A group of friends and I were talking about social capital the other day. It seems like a topic that is deeply significant to our generation.
We began with light hearted shit-chat, but very quickly found ourselves discussing whether some people possessing more social capital than others is inherently problematic.
Ah yes, good ol' power dynamics...
We all seemed to agree that having high social capital is not necessarily a bad thing (when are we going to relinquish immature notions of good and bad?), but it does mean people with lots of capital have more power because they have more connections in a community than others. Their influence is greater - they are affecting more people and likely receiving more information and resources from others as well.
"…it does mean people with lots of capital have more power because they have more connections…"
One argument made was that if an individual gains high social capital then they become more aware of the community’s needs due to having more connections. This could potentially justify having more influence because that person can affect the community socially to meet the shared needs that they are observing.
This may be true, but it rests on a massive assumption that the person is hearing a representative sample of the voices present. I’m a relatively approachable person and often hear the quieter voices of communities because I support people through their mental health struggles. I do not believe vulnerable voices are always reaching people with lots of connections. This is often because their needs conflict with what others view as fun. People are afraid to directly challenge individuals leading the status quo because they could be excluded or seen as ‘the fun police’. I’ve certainly heard this sentiment when I’ve voiced the opinion of quieter voices without naming anyone.
I do not think that I’m aware of the needs of all the people; I confess to my own biases and social bubbles. I try to maintain an openness to feedback, so people feel safe to challenge me. I don’t always get this right – sometimes I feel hurt by feedback and respond defensively or even aggressively, but with reflection I can usually see this and will endeavour to apologise and demonstrate that I’ve listened through my words and behaviour.
I have also gained an awareness that people may not be speaking their mind if they perceive me as being in a position of higher social capital. Practically, this means asking questions compassionately in a one-to-one setting if I notice someone seems unhappy. I think it’s important to give weight to the voices of vulnerable people over those who simply want more pleasure and privilege.
My awareness of power dynamics seems to have grown most as a consequence of times where I have harmed others greatly through interpreting their silence as acquiescence. A person may not have been saying something because they were worried myself or friends would reject them. We seem to condemn others for times when they’ve harmed people, especially when they’re in positions of high social capital. It’s as if we feel more virtuous when popular people are under scrutiny, rather than considering our own behaviour in a mirror. Even if we have not harmed someone directly, we may have endorsed social norms that influenced other harmful situations.
I believe people aren’t trying to say having high social capital is bad, they’re trying to nurture a new generation of leaders who are aware of how their power could be affecting the behaviour of those around them. I also think it is important that leaders with high social capital disperse power as much as possible.
“I also think it is important that leaders with high social capital disperse power as much as possible.”
During the conversation, one of my friends announced that dealing with people who are consciously trading social capital makes him feel “yuck”. He elaborated that he doesn’t know where he truly stands with people who aren’t being authentic with him. His comments spurred on my own thinking - the very concept of placing our relationships into a capitalist framework is problematic because we’re placing value on the sheer number of our relationships, especially with others of high capital, rather than the deepness and warmth of unconditional love. The concept of social capital seems to be saying that our worth should be dependent on who we know, rather than being based on expressing our most authentic selves. Yuk, yuk, yuk.
Another argument made was that some people work hard to earn social capital. However, this disregards privilege, especially applied to several of us white males dominating the conversation (sigh…still working on that awareness I mentioned). The women in the group pointed out layers of privilege that many of us had not considered, such as the privilege of personality. Personally I hadn’t really thought about how some people’s energy for social connection was a privilege, but in the context of social capital and power it’s a massive advantage.
They also pointed out that the accumulation of social capital is dependant on conforming to social norms i.e., people will like us more if we behave in a popular fashion. This is potentially problematic as much of what we consider as socially normal is at the heart of societal dysfunction. Let’s consider men in NZ as this has been the focus of Tough Talk. It seems that primarily white males in power have constructed certain historical social norms to advantage themselves, such as it being normal for men to talk more than women in a group. The competitive nature of men struggling for power has been a factor in men thinking that success involves beating other men at the other’s expense, and certainly not asking for help when they’ve been beaten. This seems to have played a massive role in men taking their lives more often than women in NZ.
Historically men who were stoic gained social capital in their communities. However, the playing field is changing and it’s increasingly being seen as strong and desirable for men to share emotions. I think this is fantastic, but there can be a subtle issues in the process of conforming to new ways of being. Most of us adapt our behaviour to what people around us are doing and saying, especially those closest to us, so the sole purpose of our adaptations could be to earn social capital...yuk. I think it’s useful to look to what other people are doing for guidance, but to first stop and check in whether a new norm we’re observing conforms to our values. In the cases of sharing feelings, being authentic, and supporting others, they’re almost certainly beneficial norms for society, but sometimes the new cool norm may be destructive for all of us.
It appears that influencing people by inauthentically conforming to social norms for our own self interest can work in the short term, but as norms evolve people begin to see through inauthenticity. Being genuine no matter what is considered normal at any one time may be the best way to be viewed positively in the long run. My friends and I have come to a realisation that we would all benefit from co-creating a culture where it’s ok to challenge the social norms of our own groups, even if part of our group identity is being “weird” or abnormal.
“My friends and I have come to a realisation that we would all benefit from co-creating a culture where it’s ok to challenge the social norms of our own groups, even if part of our group identity is being “weird” or abnormal.”
I think my friends and I were all stimulated and shaken by this conversation afterwards. We casually split off into smaller groups to talk more about it. What’s sitting with me is that there are so many levels of my own privilege that I’m unconscious of and I need to work hard to maintain an awareness of just how much my words and decisions are affecting others harmfully beyond what I am hearing and seeing. I’m going to remain curious of new layers of privilege and conditioning that are yet to emerge in my consciousness and keep asking questions and listening to diverse opinions. I’m not going to be scared of speaking my truth because I trust people will call me in compassionately if I’m wrong. My identity and views are not fixed – I’m growing and learning every day and that’s ok. We have permission to get it wrong if we’re willing to do everything we can to heal the harm we cause.