Navigability of Strong Ties

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Douglas R. White and Michael Houseman). 2002 Navigability of Strong Ties: Small Worlds, Tie Strength and Network Topology. Complexity 8(1):72-81.

The weakness of long ties

Damon Centola of Harvard University and Michael Macy of Cornell University. 2005. Complex Contagion and the Weakness of Long Ties. Abstract. The strength of weak ties is that they tend to be long – they connect socially distant locations. Recent research on “small worlds” shows that remarkably few long ... (key is the width)

NST and SWT network models

The "navigability of strong ties" NST hypothesis was formulated in 2002 by Douglas R. White and Michael Houseman as an alternative -- in different contexts -- to Mark Granovetter's SWT hypothesis: one of the most influential sociology papers ever written, titled "The Strength of Weak Ties." The SWT hypothesis has as its context the clustering of strong ties such that weak ties are needed to navigate the network.

SWT=Strength of Weak Ties

Granovetter's SWT hypothesis describes the common structure of European and EuroAmerican societies in considering weak ties, for example, as work and friendship ties, and strong ties as kinship or lifelong close friendships. Historically, these are societies where nuclear families are the dominant clusters of strong ties. The more generic definition of strong versus weak ties is that they are more intense, more intimate and more frequently engaged, including long distance communication.

NST=Navigability of strong ties

The NST hypothesis engages different kinds of contexts where networks of strong ties not only cluster but also radiate and are used to create radiating networks of trust. The reciprocation of trust forms a basis for interpersonal favors and dyadic exchange. This does not necessarily require clusters of strong ties or strong triads. As in the SWT strong ties are less common that weak ties, and in both cases weak ties create average distances that are short in both cases. But weak ties in the SWT do not create extensive networks of trust that may radiate long distances.

Random encounters versus Hub navigability

The SWT model postulates a small world with clusters and short average distances for the combined network and strong and weak ties. Random traversal of weak and strong ties achieves the small world effect and the potential for long range navigability. The weak-tie alters, however, are regarded as generically equivalent in the sense of heterogeneous, so that a random network traversal (e.g., flow of information, random social encounter) will eventually encounter someone of a generic social identity or category with an expected frequency that is affected by the frequency of the social category. In the SWT model the strong ties are clustered, so that they lack the potential for long range navigability. "Shortness of average distances" is measured by average distances compared to those of a network of the same size and number of links where the links have been "rewirte", that is, randomly reallocated among the pairs of network members. In this sense, average distances are shorter for weak ties, which are more randomly distributed between clusters in the SWT model, and average distances are longer for strong ties.

The NST model postulates a small world with clusters and short average distances for the combined network and strong and weak ties, but the clustering of ties is not necessarily greater for strong ties than for weak ties, which may both have "short average distances" close to that of a random rewiring of links. Because there are typically many fewer strong than weak ties, however, the absolute value of "average distances" will be much higher for strong ties, meaning strong ties alone will be much less useful for longer-range navigability and the combined network of strong and weak ties. To compensate, the NST model postulates that the strong tie network will have a hub structure in which the declining frequencies of nodes with higher numbers of strong ties will not drop off quickly, as with a random distribution of ties, but will decline slowly -- with more hubs relative to randomness proportional to their hubness or number of links. That this allows is a focused navibability in which a search for a particular node or type of node can start from any given ego and move to a hub in ego's personal network, then to that hub's hub, and so on, until the node or type of node that is searched for is found within that hub's neighborhood.

Social Contexts of NST and SWT networks

The social contexts of the NST type of networks, more common in the nonwestern and non-Christian world, is one in which interpersonal or dyadic trust, establish a potential for overall stability of "small world" connections throughout a society, social, ethnic or religious group even while there may be instability and lack of permanency in the particular dyadic strong ties that for the network. Strong ties in these contexts may be seen as intimate, intense, frequent contacts which can be stable for some dyads but are potentially fissile relations in others. Blood, marriage, and commitments of trust may be the basis of extending alliances between groups, but these alliances may also exhibit shifting factionalism in alliances at one level, but also retention within larger factionalized groups of a looser level of loyalties with respect to outsiders.

This difference in perspective entailed by these contrasting social network models also reflects contrasts between western-based sociology and the ethnography or sociology of nonwestern societies.

The contrast between the SWT and NST models of strong/weak ties and that between the sociology of Christian-influenced western sociology and the sociology of nonwestern non-Christian societies may also apply to how different network and sociological principles of network dynamics and stability apply.

Simmel's triadic principle predicts that more stable dyadic relationships may be established when they are embedded in triads of positive affect or cohesive groups. This might fit the WST case better than the NST case. In the NST context there may be short-term Simmelian stability along with the possiblity of greater longer-term lability (instability) in strong-tie bridges between locally cohesive groups. Such bridges may be broken without the consequences of disrupting a social group, and they may also be replaced with other new strong-tie bridges to maintain overall navigability.

Differing definitions of strong ties

Chinese researchers consider strong ties to include blood kinship, and for migrants the regional homophily of guanxi or coming from the same region. Migration researchers in China found that Chinese find their jobs mainly by their strong ties (Bian, 1997a; 1997b). Similarly, the Xi'an Jiaotung University research group (2008) found that strong ties (including guanxi) predict social integration in urban centers of migration and not weak ties.


Adamic, Lada. R. M. Lukose and B. A. Huberman, 2002, “Local Search in Unstructured Networks”, in Handbook of Graphs and Networks: From the Genome to the Internet, S. Bornholdt, and H.G. Schuster (eds.), Wiley-VCH, Berlin. (On navigability)

Bian Y., 1997a. Bringing strong ties back in: Indirect connection, bridge, and job search in China. American Sociological Review 62: 266-285.

Bian Y., 1997b.“Getting a Job through a Web of Guanxi.”Chapter 5 in Networks in the Global Village, edited by Barry Wellman, Westview.

Bian, Y. J., Zhang, W. H., 2001. Economic systems, social networks and occupational mobility (In Chinese). Social Sciences in China (2): 77-89.

Kleinberg, Jon. 2000. Navigation in a Small World. Nature 406:845.

David Krackhardt. 1992. The Strength of Strong Ties: The Importance of Philos in Organizations. In N. Nohria & R. Eccles (eds.), Networks and Organizations: Structure, Form,and Action: 216-239. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Xi'an Jiaotung University research group. 2008. "Social Integration and Its’ Determinants of Rural-urban Migrants in China: Based on Social Support Network")