Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

I recently finished a fascinating book: Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives. It was written by two top scholars, Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler. Christakis is a medical doctor and sociologist who teaches at Harvard. Fowler is a political scientist who teaches at the University of California, San Diego. Christakis and Fowler wrote Connected for non-specialists, and, as non-specialist, I was able to follow their argument. At times, however, I felt a bit swamped by academic studies and details. I wish their editor had put about a hundred pages into the footnotes.
Having said that, I must add that Connected is mostly quite readable and engaging.  At times its conclusions are rather obvious. I didn’t need two sociology professors to tell me that my choice of a spouse was greatly influenced by my social network. Yet Connected demonstrates in considerable detail that much of our life is impacted by our networks of relationships, much more than we might realize.
To give you a flavor of the book, I’ll quote some significant passages.
Passages from Connected:
The key to understanding people is understanding the ties between them; therefore, it was to the ties that we turned our focus. (KL 67-68, KL = Kindle location)
Seeing ourselves as part of a superorganism allows us to understand our actions, choices, and experiences in a new light. (KL 81-82)
This book focuses on our ties to others and how they affect emotions, sex, health, politics, money, evolution, and technology. But most of all it is about what makes us uniquely human. To know who we are, we must understand how we are connected. (KL 95-97)
Humans deliberately make and remake their social networks all the time. The primary example of this is homophily, the conscious or unconscious tendency to associate with people who resemble us (the word literally means “love of being alike”). (KL 308-310)
. . . the spread of influence in social networks obeys what we call the Three Degrees of Influence Rule. Everything we do or say tends to ripple through our network, having an impact on our friends (one degree), our friends’ friends (two degrees), and even our friends’ friends’ friends (three degrees). Our influence gradually dissipates and ceases to have a noticeable effect on people beyond the social frontier that lies at three degrees of separation. Likewise, we are influenced by friends within three degrees but generally not by those beyond. (KL 485-488)
Social networks have value precisely because they can help us to achieve what we could not achieve on our own. (KL 532-533)
Because we are so sure of our individual power to make decisions, we lose sight of the extraordinary degree to which our choice of a partner is determined by our surroundings and, in particular, by our social network. (KL 1049-1050)
Whether influential people can exercise influence at all may depend entirely on the precise structure of the network in which they find themselves, something over which they have limited control. (KL 2126-2128)
A Theological Reflection
Connected is not a book of theology, though it does invite theological reflection. I want to offer a bit of this in response to a passage cited above. Here it is, once again:

This book focuses on our ties to others and how they affect emotions, sex, health, politics, money, evolution, and technology. But most of all it is about what makes us uniquely human. To know who we are, we must understand how we are connected. (KL 95-97)

Christakis and Fowler argue that what makes us uniquely human has everything to do with our connections, our relationships. One could make this same argument from Scripture. Consider the creation of human beings in Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1, “man” is created in God’s image as “male and female.” Man is, essentially, in relationship. Then, in Genesis 2, the creation of people is described from a different perspective. First, God creates a male being, the man. But then God says that it is not good for the man to be alone. So God creates a woman as a partner for the man. If the author of Genesis were a sociologist, we might rather have read, “To know who we are, we must understand how we are connected.”
There is more in Connected upon which I wish to comment, and will do so in an upcoming blog post.

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