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Thursday, January 10, 2002
Professor Challenges Work That Led to Idea of '6 Degrees of
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.
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
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