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SOCNET  January 2002

SOCNET January 2002

Subject:

Professor Challenges Work That Led to Idea of '6 Degrees of Separation'

From:

Eszter Hargittai <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Eszter Hargittai <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 10 Jan 2002 10:45:47 -0500

Content-Type:

TEXT/PLAIN

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

TEXT/PLAIN (122 lines)

I thought the following article in today's Chronicle of Higher Ed may be
of interest to people on this list.

Eszter

---
Eszter's List: http://www.eszter.com/elist

---

This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education
(http://chronicle.com) was forwarded to you from: [log in to unmask]

  Thursday, January 10, 2002

  Professor Challenges Work That Led to Idea of '6 Degrees of
  Separation'

  By CHRISTOPHER FLORES

  Judith Kleinfeld, the iconoclastic scholar best known for her
  controversial criticism of gender studies, has published a
  paper disputing the veracity of the research that led to the
  concept of "six degrees of separation."

  The widely accepted theory that any two individuals are linked
  by an average of six acquaintances is based on the early work
  of the late Stanley Milgram, the psychologist whose
  groundbreaking but ethically suspect work on obedience to
  authority in the 1960s cost him his position at Yale. The
  theory has come under fire by Ms. Kleinfeld, a professor at
  the University of Alaska at  Fairbanks, in her article "The
  Small World Problem," in the January/February  issue of
  Society. She asserts that upon close scrutiny of Mr. Milgram's
  papers, archived at the Yale University library, it becomes
  clear that the process he used was flawed, and that even
  within that flawed methodology, the results he found did not
  support his theory.

  "'Six degrees of separation' has really gone from the realm of
  science into the realm of pop culture," says Ms. Kleinfeld,
  citing its appearance in everything from high art (the John
  Guare play of the same name) to parlor games (Six Degrees of
  Kevin Bacon).  "The theory has been popularly accepted for so
  long, even though there is no real evidence to support it."

  Mr. Milgram's experiment -- commonly referred to as the
  "small-world method" -- entailed randomly selecting people to
  send a folder to a target person unknown to them in a distant
  location by first mailing it to someone they thought might
  know the target.  The process was then repeated until the
  target received the folder.  According to Ms. Kleinfeld's
  research, the selection process was anything but random,
  drawing participants through advertisements and purchased
  mailing lists, a practice that she asserts would cull mostly
  high-income and highly connected people.

  Even under conditions as favorable to the theory as these, Ms.
  Kleinfeld reports that on average only 30 percent of the
  folders in Mr. Milgram's experiments -- and in most
  replications of the small-world method -- ever reached their
  target, and then through an average of eight people (or nine
  degrees of separation).  Ms. Kleinfeld points out that Mr.
  Milgram never published those data.

  "I think Milgram was a fine scientist," says Ms. Kleinfeld,
  whose original intent in exploring the psychologist's work was
  to repeat it with her students. "My own view of this is not to
  debunk Milgram, but to argue that the small-world problem
  continues to fascinate us all, and nothing is so useful as a
  good problem."  Ms. Kleinfeld's findings will also appear in
  the next issue of Psychology Today beside a paper by Thomas
  Blass, a leading Milgram scholar who is sympathetic with Ms.
  Kleinfeld's findings.

  Mr. Milgram presented his theory in 1967 in a noted article in
  the first issue of Psychology Today.  He rested the theory
  entirely on the instance of one folder that made it from a
  Kansas wheat farmer to its target, the Boston wife of a
  divinity student, in four days and through only two
  intermediate links. The article made no mention, however, of
  the statistical results of the experiment.

  "Why do we want to believe this so much?" asks Ms. Kleinfeld.
  "With such scant empirical evidence?" She suggests that the
  theory is so readily accepted because it bolsters our sense of
  security, confirms our religious beliefs, and makes sense of
  our personal experiences of coincidence.  At least one
  scholar, Duncan Watts of Columbia University, believes that
  Mr. Milgram's theory is sound but contends that no individual
  has the capacity to consistently map his links to every other
  person.  Mr. Watts is working on a mathematical model to
  explain the theory.

  Ms. Kleinfeld says she does not mean to suggest that Mr.
  Milgram's study is without merit.  The findings did indicate
  that people are actually drastically separated by social class
  and, as other experiments using the small-world method have
  shown, by race, she notes.  "Rather than living in a 'small,
  small world,'" writes Ms. Kleinfeld, "we may live in a world
  that looks a lot like a bowl of lumpy oatmeal, with many small
  worlds loosely connected and perhaps some worlds not connected
  at all."

_________________________________________________________________

This article from The Chronicle is available online at this address:

http://chronicle.com/daily/2002/01/2002011002n.htm

If you would like to have complete access to The Chronicle's Web
site, a special subscription offer can be found at:
  http://chronicle.com/4free
_________________________________________________________________

You may visit The Chronicle as follows:

   * via the World-Wide Web, at http://chronicle.com
   * via telnet at chronicle.com

_________________________________________________________________
 Copyright 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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