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March 23, 2004

Social Networks

In my post below in response to Ikram's query about the economic state of Canadian immigrants of color, I made an assertion relating to the importance of social networks. I think this needs to be elaborated further: in the public discourse there is much talk about the general large scale manifestations of social networks, that is, religious groups, races, classes, etc., but less talk about the basic phenomenon. Many times when people see trends they look at it through the lens of these surface categories, when social networks themselves offer a more prosaic and reductionistic explanation.

Let me elaborate with two anecdotes.

Last fall I was in the sprawl to the south of San Francisco and was talking a break in a strip mall. It was mostly a white and Asian crowd frequenting the small shops. As I entered a Jamba Juice, I noticed all the employees were African American. This seemed a little strange when there were very few African Americans in the local area, either as employees or shoppers. Then I noticed a young black woman sitting down filling out a job application. A friend was sitting behind the counter "shooting the shit" and laughing and joking. It was quite obvious that the woman filling out the application was referred to the job by her friend. The manager herself was African American. I doubt there was a conscious policy of hiring co-racialists, rather, the jobs were filled through the social network, as are the majority of the openings in the United States. That social network simply happened to be African American.

Second, when I was a child, my father and his friends would always complain that they would never make it into management, that they would be stuck at the level of "worker bees," because they were non-white brown-skinned Muslims. All of the persons in question were educated professionals, chemists, engineers, statisticians, doctors, etc. They complained incessantly about these problems. At the same time, I recalled that when my father was getting his sponsorship for immigration, he consulted an immigration lawyer to smooth the process, and one thing he was always told was to reverse his basic instincts in a social situation. The lawyer told him that Asian immigrants simply had counter-intuitive responses from the vantage point of an American, while my father might avert eye-contact so as to be respectful, an official might judge that a sign of deception, similarly, while my father might not speak unless spoken to, an official might wonder if he's being quiet because he has something to hide.

The overall point is that my father, and his friends, had a suite of social skills and orientations that were not appropriate in the context of the United States. Interpersonal interactions with those outside their cultural circle were often artificial, forced and superficial. The pre-existing discomfort resulted in conscious avoidance of social relationships with natives. By retreating into their "comfort zone," my father and his friends never had to develop the interpersonal skills that might allow them to handle a management position where technical competence is superseded by "people skills."

How does this relate to Ikram's point? In the United States, there are networks of extended families, nested within ethnic enclaves, that serve as placement agencies for jobs. Perhaps the dynamics are different in Canada, and nuclear families live a more atomic existence within ethnic enclaves. If the majority of jobs are filled through referrals, a generation or two might be needed for a local social network to fill out and form. In the long run, the Canadian context might serve for better assimilation because the extended family networks do not exist in the first place to insulate people from the vicissitudes of adjustment.

The point about social networks can also be generalized in terms of inter-ethnic relations. I once had a friend who was Jewish who told me that she could always find a job in whatever city she settled in as long as there were Jews. In such a situation, living in a "Jewish bubble" is practical, in that vocational and personal interactions may be limited to one's own "community," which is large enough to serve as a subculture. Other ethnic groups simply do not have the "critical mass," and interactions with, and a social network into, the general society is crucial to success.

I recently had a conversation (via email) with a few friends of South Asian ethnicity born & raised in the United States. They noted that the emergence of a "desi" subculture allowed them to face a social situation where they were not defined by their race and were not exoticized as the "Indian guy." They could just be themselves. I was cautious of this track simply because in the vocational world, interacting with "others" is the norm, and tendencies from personal life often transfer into the work world, so if you forget how to cope with "others" because of lack of personal familiarity, that might hobble you in the work world. Similarly, a recent documentary about black Americans noted how upper middle class black suburbs in Atlanta helped to give affluent black professionals a sense of belonging where they weren't the "token" or seen as "different." This is all fine and good, and understandable, but the reality of the work world is that whites are a majority, and the lack of overlap in black-white social networks is generally seen as a source of problems in our society already.

Immersing oneself in an "alien" social and cultural world is of course uncomfortable for individuals-frought with humiliation, misunderstanding and abuse. I was recently told of an Italian man who married a Finnish woman who moved to Finland. The social variance in personal comportment is very different in the two cultures, while Italians perceive lack of emotion with suspicion, Finns view emotion with dread and discomfort. The Italian man spoke of how difficult it was to interact with Finns, and how he had to change his own behavior. An inverse situation can be imagined where a conventional Finn finds it difficult to deal with the highly emotional manners of Italians. Neither behavior is "right" or "wrong," rather, they are the dominant forms in each nation, and deviance from them can be a cause for discomfort. One coping mechanism would be retreat into a group of like minded individuals, for instance, Italian or Finnish expats with whom one can "relate," but again, the cost might be the inability to ever full integrate with the host culture.

To make an analogy with biology-if a given trait is sexually selected, if an individual exhibits a deviant expression of that trait that might be more environmentally adaptive, if the deviation diminishes ability to attract mates, that advantage will be for nought. So, even if local customs and traditions are not optimal, "rocking the boat" will cause problems on the individual scale. Of course, if the group of deviants is numerically large enough, the problems relating to sexual selection may eventually be mitigated. Analogously, large ethnic enclaves allow one to maintain folkways and manners that deviate from the host society, while the lack of such subcultures enforce conformity to local ways, or isolation from society.

There is no free ride. Large things start from small pieces. If individuals (and by this, I mean the "minority" individuals, however characterized) concede to their basic instinct for comfort, familiarity, and personal ease, the short term upside will have long term consequences. Not only will these consequences impact the individual, they will have an impact on the society. To take the extreme case-many Americans are afraid of large black males. Many black males complain of the constant attention, fear and discomfort that they can see they evoke in others, without doing anything that might be provocative themselves (let us not address the point that stereotypes often do have a basis in statistical realities, but focus on the individual cases). These black males might have to be particularly polite, courteous and well-dressed when faced with mundane situations like going to a business meeting, shopping in an upscale district, etc. Everyday is faced with these sort of personal compromises. One solution might be to move to an affluent suburb in Atlanta where such men are common-place, where personal comfort is a given, not something that one dreams of. But, for society there is a downside, many whites will no longer interact with this man, and face someone who acts an antidote to their fears and stereotypes. In the short term, the anxieties of whites are mildly mitigated (no large black males to scare them) and the discomfort of the black male is removed (no terrified white people to face everday), but the long term impact on the society is that segregation proceeds apace.

Personal addendum: I will admit that my prescription for social fluidity and broad and diverse personal networks, at the cost of personal comfort, is self-interested, insofar as I'm rather extroverted and often oblivious to other individuals (their slights, insults, abuses have minimal effect on me). Additionally, a world where my own skin color has a weak association with a particular social network is beneficial to my own interests and preferences-I don't mind being the exotic as long as I socially dominate and dictate circumstances. That being said, I can understand how more retiring individuals do not find this congenial. I prefer that the barriers betweein various ethnic & social groups are low, fluid and highly permeable, at the possible cost of "social harmony." So my cards are on the table....

Posted by razib at 01:23 PM