Thursday, March 03, 2005

Sociology Project I


According to popular culture, all human beings on the planet are connected to one another by only six degrees of separation. A 'degree of separation' is defined as personal contact in which both parties know the name of the other and have some means by which to contact them.

Part A:

If you were to try to communicate directly with actor Kevin Bacon, using only persons (as opposed to corporations, chat rooms, or other non-personal intermediaries), which of your acquaintances would you select as your first contact, and why?

Part B:

Which famous person or persons do you have the smallest degree of separation from? (You may use whatever definition of 'celebrity' seems appropriate to you. Bear in mind that if you name someone sufficiently obscure, you may be called upon to define the field in which your celebrity is famous.)

Part C:

As with Part A, except substitute a poor Ivory Coast farmer for Kevin Bacon. Was your answer different from your answer to Part A? If so, explain.

Part D:

Your answers to Parts A-C will be read to the class, and then I will ask you to write a short (<5 pp.) essay in which you discuss whether or not you believe that six degrees of separation are sufficient to connect any two individuals on the planet, according to the popular theory. (Keep in mind that any celebrities named by your classmates in their answers to Part B are now connected to you by only one more degree of separation: e.g., if Christy is three degrees from President Bush, you are now four degrees from President Bush.)


Anonymous said...

A: If I wished to communicate with Kevin Bacon, I would start with Robbie Fox, because he wrote "So I Married an Axe-Murderer." Surely someone involved with SIMAAM is tight with Kevin Bacon, right? However, I am far from convinced that Robbie would perform any frivolous errands for me, and if he were going to send messages to Kevin Bacon they would be more likely to be about something he wanted.

B: I know people who have directly communicated with: David Koresh, Jacques Derrida, Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Tupac. 3 of these are dead, so I can also communicate with those 3 by summoning angels to whisper in their ears.

C: I would pick Deena because she used to work for the U.N. giving loans to African women to start small businesses. She gave the loans to Egyptian women, but probably knew someone who gave them to poor farmers in Cote D'Ivoire.

D: I personally feel that 6 degrees could not be sufficient to link any 2 people on this planet, because there are people out there who live seriously insular lives. People in obscure cults who fear outsiders who live in desolate unknown hovels at the western end of the Tibetan plateau in constant fear of Chinese state oppression -- I may well be like 7 or 8 degrees of separation from them. Sounds like the subject of one of your statistical analyses.

Jessi Guilford said...

My own answers:

A: I would start with either Stan or Francis Strand, because Stan is closer than I am geographically and Francis seems to know everybody.

B) I am two degrees of separation from David Koresh (late cult leader), Fred Phelps (insane anti-gay protester / cult leader), the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (cult leader; maybe closer to three degrees, depending on his memory), poet Louise Gluck (could be one degree), and Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-IA). With an outside possibility of being two degrees from pop singer Boy George.

C) The same as A), but I might also try going with my former pastor, J.H., just because he probably knows people who know people in Africa.

D) I think anonymous has a point about people whose lives are highly insular. Also the degrees-of-separation game depends quite a lot on one making connections to celebrity, and celebrities are just more connected to one another, and to people in general. I mean, I don't have any hard data on that, it just seems like a good assumption to make. If this is true, then calculating one's degrees from Kevin Bacon or other celebrities probably gives the appearance that people are more interconnected than is the case, since celebrities tend to be more interconnected to begin with.

On the other hand, most of us could handle meeting one new person per day, on average, easily enough, and if you did that from your thirteenth birthday to your thirtieth birthday, in those 17 years you'd meet 6,205 people. Which if each of them is also meeting 6,205 people, and each one of the 6,205 is new (i.e., you and your friend only have one another in common, and the other 6,204 people in your circle are all completely different from the other 6,204 people in his/r circle), it would only take 3 degrees of separation to connect everybody in the world:

6205^3 = 2.4x10^11 > 6.3 billion

The math gets too hard for me after this point, but I can figure up the average number of exclusive connections each person needs to have for six degrees to work:


The implication being that if you know, on average, 43 people who are unknown to the rest of the people in your social circle, and all of them also knew 43 people unknown to the rest of their social circle, then everybody on the planet could be within six degrees of separation. The assumptions I've had to make here to make this calculable are kind of dicey, though: I think it's probably true, but I wouldn't bet money on it. And, obviously, the younger you go, the less likely you are to be within six degrees, because you haven't met as many people yet.