An important book in some ways, frustrating in others, Christakis and Fowler’s Connected: the amazing power of social networks and how they shape our lives, makes the strong claim that our connections “have an astonishing power to influence everything from what we eat to who we sleep with”. When it came out last year it gained some notoriety for arguing that friends can make you fat – i.e., that issues such as physical health are affected as much if not more so by peers as they are by class, race, gender or geographical location.
A fellow traveller to Dirty Looks then? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that Connected takes the relational world seriously as a powerful force in people’s lives. No as it maintains a curious silence on the place of emotions in relations, and the influence of the affective domain on the various issues it explores (happiness, love, sex, etc). This could be more a question of tone than theory, but the emphasis on biology and genetics was disappointing, in a book that promised so much more.
It’s still worth a read, nevertheless. The section called ‘Big fish, little pond’ is particularly strong, as it focuses on the importance of ‘relative standing’ – a concept that people ‘get’ at an intuitive level, but soon gets forgotten when talk of class and public policy
enter the discussion. The argument put forward in Connected is that “people often care more about their relative standing in the world than their absolute standing. People are envious. They want what others have, and they want what others want”.
Relative standing is why people are sometimes underwhelmed when their friends achieve success – it’s not that they hate their friends, more that it reflects (in their minds) badly on them. Life is lived in a constant state of comparison and judgement, but
played out within a surprisingly small social environment. We like to think that the achievements of significant others are welcomed with joy and admiration, but this is not always the case. More often than not, in emotional terms the success of one person is the failure of another.