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Posts Tagged ‘bridging social capital’

I’ve been away from my beloved blog here for so long, I feel as though I should sing a chorus of “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”.

But I’ll spare you.

My primary academic interest is examining the ways we create and recreate our lives in virtual spaces. I come from the point of view that technology like a hammer or saw;  fantastically useful tools that someone can decide to pick up and use as an implant of construction or destruction. It’s not the tool, its the end user.

Virtually every new communication technology from the alphabet (Thank you Nancy Baym for that great quote from Plato!)* to the airplane (because you do realize that transportation is a type of communication tool, right?) to the Internet has been decried as that thing that will make our society dystopic, make our society utopic, make us smarter, make us dumber, foster connections between people, drive us farther apart. And someone will always proclaim that it somehow makes us less human and our youths sex mad, .

Poppycock and Balderdash.

This is why I disagree with authors like Robert Putnam and Sherry Turkel. Yes I think society has changed, but I think it was and is still doing just that: changing.  Every age has its affordances and constraints from its technology, but technology is just the tool, not the determiner of the world we live in.

That is completely up to us.

Anyway, for the uninitiated among you, xkcd is a thrice weekly web comic written by Randall Munroe.  It is funny, highly geeky, and at times head scratchy. A few days ago, he absolutely nailed how ridiculous the moral ( and every other) panic associated with technology is.

(BTW: if you are not familiar with the comic, I suggest checking it out. It’s great!)

* In her book, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, Nancy Baym quotes Socrates’ warning‘, by way of Plato,  that the creation of an alphabet that allowed people to write instead of extemporaneously orate would make us all dullards. Makes me chuckle every time. 

(Link to this comic: http://xkcd.com/1289/)

xkcd Simple Answers

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If You Want to Test a Man’s Character, give him power–Abraham Lincoln.

This week’s readings made me realize a basic fact of the study of social networks, it’s all about power: access to it, maintaining it, struggling to get it and gatekeeping newcomers to the power circle.

In the beginning, there was Grannovetter’s Strength of Weak Ties (1973). He said that the social network ties that joined people are strong or weak. Strong ties form a dense network. Ron Burt would say these networks are full of redundant information because if A has strong ties to B and C it is likely that B and C share a tie as well; the information would just roll around those three actors. He went on to describe a situation where A might also have a tie to Z who isn’t connected to B or C and is situated within their own network. Granovetter called this a weak tie and likened it  to a bridge. Whereas a cluster of strong ties share similar information among their network, the weak tie serves as a conduit for information and innovation that might be otherwise unavailable. He illustrates this point by demonstrating that political power of community groups attempting to preserve their neighborhood. While networks of strong ties imply high levels of trust, weak ties carry a level of trust which is earned over time by the sharing of timely and helpful information (Burt 1993). It is the networks that had weak ties to others outside of the community that received and shared the information necessary to seize power, mobilize and take action. Those without those ties had insufficient information to form powerful coalitions, were hampered and lost their fight.

In 1993 Burt expanded on this with the concept of structural holes in an article about the social structure of completion. Competition for what?  Power, which can take the form of information, resources or finances. He connected the concept of tie strength to economic power by positioning it as an element of structural holes. Structural holes look at the superstructure, the junction where networks connect.  Structural hole theory says that where there is a hole, two networks that have no connection to each other, there is an opportunity for someone to position themselves as an intermediary between the two networks and serve as a bridge to that chasm. The person who bridges that structural hole also positions themselves to enhance their personal social capital. Lin’s definition of social capital reinforces the power dynamic of social networks: investment in social relations with expected return” (p.6). Later he cites Coleman’s definition, of social capital being the resources embedded in a social structure which are accessed and /or mobilized in purposive actions. Social capital is mutual and dynamic, both parties bring something to the table. The social capital of the individual nodes, enhance the social capital of the group.

Social Capital. What is it? What does it do? The 4 elements to explain the need for social capital are completely about retention, enhancement and control of societal power:

  • Facilitating the flow of information that can aid in finding opportunities and choices not usually available
  • Exerting influence (putting in a good word for someone lower on the social scale)
  • The certification of social credentials
  • The reinforcement of identity and recognition

Lin provides an understanding of social capital by beginning with definitions of capital put forth by economic theorists such as Marx and sociologists such as Bourdieu who discuss capital as a tool of the dominant class to incent and control the working classes. (Whereas Marx saw it solely as an oppressive tool, Bourdieu conceded that the working class might adopt and become invested in meanings of the symbols used by the dominant class for their own benefit.) According to Lin, Marx presented capital as being about antagonistic class struggle and neocapitialists presented it as a layered series of discourses.

So how do weak ties, social capital and structural holes all come together?

Weak ties provide the basic structure that spans structural holes in a network. The motivated individual can cultivate a weak tie in a disconnected network and by sharing information that is timely and relevant to the interests of his or her weak tie’s network, build individual social capital that adds to the social capital of the group. The weak ties close the structural hole. In closing that hole social capital is built.[1]

That this becomes about power is evident in Cote and Erickson (2009) where they look at the role of social capital in how Canadian ethnic minorities are viewed. One of the findings was that people with more education and people in higher socio-economic strata were more tolerant of minorities. One of their comments is that the tolerance among these groups is that racial minorities pose no threat to their societal, political or economic power. I would add that another element of power is the ability of these groups (which carry a great deal of overlap) is the power to determine which individual members of a given minority group can “cross over” to more powerful strata through actions including college admissions, the distribution of scholarships and grant money, promotions, letters of recommendation, etc. These actions serve to enhance the social capital of the individual who is a member of the dominant culture by bringing new blood into the dominant network and in the dominated culture by positioning them as a friend and ally of the group.

[1] I suspect the Ron Burt would take issue with my use of the phrase “close the structural hole” but that is very much how I see it. The hole exists because of the absence of a weak tie. Let’s say you have two networks that share no connections. They are like two islands. The person who steps in to bridge that gap between the two is closing that gap (and putting him or herself in a position of power. They can control the content, flow and direction of information.

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