People need better support to exploit their social networks to advance their prospects

21st Oct 2013

Are there ethnic and cultural differences in the ways that people use social networks to advance their prospects?

Social networks can protect people from the worst of poverty but can also perpetuate inequalities, warns Angus McCabe, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.

The latest JRF report Making the Links: Poverty, Ethnicity and Social Networks examines how social networks can help people to cope with, reduce and escape from poverty. Our research found that people from across ethnicities mainly tended to have networks with people similar to themselves in terms of education and types of work or unemployment. This means that those in poverty and low paid work, or who are unemployed, have far fewer opportunities to use contacts to improve their situation. However, we also found that many people could make better use of the contacts they did have, if they were given some help and support.

Networks often serve to keep people in low-paid work, especially in sectors where recruitment is by word-of-mouth and jobs are insecure. Maintaining or expanding a social network is expensive in terms of time, energy and money, and many people on low incomes are time-poor, cash-poor and tired: their social networks are close, and are there to provide support against challenges and crises. They are left with few resources for the much less certain business of developing links to people they have less in common with, but who might connect them to new opportunities.

Family and friendships can offset the more extreme effects of poverty. However, natural tendencies to support those around us and stick together in times of adversity mean that community and family ties can sometimes restrict opportunities and constrain aspirations. Thus, social networks play a double-edged role: they can protect people from the worst of poverty, whilst at the same time perpetuating inequalities.

For people in several ethnic groups there was a lack of awareness of the power of social networks and interactions, and relationships were primarily social, based on trust and mutuality, rather than something to be used strategically for self-advancement. This reflected cultural traditions, but class and gender were also powerful factors in terms of people’s opportunities (and willingness) to make use of networks to move on in life.

Social networks were used by people in or at the margins of poverty to negotiate complex systems such as health, benefits, and education. But agencies, ranging from job centres, employment and education services, through to community and faith groups, could do much more to raise awareness and confidence among people on low incomes and from different ethnic backgrounds, so that people could make better use of networks.

Without addressing wider issues of racial discrimination, as well as class and gender disadvantages, networks alone will not be sufficient to move people from many ethnic groups out of low-paid work and welfare dependency.

This research was conducted through a partnership between practitioners and academics, led by Angus McCabe. For more information visit www.tsrc.ac.uk.