different combinations, where A is strongly tied to B and B is weakly tied to C, etc.

One of Granovetter's insights about the social dynamics between these three people (A, B, and C) is a notion called triadic closure. Imagine A, B, and C as points on a triangle. Now imagine that A is strongly associated with B and strongly associated with C, but B and C have no association. If you drew links for the strong ties, the ABC diagram would look like a "V" with A at the bottom and B and C at the two top points. You see the gap across the top of the "V", the lack of a tie between B and C. Well, Granovetter noted that this "V" shape will not last for long. Eventually, if B and C share strong ties with A, that mutual association with A will create at least a weak tie (and perhaps, eventually, a strong tie) between them. Thus, a line is drawn across the top of the "V", connecting B and C and closing the triangle. This is called triadic closure.

All this sounds so technical so let me illustrate how mundane and commonsensical it all is. Alice is good friends with Beth and Candy. But Beth and Candy don't know each other. But as time goes on they learn of each other. Alice talks about Candy to Beth and Beth to Candy. Eventually, Alice wants to go to a movie or out to lunch. So she invites her two good friends, Beth and Candy. Thus, over time, because of the mutual strong association with Alice, Beth and Candy will, at the very least, become acquaintances (i.e., share a weak tie). The triangle closes.

Note that this triadic closure only occurs if these are strong ties. If three people are bound by weak ties no closure will necessarily occur. That is, I can't be expected to bring two of my acquaintances together, but I can be expected to make two of my good friends share at least some time together.

If triadic closure holds, and there is good reason to believe it does, the "V" shape we have discussed is a forbidden triad. That is, given triadic closure, the "V" will close. Thus, the "V" configuration cannot be a standing and realistic feature in any map of social networks. All those "V" shapes eventually close off. The shape is "forbidden."

So what? Well, with the forbidden triad and triadic closure in hand we can now see the power of Connectors. To see this for yourself it might be helpful for you do draw a network on a piece of paper. Write the letters A, B, C and D on one side of a piece of paper and the letters E, F, G, and H on the other side of the paper. These letters represent people. Now connect the letters A-D with lines. Use a regular line to represent a strong tie and a dotted line for a weak tie. Since this is a group of friends everyone must have at least one strong tie with someone else in the group. Given this specification, draw your lines. When you are done, look for any forbidden triads. When you find them, close the gap with a weak tie (i.e., a dotted line). Done? Okay, now move to the group E-H and do the same. When you are done you'll have before you a model network of two groups of friends.

Okay, now pick a letter A-D and draw a strong tie between that letter and a letter from E-G. Once you draw that strong tie you'll see you just created a forbidden triad. Thus, you must close it off. This means that instead of one link joining these groups (the strong tie you just drew) there will quickly emerge a second tie joining the two groups (the weak tie you must draw to create triadic closure). In short, a strong tie will quickly create multiple links between groups.

Now erase those two linking ties and start over. Draw a weak tie between a letter A-D and a letter E-G. You will notice that a weak tie joining the groups will not create triadic closure. Only one tie will link the groups.

Why is this important? Well, let's say someone in the A-D cluster wants to pass a message to someone in the E-G cluster. If the two groups share a strong tie there will be at least two routes for get the message over: The strong tie and the weak tie that was created via triadic closure. But if there is only a weak tie connecting the two clusters there is only one pathway: The solo weak tie.

When there is only one route to transmit information through a network we call that route a bridge. Note, then, what we have just demonstrated: Only weak ties can serve as bridges.

With all this before us, we can now recap our argument about the special power of the Connector:

1. As stated previously, the magic of Connectors is that they bring diverse people together.

2. How do they accomplish this magic? Well, as we have noted Connectors specialize in the weak tie.

3. Great, but why are weak ties important? Because certain weak ties are rare and special. All bridges, the only link between two disparate social clusters, must be weak ties.

4. Conclusion: Connectors, those collectors of weak ties, will be the people possessing most of the bridges. Thus, Connectors are the ONLY route to bring diverse groups together. Connectors are social glue, they hold dislocated clusters of people together.

This dynamic--weak ties are bridges--is also behind what is known as the Small World Phenomenon or Six Degrees of Separation. This idea was first explored by the psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram asked a group of students to try to mail a letter to a target person, a stranger, in a different state. Since the students did not know this person they were asked to forward the letter to someone of their acquaintances who might have a better chance of knowing the target. If this person didn't know the target they were to follow suit, forwarding the letter to someone of their acquaintance that might know the target. As so forth. The idea is to keep forwarding the letter through a social network, trying to get it closer and closer to the target until someone actually KNOWS the target and delivers the letter.

Well, many of the letters in Milgram's study did make it to the target. Later, when Milgram calculated the results, he found that the letters were forwarded about an average of six times, the now famous six degrees of separation.

The study suggested that our social worlds might be very small in the sense that we can find network paths linking just about everyone in the world in just a few steps. But here is the important part. Most of these links are of necessity bridges (i.e., weak ties). Thus, we see another function of Connectors: They make the world smaller.

The Value of Connectors
Connectors, we have seen, make the world smaller. By specializing in the weak tie, they bring diverse groups together. Connectors are social glue. And this is important to the church for a couple reasons.

First, Connectors play a valuable role INSIDE the church. Church is often about hospitality, connection, cohesion, and coordination. And most of this social work passes through the Connectors in the church. They hold the diverse groups of the church together.

Second, Connectors play a valuable role OUTSIDE the church. The church seeks to communicate with and influence its host city. To do this effectively the church will need connections. And Connectors are vital to making this happen.

The Social Influence Term: Connector
In sum, to give the EcQ some social Oomph I'm going to create a Social Influence Term. A part of that term will be your Connector Score. Your Connector Score will be calculated by comparing the number of your weak and strong ties with the population distribution (e.g., a score of .50 places you in the 50%ile, a score of .73 places you in the 73%ile). Thus, the higher your score (ranging from 0.0 to 1.0) the more weak and strong ties you possess relative to the population.

If you would like to know how one might estimate such a thing check out The Tipping Point where Gladwell has a nifty little way to estimate how much of a Connector you are.

Okay, then. Recapping, our EcQ will have two terms, a Moral Exemplar Term (see prior post) and a Social Influence Term. The Social Influence Term has yet to be specified but we know that a part of it will be your Connector Score.

(If you are interested in topics of this post start with The Tipping Point. From there, other good books on social networks, network theory, and the Small World are Linked and Six Degrees.)

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5 thoughts on “The Ecclesial Quotient (EcQ): Connectors, Weak Ties, and the Small World”

  1. Hm. That's interesting.

    Our church comprises a number of different racial and socioeconomic groups. And a significant part of our congregation's mythos - its hidden doctrine, maybe - is that intimate relationships are de facto better relationships. This has always seemed kind of creepy and ineffective to me, but I've never had any way to explain why. These bits of social networking theory seem to explain why that approach doesn't work ... now if I could just explain why it's also creepy.

  2. Shannon,
    Sorry! You know, I hear that feedback all the time (e.g., "I love your blog but I have no idea what you are talking about.").

    My wife laughs at me, she thinks I have an anti-blog, a blog written not to attract readers but to chase readers away.

    Regardless, thanks for sticking with me!

    That is interesting. I've also noticed similar feelings in myself. Sometimes I think Introverts are penalized in the church.

    I had yet to think about how Jesus would score (which you think would be kind of obvious).

  3. I'd be curious if this same logic could be applied at a more macro level. For example, by evaluating the EcQ of a church community. I believe such logic already exists in social network theory to evaluate strength or efficiency of networks. Coupled with an evaluation of a community's moral bearing, their ability to develop weak ties might successfully predict overall effectiveness at reaching people, engaging in social justice, etc. was well as that "critical mass" where a church quits being outwardly focused and becomes inwardly focused secondary to too many closed triads... interesting post.

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