January 23, 2006

It’s a small campus after all

There may be six degrees of separation out in the larger world, but on the Sacramento State campus a researcher and her students have found that there can be fewer than three degrees of separation among the thousands of people here—making a big university seem much smaller and friendlier than might be expected.

“Our research shows that it is indeed a small world on campus,” said Gail Tom, professor of marketing. “I think this ‘small world’ phenomenon helps a large college campus such as Sacramento State become a less intimidating and alienating place.”

The results of Tom’s study—titled “The University is a Friendlier Place Thanks to the Small World Phenomenon”—was published in a recent edition of Columbia University’s Teachers College Record journal.

The phrase “six degrees of separation” comes from the experiment in the 1960s by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, who found that members of any large social network can be connected to each other through six intermediaries or fewer. It also serves as the basis for the game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which actors can be connected to each other through their appearances in films with actor Kevin Bacon.

Tom and her students—Alice Chen, Harriet Liao, Jian Shao and Raman Singh—wanted to test that theory on the Sacramento State campus. “We wanted to use e-mail to determine the average number of links needed for a randomly selected person from the University population to reach another member on this large campus,” Tom said.

Letters were sent via e-mail to selected faculty and staff explaining the purpose of the study. The participants were then directed to a website where they were asked if they knew the “target person” on a first-name basis. If not, they were to recommend a faculty or staff member who might know the “target person.” Tom and the student researchers then sent e-mails to those recommended so they could establish a trail of links until the “target person” was located.

Tom found that when the sender and the target were both faculty members, the average degree of separation was 1.3 degrees. When the sender and target were both staff, the average was 2.05 degrees. And when the sender was staff and the target was a student, the average was 2.3 degrees.

Tom said she could not test a student-to-student arrangement because she did not have access to enough student e-mail addresses, since many students do not use their University e-mail account as their primary e-mail address.

The study’s results are similar to other studies but are still surprising, she said. “It is difficult to understand, intuitively, how a population of more than 30,000 can be connected by fewer than four degrees of separation,” Tom said.

She said that key to the structure of the small world phenomenon are individuals who Tom calls “mavens,” persons with a great deal of influence in social networks and who serve as multipliers who pass on information to others. In Tom’s study for example, 23 multiple senders who did not know the target nursing student, recommended the chair of the nursing division as someone to contact. Tom said that the position of chair of the nursing division is a social structure cue who serves as an informational hub who reaches out and connects many people.

Tom said the results of her study suggest that the small world phenomenon is instrumental in the development of connectedness among diverse social groups on campus.

“The small world phenomenon establishes and maintains the connectedness that is critical to the harmony and affinity of the university community by establishing critical links for communication, dialog and interaction,” Tom says.

Ted DeAdwyler


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