Mario Small’s new book, Someone To Talk To, a study of how people decide whom to approach when seeking support, is an inquiry into human nature, a critique of network analysis, and a discourse on the role of qualitative research in the big-data era.
One of the most common ways people cope with the difficulties of loss, failure, poverty, or illness is to talk about them. The well-documented benefits of having someone to talk to is a major reason sociologists and psychologists believe in the importance of a network of support. But Small believes that social science has the wrong idea about how people use that network.
His book asks a simple but consequential question: When people need a confidant, how do they decide whom to talk to? In theory, the answer is obvious: if the matter is personal, they will choose a spouse, a family member, or someone close—what sociologists call “strong ties.” But in practice, what people actually do often belies these expectations.
Based on in-depth interviews with graduate students coping with stress, self-doubt, failure, health care, and poverty, on nationally representative surveys of adult Americans of all ages and demographic backgrounds, and on case studies of people as varied as doctors in hospitals, teachers in schools, and soldiers at war, Small finds that people do not quite do what they say—or social scientists propose—they are inclined to do. Rather than consistently relying on their “strong ties,” Americans often take pains to avoid close friends and family, as these relationships are both complex and fraught with expectations. In contrast, people often confide in “weak ties,” as the need for understanding or empathy trumps their fear of misplaced trust—in fact, Americans seem to do so more than half the time. They often find themselves confiding in acquaintances, and even strangers, unexpectedly, without having reflected on the consequences.
In sum, strong and weak ties do not always operate as theorized. In Someone To Talk To, Small takes pains to explain why. Amid a growing wave of big data and large-scale network analysis, Small makes clear the importance of returning to basic questions of how we, as individuals, make decisions about those around us.