you might also see my critique of the small world method,

pp. 189-192,

in m. kochen (ed.) the small world, 1989, ablex.

regards, al
On Thu, 10 Jan 2002, Eszter Hargittai wrote:

> 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:
> ---
> This article from The Chronicle of Higher Education
> ( 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'
>   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."
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Alden S Klovdahl /   [log in to unmask]    / fax: +61 2 6125 2222
Social Sciences  / Australian National University / Canberra Australia 0200