Six degrees of urbanization

This would be an interesting challenge: to locate a friend in a new-to-you American city using only conversations with people you meet—neither you or anyone of your informants would be allowed to consult the usual lists, maps, phone books, etc. I wonder if it’d be possible …

When I carried out fieldwork in Ghana during the 1960s, I was amazed by how migrants found their relatives, after traveling 500 miles to an unknown city of a million people. They had no addresses or phone numbers written down. When they arrived in the central lorry park, they would look for someone wearing Northern dress and ask him where they could find people like themselves. Directed to a particular district, they would seek out a leading figure in the ethnic community. They might then be directed to someone else from their home village. By all means, within an hour or two, they would be sitting with their relative. These African migrants knew that we live in small worlds connected by fewer links than most of us imagine. They used contingent human encounters and network hubs like local big men, not street maps. Their method was news to me then, but it shouldn’t be now.

from “Models of statistical distribution,” by Keith Hart, The Memory Bank, 27 January 2009 :: via Koranteng’s Bookmarks

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