As part of my work in social media research, I follow the Twitter accounts of Maine’s elected officials, studying patterns in their public communications.

I wasn’t surprised to see graduation messages from Rep. Justin Chenette, D-Saco, in my feed this month; ’tis the season, after all, and local officials are regularly invited to speak.

I wasn’t surprised at Rep. Chenette’s message, either:

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“The only limitations, are the ones we set for ourselves.”

“You can achieve anything you set your mind to.”

This idea is commonly asserted: so far this month, the phrase “no limits” has been posted to Twitter more than 100 times per hour. It’s a hopeful idea, an inspiring idea, a popular idea.

Unfortunately, it’s also incorrect.

Don’t believe me? Allow me to issue two challenges. If there really are no limits in life, try:

• Heading to Baxter State Park and walking straight through the base of Mount Katahdin.

• Jumping so high into the sky that you launch yourself into orbit, without assistive technology.

No matter how much you wish, no matter how hard you try, you can’t accomplish these acts. We are all limited by laws of physics. Due to electromagnetic repulsion, you can’t walk through rock. Your legs just can’t generate enough kinetic energy to overcome the force of Earth’s gravity. Ignoring these limits can kill you.

Just as there are laws of physics, there are social laws that set limits in society. Consider the following image of a social network, in which circles represent people and lines represent relationships between them:

There are two groups of people in this network: reds and blues. Sociologist Peter Blau considered the rate of “outgroup association” (the percent of all relationships by group members to people outside the group) and discovered a law: that smaller groups have a higher rate of outgroup association than larger groups.

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The reds in the network have five relationships, two of which are to non-reds. 2/5 = 60 percent. The blues in the network have 10 relationships, two of which are to non-blues. 2/10 = 20 percent.

Go ahead, add and subtract as many ties from this network as you wish. You can’t make the pattern go away. It’s an inescapable law.

So what? Why does this social law matter? Stop thinking about reds and blues and start thinking about numerical minorities: women in male-dominated corporate boardrooms, immigrants in native-born communities, or black people in majority-white America. Due to math alone, no matter how much you wish it to be otherwise, such minorities will have contact with majority members more often than majorities have contact with minorities.

Because of this pattern, minority groups must devote more energy to knowing the habits of two cultures just to get by. The stakes for failure can be high. A woman who ignores male culture in the boardroom can lose a job. An immigrant who can’t speak the language loses business. When northerner Emmett Till whistled at a white woman in the South, he lost his life.

This is one social law, one inescapable limit among many in society. A sense of limitless potential may feel good to this year’s crop of graduates, but that feeling can be dangerous.

In my next blog post, I’ll write about another deadly social law. Stay tuned.

James Cook has been a professor of social science at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2011. Dr. Cook’s primary areas of interest in research and teaching are political organizations, social networks, and social media, specifically applying social network theory to social media in the Maine State Legislature.


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