our seasonally adjusted Q&A

Do networks have anything to do with today’s populism and politics?

They have everything to do with it.


In a closed social network, people can feel a sense of community by denigrating others at the periphery of the network. When you and I find humor in a joke about a colleague, it is a bonding experience between us. The more cohesive and cut off a person’s social network, the more often they are exposed to such bonding as information. The outside world becomes defined by sympathetic gossip echoing between colleagues, amplifying opinions to extremes.

In an office, this is called “mobbing,” but scapegoats and witch hunts go back to ancient times. Today, we get Brexit, the rise of the far right in Europe, and, in the United States, unusual presidential behavior.

How do we open up closed networks?

In a world of rapid technological change and growing inequality, many people feel disenfranchised, alone. Your question reframed: How do we cure the trouble groups of feeling alone and disenfranchised?

Ronald S. Burt is Hobart W. Williams Professor of Sociology and Strategy at Chicago Booth.

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