Elastic and Disposable Ties: Strategies To Get By

Four people embrace while looking at the sunset


Networks are a highly researched field. A large component of networks is the ties between individuals, particularly the social ties that people use in their day to day lives. Many early studies when trying to conceptualize these social ties categorized them into weak and strong. However over time researchers acknowledged the fact that not all ties fall into these categories and are in need of their own separate categorization. This is where Desmond and Torres come into play as they propose new types of ties, these being disposable and elastic which have varying utility and can provide the help seen in strong ties but are fundamentally different. Through ethnographic research, Desmond is able to discern how disposable ties are being used to help the urban poor escape unfortunate circumstances. Similarly, Torres examines social isolation among the aging population and how elastic ties enable these older individuals to maintain a much needed spatial/distancing component.


Both Stacy Torres and Matthew Desmond situate their work in the realm of networks and the ties that develop in their observed environment. With Desmond looking at disposable ties and their utility, and with Torres looking at elastic ties and what they enable people to do. Torres refers to elastic ties as elastic because of the flexibility component of the tie. The ability to pull back and maintain distance and autonomy is what separates elastic ties from what Desmond terms disposable ties. Disposable ties are characterized by their often short-lived opportunity-driven expendability. Elastic ties are an important social tie as they can’t be categorized as weak or strong, and they are especially crucial for the aging population which generally has less avenues for support later in life. In both cases, disposable and elastic ties offer a necessary type of support for those in need. In their research, both Torres and Desmond are expanding conventional understanding on how people create their support networks and the conditions/circumstances that give rise to tie formation. Previous network studies, such as “The Strength of Weak Ties” Granovetter (1973), help to establish a baseline for what ties enable people to do. For example, Granovetter defines the strength of a tie in relation to emotional intensity and intimacy, the same basis for assessing a tie’s strength used by many sociologists studying networks, including Torres and Desmond. Granovetter’s paper on weak ties has helped shape future network theory, revealing the value in weak ties for employment opportunities as well as how weak ties can connect groups that were previously isolated from one another. Both Torres and Desmond build from this idea that weak ties have a certain value and add that there are elements left unexplored such as how one measures closeness. Torres’ study on the aging population is unique in that it is specifically looking at the relationship between the distancing component that is crucial to elastic ties, many surveys aren’t able to accurately measure people’s networks and miss out on valuable data that can appear somewhat ambiguous (elastic ties not falling into weak or strong). Desmond’s focus on the urban poor led to the occurrence of more extreme circumstances such as eviction. It is from here that Desmond argues that often kin networks aren’t reliable enough for the urban poor for when moments of crises emerge, thus individuals have little option but to seek assistance from others through disposable ties.

Exposition and Integration

On Elastic Ties: Distance and Intimacy in Social Relationships (Torres 2019) seeks to better understand social ties developed by the aging population. The overarching problem lies in the fact that there are many variables to consider when analyzing one’s relationship with others, the primary ones being distance and intimacy. Many of the interactions between older adults fall into the category of “close” relationships, but many of these connections are not documented by General Social Survey measures and are unable to be properly captured via network surveys. Thus, Torres proposes a new way of conceptualizing ties with different criteria for measurement, these being termed “elastic ties”. It is the inherent qualities of an elastic tie  (as they fall somewhere in-between weak and strong) that complicates standard measures of relationship strength, raising the question of how we can better understand and measure closeness. When trying to determine what category the observed tie falls into, a standardized criteria is followed assessing, “the strength of ties: intimacy (mutual confiding), time spent together, reciprocal services, and emotional intensity,” (Torres 2019:236). 

Torres conducted a five-year ethnographic study from 2009 to 2014 in New York City. During this time she observed participants as they coped with various challenges such as loss of loved ones or health complications. Her participants consisted of a group of 47 women and men over the age of 60 who were low to middle income. At bakery La Marjolaine, she took notes and observed the elders’ restaurant interactions and exchanges for at least two hours five times a week. Once this bakery closed permanently, Torres moved her study site to McDonald’s and Pete’s Delicatessen where many of the participants had switched to. Through 25 interviews and visits in homes and hospitals, Torres was able to grasp a solid understanding of the social sphere of many of her participants. After the participant observation was completed, Torres coded her notes and cross analyzed them with relevant literature. Worth noting is that her observational study doesn’t follow basic assumptions of network theory, as in her study isn’t looking at the cooperation fostered among individuals via interactions. Instead, she looks at the deployment of various strategies to keep distance or maintain relationships, particularly with the aging population. Her observational ethnographic approach allowed her to view the discrepancies between people’s interpretation of their social network as compared to her own account. This allowed scholars/sociologists to make better sense of social network observations, such as that people will disclose highly personal information with individuals not considered to be a strong tie which resulted in previously considered unusual social-network observations to make more sense. 

Torres looked at the circumstances that allowed for these ties to form, and found that these older individuals have experienced the loss of family, financial difficulties, health issues, and other trying situations that may contribute to why many older folks are hesitant to reach out and form genuine strong ties with others. She states that older people on average have fewer “core” ties (Torres 2019:239),. It is this lack of connection that motivates them to share personal information with everyday acquaintances. She notes that social ties can vary between strong and weak depending on the situation with strong ties generally existing within family and  weak ties more often observed between strangers. Thus, where the term elastic comes into play as these ties are malleable, allowing for an individual to pull back without major repercussions.

Social connection formation in the aging population is an area of study important to many researchers and there are many questions left unanswered regarding social isolation among the old. Prior research reveals that older adult’s are the most vulnerable group to physical illness. This, combined with these individuals often living alone, can lead to depression, thus why social isolation is prevalent in the aging population. However, while many assume becoming more isolated and lonely as you age is a guarantee, this is not always the case. The study “Look Closely at All the Lonely People: Age and the Social Psychology of Social Support” Schnittker (2007) reveals that sometimes retirement homes open up connections and the possibility of new relationships. Torres draws on Schnittker’s socioemotional selectivity theory to help explain the formation of elastic ties. This theory argues that since older people on average have a limited social network, they try to maximize their experiences from fewer connections. This might help to explain the formation of ties we see develop in Torres’s study. As the study was done with older participants, Torres assumes that elders are going to try and get the most they can out of the few relationships they have.

Torres draws on other sociologists in the field to help explain these observed phenomena, specifically Small’s work on “Weak Ties and the Core Discussion Network: Why People Regularly Discuss Important Matters with Unimportant Alters” (2013). Small contributes to Torres’ work by helping to explain this phenomena of why people will sometimes discuss personal information with relative strangers, in which she learns that individuals are far more likely to share personal matters with those they are not close to, more so than people think. Torres separates her work from Small’s compartmental tie theory because her research participants’ bonds aren’t dependent on an outside organization. Torres draws on research that examines social isolation and aging as well as the value of neighborhood-based ties. She contests mainstream thinking by re-emphasizing the importance of ties, especially in the context of how elastic ties help the aging population transition from networks. When expanding upon Small’s work on “compartmental intimates” (Torres 2019:241) in the formation of ties between mothers at day care centers, Torres stresses the importance of spaces as a place to build connections. Small’s work examines specifically why people actively choose to not confide in those they consider close. Similar to Torres’s findings, older adults simply have more needs which can create a burden to those around them. Torres draws on Fischer’s work in “Difficult People: Who Is Perceived to Be Demanding in Personal Networks and Why Are They There?” (2017) to help explain why people maintain ties with people whom it proves challenging. Torres draws on his work on standard network theories to elucidate the importance behind reciprocal exchanges. Torres adds upon his work with her own study to reveal why people maintain friendships and how constraints can help bring people closer.

Since elastic ties fall somewhere in-between a strong tie and weak tie, this raises the question of how one defines closeness. Without an ethnography, Torres might not have been able to uncover the truth about the participant’s relationships, revealing the inconsistencies between people’s own account as compared to an outside perspective. An important component of Torres’s study was how people established closeness. Generally, people confide in others about their personal history, either talking about the past or present. However, maintaining independence at an old age is hard as elders often need more help with basic tasks. Torres found that reciprocal services such as favors were often “never one sided” (Torres 2019:245) and that it was through these exchanges that people grew closer. Torres originally operated under the assumption that not knowing someone’s name implied a “nodding relationship” (Torres 2019:246), or a relationship that was just limited to brief conversation or greetings; however, this was proven false as there existed a genuine friendship. Not remembering someone’s name was simply a distancing strategy to maintain some level of autonomy. There are expectations that come with a friendship, thus why the aging population is more likely to have elastic ties because the ability to pull back under various straining circumstances is important for maintaining autonomy. Given that many of the participants could not recall the name of an individual who they had been communicating with on and off for years, it comes as no surprise that their name would not be written down in a social network survey. 

This study is immensely valuable for future researchers analyzing social isolation among the aging population as it reveals common misconceptions people continue to operate by. Especially research on the system of networks that those most vulnerable rely on. This study helps to reveal the reality that there are crucial relationships forged between individuals that go unnoticed. Going forward, if we can better define these connections then we can go about helping those who are most isolated in our society. Torres calls for a re-working of social-network items to instead utilize variables such as time spent in places and daily routines in hopes of more accurately capturing these vital relationships.

Disposable Ties and the Urban Poor (Desmond 2012) examines how the urban poor survive amidst varying economic challenges. Desmond looks closely at what he terms disposable ties, a budding relationship between individuals that is generally short lived, but involves time together and some level of exchange that is often reciprocated. It is through these disposable ties that tenants are able to receive the support they need to get by, but are not without potential repercussions. Desmond references “All Our Kin” (Stack 1974) numerous times to elucidate how many urban poor tenants rely on kin and family members for support. However Desmond situates himself in a place where he is trying to understand survival strategies of the urban poor for those who don’t have the foundation and support from family members. Desmond looks at tenants during times of crises, focusing extensively on eviction and seeking to understand how urban poor families deal with life altering events. Here he discovers the application of disposable ties being employed so people can make ends meet. Desmond’s findings heavily contrast the findings by Carol Stack. While some choose to seek support from kin, numerous challenges arose from doing so, leading many individuals to rely more on disposable ties formed with various acquaintances for needed support. Desmond seeks to answer a few social problems through his research such as how and why disposable ties are used and formed. Often following eviction, relationships are tested or broken as one person reaches out through their network for support. Desmond cites “Hard Living on Clay Street” (Howell 1973) who helps give insight into Desmond’s analysis by arguing that as kin support in poor communities decreases, tenants increasingly need to find support systems by themselves. 

While Desmond draws on existing approaches of data collection and analysis, his approach is unique in his decision of field sites allowing for a broader, more inclusive sample. Desmond often includes participant responses to interview questions to help prove his hypothesis. Such as that when individuals experience difficulty getting support from kin, they will rely on disposable ties. This helped guide Desmond to choose field sites that were locations ripe with tie formation and exchanges. His fieldwork consisted of observing people’s day to day lives, particularly after evictions, and taking notes throughout the majority of the day, five days a week. Desmond’s ethnographic research had two places of study, one in a White trailer park, the other in a Black neighborhood in the city. Both were relatively poor areas. Comparing the data from both sites, Desmond was able to examine the differences between White and Black poverty, reinforcing previous research that showed poor White people have more middle-class kin than poor Black people. Similar to Torres’s field work, both collected data through field notes, interviews, observations, and interactions with participants. Through engaging with participants experiencing dire needs, Desmond was able to better understand the social dynamics of these support networks in poor neighborhoods, for example he found that the formation of disposable ties became a habit for some, not just a survival strategy. While the mode of data collection was similar, one advantage this research design has compared to Torres was that Torres’s location of inquiry changed multiple times whereas Desmond’s stayed consistent. A case could be made that a disadvantage of Desmond’s research design is his heavy focus on eviction which is an extreme case of destitution and may have skewed his results.

Desmond argues that basic needs are being met more through disposable ties than kin networks and that an environment in which people have urgent needs will be the most likely to foster this type of tie. Once this tie was formed between individuals, both would enjoy time and resources together (often short-lived). Desmond found that because of the urgent needs of individuals in these poor neighborhoods strong ties became weak, and disposable ties became strong. When determining why this is, Desmond points to the conditions that give rise to disposable ties being seen as the only solution. Many turn to disposable ties as a last resort because for some, kin ties were not there. Similarly, an evicted tenant’s kin network along with the individual would experience consequences as lending a helping hand would often put a strain on the helper. Desmond uncovered that in both sites of research, both White and Black tenants experienced more “similarities… [than] differences,” (Desmond 2012:1324). Instability on all ends plagued individuals into seeking help. Desmond found that nobody dealt with their eviction by themselves and all tenant’s Desmond met “relied on kinfolk for some kind of assistance. Yet to meet their most pressing needs (e.g., food, shelter, child care), tenants often relied more extensively on disposable ties than on relatives,” (Desmond 2012). This directly contrasts  Stack who argues that kin ties allow low-income households to survive tough times. Another important finding was that all tenant kin networks consisted of both lateral “(between people occupying relatively similar positions on the socioeconomic ladder)” and vertical ties “(between those occupying qualitatively different positions),” (Desmond 2012: 1306) People would be hesitant to reach out to those categorized as vertical ties for a variety of reasons even when these ties were situated best to lend a helping hand as opposed to lateral. 

Desmond explains how previous studies which are in agreement with the kin support argument are now being questioned given  recent evidence from new studies that suggest the support from kin isn’t as prominent as people think. In particular, this questions the findings of “All Our Kin” and how we should treat this piece of literature. This being said, Desmond states that an alternative explanation for how the urban poor make do has yet to be officially thought out. 

Torres’s conception of elastic ties is complicated by Desmond’s introduction of disposable ties, while there are some similarities between the ties, the context in which they are being used varies depending on the circumstances (evictions vs cafe setting), which enables the individual to accomplish different things (get rent money vs distance yourself from a burdened relationship). Thus, why researchers can’t categorize all ties as weak or strong as the nature of people’s needs are ever changing. Similar to how the extenuating circumstances of the urban poor transformed strong ties to weak and disposable to strong, a similar phenomenon is observed in Torres’s study of the aging population with individuals looking for something in between a weak and strong tie, but similar to disposable ties, want the ability to back out (noting that backing out and distancing is not the same as disposing, but often distancing puts stress on the relationship which can lead to a fallout). We see this with older individuals who utilize distancing strategies to avoid potential burdens that come with a relationship. In both studies we also see signaling strategies via conversation and incremental gift giving and reciprocity as a way to build a friendship. From this, we can say that the needs of the aging population and the needs of the urban poor are not entirely dissimilar and shape the type of ties and duration. The aging population has small social networks so they will often form ties with strangers and the urban poor might not have an extensive kin network so they rely on acquaintances. Both the urban poor and the aging population have needs revolving around a problem of isolation in networks. 

Impact in the field

On Elastic Ties: Distance and Intimacy in Social Relationships Torres (2019) had a Field-Weighted Citation Impact of 3.26 with about 18 citations in Scopus, landing in the 94th percentile. Most of these citations are in the realm of sociology with a few citations in psychology. With the article being released in 2019, it didn’t generate citations until 2020 – 2021 where it picked up 10 citations but then slowly decreased. Worth noting is that the article gained a bit more traction on google scholar with a total of 26 citations. This piece has been cited by a few sociologists and others in the social sciences. One article in particular by Norvoll (2022) examines social isolation and the adverse effects it has on one’s health; this isolation is commonly observed in the aging population. This article looks at the value of home care to this population. Here Norvoll is echoing Torres to explain that while the family is generally the strongest and most reliable network for support, older adults can still experience social connectedness with strangers. Other studies such as “Who is dropped and why? Methodological and substantive accounts for network loss” Fisher (2020) examine the phenomenon of why large amounts of alters are dropped in name surveys. This article utilizes Torres and Desmond to help explain this phenomenon as often disposable ties are forgotten and therefore not listed in network surveys. What can be hard to capture through surveys is levels of intimacy, here I consider Maria (2021). This article proposes the new term communal intimacy, looking at closeness in collective housing. The article cites Granovetter, Desmond, Small, and Torres so it is well positioned for my realm of inquiry. Maria builds off of Desmond and Torres through her observation of elastic and disposable ties as the opposite of the support that is integrated into collective housing, the idea being that collective housing involves many weak ties and certain acts such as sharing are prioritized over the exchanges and reciprocity we often see in elastic ties. With Torres’ realm of study being the aging population, Cornwell, Goldman, and Schafer’s work looks at the factors that shape the aging populations networks, particularly local ties. It is unique in that it’s specifically measuring network closeness of the aging population, drawing on Torres to acknowledge the fact that through their methods of determining network support, they are unable to measure elastic ties and note that this is a limitation to their study.

“Disposable Ties and the Urban Poor” (Desmond 2012) while not listed on Scopus, was widely received on google scholar with a total of 509 citations. Cited by famous sociologists Erving Goffman, Forest Stuart, and Small, his work was largely received by sociologists studying network theory. One article that cites his work examines the roles social factors have in addiction. Particularly looking at identity, Desmond is brought into the equation through a comparison of disposable identities to disposable ties. Analyzing the utility of having an association with a treatment center related identity, the idea that a “transitional” identity is not necessary after reintegration into society. The article “Situational Trust: How Disadvantaged Mothers Reconceive Legal Cynicism” (Monica 2016) is highly relevant as it examines the strategies mothers employ to gain safety and trust when interacting with law enforcement. Drawing on the various elements of eviction from Desmond to help explain the link between evictions, police distrust and calling and how this process can result in the incarceration of Black men. One element Desmond does not explore in depth is the reciprocity component of disposable ties, through examining the intricacies of lending and how financial decisions are affected by various factors such as relationship, closeness of the tie asking, etc. we can expand Desmond’s analysis. Building off of Desmond’s disposable tie argument, it can be easier to cut off a tie if you limit your emotional attachment. This being in contrast however to the strengthening of ties through the process of familial nicknames. Tie strength is ever changing, for example in Desmond when someone is evicted, their new circumstance puts pressure on all those involved. The article on “Difficult People: Who Is Perceived to Be Demanding in Personal Networks and Why Are They There?” (Offer and Fischer 2018) helps explain why some individuals maintain ties with those that are challenging to keep. This article utilizes Desmond’s analysis of disposable ties to help explain the process in which difficult to maintain ties will generally be discarded. This account is complicated however through the external pressures that can come from an environment that can put pressure on individuals to maintain difficult relationships.

Conclusion and Research Prospectus

Both papers are adding significantly to the literature on social tie formation and the conditions that give rise to such. Through Torres’s work and her proposed new methods of determining closeness, going forward we should be able to more accurately capture elastic relationships in surveys. Torres calls for the redesigning of social network items to help fix this gap, the idea that we should measure closeness via variables such as time, routine, places and people visited. This would arguably be a more appropriate and reliable measure of closeness than the standard social-network classification we have had which is simply weak vs. strong. Similarly, Desmond is unconvinced with the weak vs. strong as the primary classification and brings to the table disposable ties. Through which he argues that for the urban poor, needs are being met through disposable ties as opposed to kin ties. An urban poor trailer park is an ideal location for a place where people are going to have pressing needs. Thus why we see an increased usage of disposable ties as opposed to other forms of social support. In this location, a phenomenon can be observed in which disposable ties become the new “strong” tie and traditional strong ties become weaker. Going back to Torres’s findings, I found myself interested in the conditions that give rise to elastic ties. According to Torres, researchers who are studying social relationships might miss out on the presence of elastic ties. Often, surveys that measure isolation miss the network connections between individuals. This can be harmful as not only are surveys potentially missing out on revealing a genuine relationship between people, but depending on their response, they might lead researchers to misinterpret the ways people rely on others for support. Through Torres’s field work, she discovered large discrepancies that formed between her participant’s belief about their network, and the reality of their friendships. As the study was done with older participants, it can be assumed that they are going to try and get the most they can out of the few relationships they have. From this, one question I have is if we would observe similar phenomena in a younger sample group, say college students in their first year of college. 

When trying to understand social tie formation in college students, I can think of a few hypotheses that might help me guide my research process. Hypothesis 1) The type of social tie that is formed is reliant on the intensity and direness of the situation at hand. 2) The type of social tie developed is going to be the one that is best suited for the circumstance. If what I’m trying to study is social tie formation in college students, I would want to first look at individual networks as they play a significant role in shaping the individuals decision process. This would fall into the realm of social network sociology as I would be studying interactions and social dynamics. I would need to gain a thorough understanding of one’s circumstances such as family member availability, socioeconomic status, etc. Similarly, age factors into this as well, as one grows older, their networks on average grow smaller. Thus I might want to limit the age range of my research as socioemotional selectivity theory states that older individuals try to “maximize positive emotions from fewer ties, whereas younger people seek information and professional advancement from more contacts,” (Torres 2019:238). To carry out this research proposal, I would first conduct an ethnography in which I would go to multiple field sites (colleges) and record extensive field notes/observations on relationship dynamics. I would also have to conduct multiple interviews to get an understanding of my participants’ networks and existing relationships. This would be done in order to ensure I have a solid understanding of my participants’ circumstances and situation so when I compare their account of their network with my own understanding, I can compare and see if any discrepancies arise. The goal of the project would be to see what types of ties do college students form at the start of the year and how student network’s change throughout the course of the year.

Works Cited 

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Boswell, David, and Carol B. Stack. 1975. “All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community.” Man 10, no. 1 : 160. https://doi.org/10.2307/2801228. 

Dingle, Genevieve A., Tegan Cruwys, and Daniel Frings. 2015 “Social identities as pathways into and out of addiction.” Frontiers in psychology 6 : 1795.

Fischer, Claude S., and Shira Offer. 2020 “Who Is Dropped and Why? Methodological and Substantive Accounts for Network Loss.” Social Networks 61 78–86. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socnet.2019.08.008 

Frederick F Wherry, Kristin S Seefeldt, Anthony S Alvarez,  2019. “To Lend or Not to Lend to Friends and Kin: Awkwardness, Obfuscation, and Negative Reciprocity, Social Forces.” Volume 98, Issue 2, Pages 753–793, https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soy127

Howell, Joseph T. 1973. “Hard Living on Clay Street. Portraits of Blue Collar Families.” Garden City: Doubleday. 

Norvoll, R., Øye, C. and Skatvedt, A.H., 2022. “Like a Social Breath: Homecare’s Contributions to Social Inclusion and Connectedness of Older Adults.” Journal of Social Inclusion, 13(2), p.None.

Offer, Shira, and Claude S. Fischer. 2018 “Difficult people: Who is perceived to be demanding in personal networks and why are they there?.” American sociological review 83, no. 1 : 111-142.

Schnittker J. 2007. “Look closely at all the lonely people: age and the social psychology of social support.” Journal of aging and health, 19(4), 659–682. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898264307301178

Small, Mario Luis. 2013. “Weak Ties and the Core Discussion Network: Why People Regularly Discuss Important Matters with Unimportant Alters.” Social Networks 35, no. 3 :470–83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socnet.2013.05.004. 

Törnqvist, Maria. 2021. “Communal Intimacy: Formalization, Egalitarianism, and Exchangeability in Collective Housing.” Social Forces. 100 (1): 273–92. https://doi.org/10.1093/sf/soaa094.

York Cornwell, Erin, Alyssa W Goldman, and Markus Schafer. 2021. “Local Ties in the Social Networks of Older Adults.” Journals of Gerontology. 76 (4): 790–800. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbaa033.