Sunday, February 17, 2019

Off the Shelf: Connected

It may not be a surprise to learn, after reading my stories about the connections between my McClellan family and that of King Stockton or even the links between members of my genealogy society's board, that my recent amazement over connections has been influenced by a book about that very subject.

This month, I've been focusing on a book published ten years ago, but which is just as pertinent to application today as it was in 2009. Written by two scientists—Nicholas Christakis is a Harvard professor while James Fowler is at the University of California at San Diego—Connected is a book which explores the impact of our social networks.

Exploring just how "humans come together to accomplish what they could not do on their own," Christakis and Fowler weave together stories as disparate as the way we vote, or what is more likely  to influence us to lose weight, or what makes us select our purchases—forget that, even what sucks some people into mass hysteria. With fascinating case by case and study by study analysis, the authors seek out the "fundamental rules that governed both the formation and the operation of social networks."

The take-away: "The key to understanding people is understanding the ties between them."

Genealogists have long prided themselves on studying the ties between people. The only difference is, we study dead people. Christakis and Fowler seek what makes the connections between living people tick.

Before you make the decision to dismiss this as a necessary read, consider one thing: even the pursuit of dead ancestors requires an interface with the living. We talk to relatives—even the recalcitrant ex-in-laws who otherwise refuse to divulge any information on the long-gone parents on that side of the family. Or the petulant Aunt Flossie, who holds all the family photos from our maternal grandparents, but is miffed that we didn't come to call last Groundhog Day.

Even in our day-to-day research efforts, we need to cajole DNA matches to respond to our emails. Or distant cousins to help us find that missing obituary from their hometown newspaper. We need to come together as local genealogical societies to preserve the historic records of our county's past, or partner with similar organizations to accomplish what our genealogical group could not achieve on its own. We hope to influence politicians to properly house our archives, fund our historical museums, preserve our library systems. Almost everything we do as researchers builds on what others before us have done collectively. And we need to keep that ball rolling, by being astute in our own partnerships.

More than that, though, is the knowledge of how to apply that understanding from the present time to the historic eras in which our ancestors once lived. They, too, can be understood by the "ties between them."

If you are one of those folks who winks at brush-of-butterfly-wing wishful thinking, Connected will re-ignite your faith in the science of connection by a strong suit of scientific studies about the strength of "weak" ties. Yes, a smile when you don't feel like smiling can apparently launch a chain reaction of happiness. We change each other, one little touch at a time.

The power of "The Three Degrees Rule" described in Connected harnesses the strength of the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, to influence and change our small circles of acquaintances—much like that F.A.N. Club we genealogists so often rely on to learn more about our ancestors. If that circle of associates could influence the type of people our forebears once became, just think what it is doing in our own time. It has certainly gotten me thinking. And I'm seeing the possibilities.


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