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The Importance of Random Ties: Mobile Phones and "Wrong Numbers" among Maasai in Northern Tanzania

Timothy D. Baird (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University)

Published in 1977, The Strength of Weak Ties by Mark Granovetter is one of the most cited papers in all of science. It describes how individuals are more likely to find employment through friends of friends, or “weak ties”, than through their “strong ties” with close family and friends. This idea has served as a center of gravity around which scholarship on social networks and diffusion has orbited for decades. Since Granovetter’s initial paper, the internet and mobile technologies have transformed the ways in which social networks are created and evolve. They have also dramatically accelerated the rate of change, challenging scientists and policy makers to provide timely observations and prescriptions.
In this presentation, I will share new observations about how social networks can change from an ongoing, collaborative study of Maasai communities in northern Tanzania. As traditionally mobile pastoralists living in ethically dense, rural areas, Maasai exemplify the characteristics of strong ties found in tightly bonded, homogenous social networks. But Maasai life has changed greatly over the past several decades. Now, despite considerable variations in literacy, signal coverage, and access to electricity, virtually all adults and many children have mobile phones in our study area.
During our field season in the summer of 2018, our research team discovered that Maasai men create new social ties through random wrong numbers. This process begins when an individual simply mis-keys a phone number and places a call, as would happen anywhere in world. When the call is answered, and the parties discover the error, one of two things can happen: (1) the caller apologizes and hangs up; or (2) the individuals begin to chat. This presentation will present our data collection and ongoing analyses, and discuss the implications of this phenomena for livelihoods, social networks, and resilience.


December 11, 2019


Internationales Kolleg Morphomata
Weyertal 59
50937 Köln