Using six degrees of separation
(November 2000)

The notion of 'six degrees of separation' is that everybody in the world is linked to everybody else by no more than six steps of acquaintance. But, while this makes an interesting topic for filler articles in a newspaper, it has been of very little real use, until now, when a Cornell sociologist has shown how the concept can be used as a scientific sampling method for finding and studying 'hidden populations,' from drug users to jazz musicians.

According to an article by Douglas Heckathorn and Joan Jeffri in the November issue of Poetics, the method they have outlined can be used to obtain a scientifically valid, representative sample of populations that cannot be identified using traditional sampling methods. These would include, for example, drug addicts, HIV-infected individuals, the homeless, runaway youths, gays and lesbians, poets and other creative workers who would be hard to spot in a crowd.

In simple terms, there are no lists available or associations of runaway youths, but individuals in a group know each other, and the sampling method takes advantage that. According to Heckathorn, ''As we gather information during the sampling process of referrals, we look at the degree to which people tend to recruit those similar to them. Then, we can mathematically correct for the non-randomness and project what the sample would have been had there been no biases.''

The survey method was developed to study a peer intervention program with drug users in Connecticut, Chicago and Russia. Now Heckathorn is to apply it for a study of jazz musicians for the (US) National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The study seeks to determine the socio-economic profiles of these musicians, such as whether they have health and life insurance, data on copyright protection, use and abuse of new technologies, their level of income from jazz and jazz-related activities, number of jobs the musicians need to survive, their experiences with mentors, teaching, distribution, marketing, and management and retirement.

Jazz artists, he says, '' . . . exist in a kind of no-man's land, where earning a living from jazz is almost impossible and where even individual support like the Jazz Masters awards from the NEA are not enough to offset the hand-to-mouth existence of most jazz musicians.'' So the aim is to obtain a statistically valid sample, and then to seek to determine the musicians' current situation and most pressing needs.

For information on Douglas Heckathorn, see, and for more information on the sampling method, see

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