The spread of ideas

New release: Preprint and videoteaser on the spread of ideas, by Anna Keuchenius, Petter Törnberg and Justus Uitermark

What is the role of communities in the spread of ideas? In a recent preprint by sociologists at the University of Amsterdam, it is shown that communities are not only important for the direct spreading of an idea, but also act on the interpretation of the diffusing idea. Communities tend to use the diffusing idea in a particular vein, applying it in a specific context and a particular narrative.

These findings are a result of a case study in the diffusion of scientific ideas. This case study tracked the diffusion of a particular idea, namely the scientific hypothesis of ‘the Strength of Weak Ties’, introduced by sociologist Mark Granovetter in 1973. By means of citation analysis, this research shows that the hypothesis spread in a community-like fashion. It did not spread hierarchically from the center outwards, but rather slowly seeped into various scholarly communities and spread faster within these communities. Topic modeling and close reading suggests that the diffusion communities are concerned with different topics and use the strength of weak ties in a different narrative. Particularly, a small number of academic stars within the different communities act as figure heads, adapting the strength of weak ties to their communities narrative and interests, influencing a large number of their peers.

This research shows that ideas change as they spread. This is in contrast to the diffusion of non-cultural forms such as disease, that are not meaning-based. This study was part of a larger project of Odycceus, which studies diffusion and translation processes in social networks. The project departs from the view that when a narrative enters a new social group, it requires transformation and translation to fit into the local social and cultural context.