Ronald S. Burt of Chicago Booth was in London one morning in 2016 reading the Times when he noticed a picture in the newspaper. It was a map showing where the recent Brexit vote for the UK to leave the European Union was strongest. People in poorer regions were more likely to vote Leave, while those in wealthier London, Manchester and Edinburgh wanted to stay.
The image reminded him of another map from a paper he often used in class, on which technology entrepreneur Nathan Eagle, Cornell’s Michael Macy and British Telecom’s Rob Claxton had visualized the UK’s telephone networks and showed that callers had greater reach had numbers over the course of a month in 2005 tended to live in more affluent regions. The number of calls didn’t matter — it was the variety of people called, tracking economic indicators, and that those people themselves hadn’t been in contact: In other words, that Andrew had Betty and Calvin on his call log, but Betty and Calvin never has phoned each other.
As a sociologist, Burt has shown over decades that diverse networks of contacts help individuals succeed on a number of fronts – from salary levels and promotions to the chances of running a successful start-up to the ability to think strategically. Your LinkedIn account is your destiny.
The paper he shared with his classes was his own work at scale: quantitative evidence from a team of social and computer scientists suggesting this relationship might exist at the community level. What Burt realized that morning was that the two cards — in the Times and from the research—proposed a less noticed but potentially interesting relationship: between a person’s network diversity and their feelings about national borders. Your LinkedIn account is your country’s destiny.
Eagle, Macy, and Claxton’s research did not examine causality, but Burt says today that he explored the correspondence between open networks (ecosystems where people can gather diverse connections and ideas) and relative economic capacity — and the associated views about cross-border or intercultural cooperation – as two-way. Individuals in difficult industries or regions may be where they are because they have failed to connect. But just as likely, if you can’t imagine having your life validated in new and unfamiliar surroundings, it will inhibit your temptation to network. “All over the world, there’s this huge remnant of people who are being left behind,” Burt argues – economically and socially left behind. And that feeds tribalism. “When there is no hope, you find solace in people like you.”
This leap between the Rolodex and politics may feel like a big leap, but Burt isn’t the only person making it. Studies over the last few decades have focused on the individual benefits and economics of raising one’s head above the parapet: cross-pollination fuels innovation and growth. Now, a growing body of evidence from sociology, psychology, economics, and management goes even further, suggesting that stepping out of our social bubbles is fundamental to social cohesion, and that networking — that exhausting, frightening babble that goes like this many of us would have liked to drop in the name of social distancing from COVID-19 – is a good, maybe even the best way to take this step.
Not your father’s network
Isabelle Feng, a 31-year-old sophomore in San Francisco, began her earlier career eight years ago at one of China’s largest financial news producers, where she was tasked with bringing domestic business stories to global audiences and bringing international stories home. Building bridges was a way of operating in the world that felt natural to her – professionally and personally, and in the gray area between the two. “I used to like to say to an acquaintance, ‘I know this person who does what you do; maybe I can connect you,’” she says.
That momentum was part of what led Feng to pursue her MBA in the United States, but it was weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic. She started her current position in the summer of 2020 and worked from home for the first year and a half. As a result, she feels she doesn’t fully understand the company’s culture and wonders if her class of new hires will ever catch up or change the paradigm. Above all, she can’t get excited about cultivating the network of loose connections that once gave her so much joy and purpose. “I know I have to relearn this,” Feng says late one night via Zoom. “I have to do it for my career. I have to do it for my life here, also locally.”
Specialists in the science of networking agree. Network theory has shown since the 1950s that the number and nature of our relationships with others can affect our behavior and success in the world. The importance of weak social ties emerged in research relatively soon thereafter. In an influential 1973 article that, among other things, analyzed situations in which longtime Italian-American residents in Boston’s West End struggled to keep gentrification in check, Stanford sociologist Mark S. Granovetter argued that ideas Adapt more quickly when submitted by people with many weak ties as opposed to members of close-knit groups who tend to send information down dead-ends. On this basis, Granovetter wrote, career mobility is encouraged by weak ties rather than strong ties, and activism is least effective in communities separated from cliques.
In the 1990s, Burt completed this argument by looking not just at the connections between people, but at the lack thereof—structural holes in the network, as he put it. Burt described a network structure in which “brokers” use insider information from their own group to solve problems or improve life outside of that environment. In several ways, these connectors are unlike the cheerful networkers of the contemporary imagination. The benefits they get from this work are indirect – higher wages or better job opportunities thanks to their reputation for providing fresh insights, rather than promotions negotiated with the boss over a round of golf.