Power and Social Capital

This semester, I’m taking a class on social networks for which I recently read Sandra Susan Smith’s 2005 article “Don’t put my name on it”: Social Capital Activation and Job Finding Assistance among the Black Urban Poor.

I haven’t read a lot of formal Sociology papers, so I was a little taken aback by the articles lack of overt social justice norms while tackling a deep social justice issue, but the paper as a whole is a really interesting read.

Smith sets up the article by describing a common explanation of persistent joblessness among the black urban poor: social isolation, or, in network terms, ‘deficiencies in access to mainstream ties and institutions.” Her work, though, finds a different explanation: it’s not that poor urban blacks don’t have access to resources for finding jobs, it’s that there are functional deficiencies of their job referral networks.

More specifically, over 80% of the respondents in Smith’s study “expressed concern that job seekers in their networks were too unmotivated to accept assistance, required great expenditures of time and emotional energy, or acted too irresponsibly on the job, thereby jeopardizing contacts’ own reputations in the eyes of employers and negatively affecting their already-tenuous labor market prospects.”

There’s a simple way of reading this article which doesn’t delve deeply into the social justice discrepancy found by the study. Such a reading indicated that there is simply a difference between experiences, that “social capital deficiencies of the black urban poor may have less to do with deficiencies in access…[and] more to do with functional deficiencies – the disinclination of potential job contacts to assist to assist when given the opportunity to do so, not because they lack information or the ability to influence hires, but because they perceive pervasive untrustworthiness among their job-seeking ties and choose not to assist.”

But the root of these functional deficiencies are worth digging into. Why do they exist? Where do the come from? Smith doesn’t go into the detail in this paper, though she does get to an important aspect of it near the end of the paper:

Resembling the the distrusting job contacts described in this study, employers expected from black job seekers, especially males, tardiness and absenteeism, unreliability, and an unwillingness to work when on the job. Furthermore, they believed that probability of theft, cursing, fighting, and disrespecting authority were greatly enhanced with black hires relative to other racial and ethnic groups.

In other words, people declined to provide support to their job-seeking contacts not necessarily directly because they perceived those people to be lazy or too ‘ghetto’ in the words of the paper – but because they thought their employer might perceive the job-seeker as such.

Smith’s whole study is done among the black urban poor – people’s who’s job stability is tenuous and who rely heavily upon their employer’s goodwill. Recommending a bad employee presents a significant risk – a risk which is amplified by an employer’s negative stereotypes.

Smith uses the language of ‘functional deficiencies,’ but what’s missing from this discussion in an analysis of power, of employer’s ability to set the norms and threaten sanctions if those norms are violated.

John Gaventa argues that “power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining.”

It is the self-sustaining nature of those power relationships which we see in Smith’s study: if there are functional deficiencies in the social capital of poor urban blacks, it is because power made them so, and power re-enforces them


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