Disrupting social circles to boost cohesion

A recent survey confirms a class divide in Singapore, with people having more ties to others from the same education and housing background. To build cohesion, we need to disrupt the natural tendency to form social circles among people like ourselves.

Disruption is the word of our times. Upgrading skills and braving the discomforts of change present new challenges. Some may feel uncomfortable, yet are compelled or enticed, all at the same time, by the prospect of a better future.

Disruption can bring about much good and a stronger society. Much less discussed but of vital importance is a different kind of disruption - that of our social circles, especially those that separate us from one another.

Think of it: A campfire is cozy. But the warmth may exclude others if we are not careful. We need to build bridges so that many campfires can form a big shining light. Bridges connect while circles divide.

This is not a new idea actually.

Network sociologist Mark Granovetter wrote about it in his seminal work, The Strength Of Weak Ties, published as a journal article in 1973. The article has now been cited some 50,000 times on the scholarly search engine Google Scholar, attesting to its unceasing value for thinking about matters of social structure. In it, he plays the paradox by positing that weak ties are "strong" - in two ways. Weak ties are those formed by friends, acquaintances or colleagues; while strong ties typically refer to ties between family members, relations or very close friends.

First, ample research has shown that people often hear about new opportunities, such as job openings, through their weak ties - through friends and acquaintances, rather than from family members.

Weak ties are bridges that connect people to better situations; they can uplift the less fortunate, paving the way for new opportunities.

Second, weak ties are critical for holding large systems together. To illustrate the idea, he conducted an experiment where participants were required to pass a parcel to a target person, a real person, unknown to the participants, but predetermined by the researchers.

That target person could be someone from a different racial group living far away. The study was based in the United States, with participants and targets separated by vast distances. This was before the Internet. Participants who passed their parcel to people like themselves tended not to complete their task. However, participants who transmitted to people unlike themselves were more successful.

Weak ties are like bridges that connect individuals across different social groups. Multiply this, and bridges connect all of society into an unmistakable whole.

A group of researchers recently completed a study for the Institute of Policy Studies on the social networks of Singapore residents, supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY). We found some evidence of an emergence of circles based on class.

We started with 3,000 respondents who gave us names to 17,413 contacts. For each contact, we collated a brief summary - for example, what is this person's educational background, where did you first meet this person and so on. We then computed, for each respondent, a measure of "network diversity" with scores ranging from 0 to 1 on a range of dimensions - gender diversity, age diversity, educational diversity, housing diversity and so on.

We found that people could easily name contacts from different gender groups (median = .75), different age groups (median = .67), and different racial groups (median = .44).

Yet, they had a harder time naming people from different class groups. For example, more than half of the respondents had a network comprising contacts from only one housing type (that is, either all public or all private housing contacts).

More than half of the respondents could name contacts from only one educational background (that is, either all elite or all non-elite school contacts).


The technical name for this phenomenon is "homophily", which sociologists define broadly as love for the same. Why homophily, why do birds of a feather flock together, and what makes class circles so salient in the first place? There are two explanations generally.

The first pertains to preferences.

We tend to gravitate towards others like ourselves with whom we feel comfortable. Part of the joys of friendship or intimacy lies precisely in being able to speak in shorthand or in a specific lingo. It takes energy to bridge the gap with parties who are different. One needs time to immerse and understand a different milieu.

The second pertains to opportunity to form ties. People make friends with those around them, in the neighbourhoods they live, in the schools they attend, their workplaces, and the associations they are part of. The social context supplies the pool of potential contacts. It is the social environment that yields a certain structure and amount of social opportunities.

Both explanations are grist for the mill, posing useful lessons for us.

We may often need to put aside our preferences, be willing to forge bridges with people who are different from ourselves. This requires effort.

As class circles are also culture circles, characterised by differences in speech, values, norms and the like, the temptation is great to take the path of least resistance and form social connections among those like ourselves.

If we want a more cohesive society, however, individuals need to form connections across social divides. It isn't just about one group reaching out and the other waiting passively. Building cohesion requires people to be willing to disrupt what may seem like the natural order of things, such as forming cliques with similar others, and forming ties across more variegated networks instead.

Then there is the structure of opportunities to think about. We form connections where there are opportunities to do so, in our usual social circles.

This means that if our usual domains - neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces or associations - are monolithic, comprising people of our own ilk, we will find it harder to widen our social circles and generate network diversity. It's thus important to ensure diversity in the composition of schools, neighbourhoods and other social groups. Policy levers such as increasing the placement of non-alumni students in elite schools represents a positive nod to the principle of bridging.

The study shows that domains such as schools, workplaces, sport and cultural associations are powerful and robust facilitators of network diversity. But these general patterns could overlay more specific ones. Do all clubs and associations bridge status divides? Some, by their definition, consolidate them, such as race-based or religious associations.

Ultimately then, bridging is a whole-of-society effort requiring individual initiative even when opportunities for social mixing are not always forthcoming. It is heartening that there are now more overlapping circles across race, religion, nationality and gender.

We now need to redouble our efforts to find more platforms as well as interests and identities that help us transcend class.

Disrupting our personal social silos and bridging communities hold rewards for individuals and society as a whole. For example, the study shows a positive correlation between a wide range of network diversities (including class diversity) and larger collective sentiments such as national identity, pride towards the nation, social trust generally, and trust towards other races, religious groups and nationality groups.

This gives important insight to our ongoing quest for a stronger national identity. Values such as multiculturalism, meritocracy, and society before self, have been, for some time now, anchoring values in Singapore society.

More than values, however, we now know that our networks, whom we relate with, the kind of networks formed (and certainly the bridging sort) are also critical to enhancing national identity.

Forming connections across social groups helps us learn the art of communication, negotiation, understanding and accommodation. One begins to think outside of one's own group to accommodate something more inclusive-the national.

•Associate Professor Vincent Chua of National University of Singapore is one of the researchers behind the recently published findings of "A Study on Social Capital in Singapore for the Institute of Policy Studies".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2018, with the headline Disrupting social circles to boost cohesion. Subscribe