Nicholas A. Christakis; James H. Fowler, Connected, Back Bay Books, New York, 2011. 348 pp.
Two professors from the universities of Harvard and California seek to offer a sociological analysis about how the social connections that people develop affect their behavior and at the same time, modify the social context in which they are produced. In nine chapters that cover various areas, the authors explain six rules about social relationships that influence the behaviors in marriage, habits to prevent sicknesses, political actions and any other type of human relationship. These are:
1. Each person is capable of shaping the social network in which they participate.
2. The social groups to which we belong greatly influence us.
3. Our friendships affect us.
4. Our friends’ friends affect us (through our friends).
5. Each social network has a life of its own and its own laws that are generated by the multitude of personal interactions among those who form it.
6. “The Three Degrees of Influence Rule”. Based on various scientific experiments, the authors sustain that among human beings there are six degrees of separation (for example, between one level of friendship and the next, there is a degree of separation). Each human being has direct influence on those in the first three levels of relationships: a) friends, b) our friends’ friends, and c) our friends’ friends’ friends.
The penultimate chapter dedicated to new types of relationships that the Internet world has generated is particularly interesting. Social networks have enormously multiplied the number of relationships that a person can maintain. They have developed unanticipated spaces where ideas can be shared, as well as new and more specific types of relationships. These social networks have even allowed for the possibility to assume virtual identities that influence the real life of those who have created them. This happens through their virtual behavior, their virtual relationships, and the relationships that are created between the avatar and its creator.
The authors recognize that in the virtual sphere, the nature of the relationship is decisively determined by the technological means. This leads them to believe that instead of juxtaposing the real life with the virtual life, we should be aware that in the end, Internet offers new types of bond- of connected networks of social groups. There is no increase in the number of close friends that continue to be tied to the real life. However new ties are generated and multiplied, and in many cases, they are accumulated or have a different nature. The authors study the root of these relationships, the behaviors they generate, and how they enrich those who are involved in them.
Among the criticisms that ought to be made about the book, one can see a vision of man that is lacking in the spiritual dimension; and nonetheless, a great portion is dedicated to the development of interactions among human behaviors, thus demonstrating a certain evolutionistic and naturalistic viewpoint. It is true that the intention of the authors is to sociologically observe human behavior, but their perspective itself implies a concrete perspective on man.
One idea that illustrates this aspect is the fact that the different types of relationships are presented on the same descriptive level as if they were equal, when in reality, we believe that there are profound differences among matrimonial relationships, friendships, sexual relationships, Internet social networks, and interactions that are produced in questions related to health or political position at voting time. To deal with them in the same way presupposes a prior anthropological position with controversial aspects.
A further objection is related to the reasoning and argumentation: the examples used to illustrate certain ideas are placed on the same plane, even though their value may be quite different. For example, they cite studies conducted 60 years ago, carried out in very specific social contexts and they give them a certain universal validity, which is not really justified. On the other hand, some chapters illustrate key ideas with interesting and profound studies carried out by various scientists (with detailed information in the end notes). In other instances however, they cite example from sports events- experiences that are generalized and have little scientific value. Television series (such as Survivors, from 2000) are even cited, as if they were real examples of behavior. They fail to take into account the way that the programs work and the artificial relationships created among the characters in order to gain a larger audience.
The value of this book lies in the fact that two scientists- from a sociological perspective that is not close to the realistic Christian anthropology- rediscover a topic that seemed to be forgotten in a hyperconnected society, in this era of the Web: the personal dimension. People- each one of us- should be conscious of the influence that we receive from the social networks that we form and the influence that we have. Some of the ideas that are offered can help people and institutions become aware of the degree of positive influence they can have on society.