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Reading :: Unanticipated Gains

Posted by: on Feb 9, 2011 | 4 Comments

Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life
By Mario Luis Small

Many studies that use social network analysis are a bit bloodless: They connect actors through reported relationships, they create interesting network diagrams, but they don’t delve deeply into the qualitative data that explain why people connect. Unanticipated Gains is not one of those studies. Small does a really exceptional job here of both conducting a multimodal study and leveraging the different modes to provide a nicely contextualized analysis.

Here’s what Small argues:
This book argues that people’s social capital depends fundamentally on the organizations in which they participate routinely, and that, through multiple mechanisms, organizations can create and reproduce network advantages in ways their members may not expect or even have to work for. … Understanding people’s connections – and how much connections generate social inequality – requires understanding the organizations in which those connections are embedded. It requires conceiving of people as organizationally embedded actors, as actors whose social and organizational ties – and the resources both available and mobilized through them – respond to institutional constraints, imperatives, and opportunities. (pp.5-6)

To develop this argument, Small describes a study of parents whose children are in childcare centers. In such centers, parents who may not have other ties come together, develop relationships, and are connected to various other institutions – even if they have a “hi-and-bye” relationship with other parents in which they simply drop off and pick up their kids!
Small argues that this study helps us to answer a question that social network analysis (SNA) often ignores: How do people make social ties? (p.8). After all, “How a person forms and sustains a tie can affect the social capital to which she has access” (p.10). So Small draws on qualitative and quantitative data at individual and organizational levels, including a well-being study, a survey, 67 in-depth interviews of parents (mostly mothers), and 23 center case studies (p.23).
The results are fascinating. In Ch.2, Small demonstrates that childcare centers act as effective brokers: most mothers made new friends, and these new friends led to lower mental and material hardships. That’s very good news, given the precipitous rise in clientele for daycares (p.29). Even mothers who didn’t make friends in daycares found that their hardship was eased (p.43); those who made friends reported less depression (p.46). In Ch.3, Small demonstrates that the childcare centers actually made it much easier for mothers to make friends, since these centers offer multiple opportunities and inducements for parents to interact (p.51). These opportunities and inducements take the form of activities such as holiday productions, field trips, and fundraising – activities that Small explores nicely through case studies. It’s not just motivation, it’s opportunity that causes these friendships to develop (p.62) – something that really struck me as I continue to review my own data on coworking spaces.
How strong are the ties between parents? In Ch.4, Small examines strong vs. weak ties among mothers, and finds that strong ties are associated with support, while weak ties are associated with resources (p.85). But he also found, surprisingly, that some strong ties were both intimate and domain-specific – that is, some ties were “compartmentally intimate” (p.87). (Standard SNA assumes that strong ties are intimate, but weak ties are domain-specific.) He continues this theme in Ch.5, exploring how some mothers’ support networks were larger than their friendship networks: Childcare centers both “facilitated trust among parents” and “established obligations that mothers felt compelled to follow, thereby creating a network of support” (p.108).
Childcare centers also brokered relationships with other organizations (Ch.6), allowing parents to access information, services, and material goods (p.135). Interestingly, Small says (Ch.7), this brokering meant that “childcare centers may either contribute to or buffer against the negative consequences of neighborhood poverty,” depending on their lack or possession of appropriate links to other organizations (p.158).
In a nicely supported conclusion, Small argues that “the brokerage of organizational ties arises from the highly bureaucratic nature of contemporary society, where exchanging goods and resources constitutes much of of what business, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations do” (p.185).
Overall, this was a fascinating book for me. Small does a great job of arguing for and demonstrating his multimodal methodology; his case studies are rich and illustrative; his conclusions are intriguing and well supported. And of course the whole thing is fascinating. If you’re even a little interested in SNA, social capital, or ties, take a look.

4 Comments

  1. reads
    February 17, 2011

    Wow, this is fascinating. This looks like the other side of my research into how early learning and child care system builder's use rhetoric to increase access to quality child care. The material improvements in the lives of children and families are the objective of my participants' net work.

  2. reads
    February 17, 2011

    Wow, this is fascinating. This looks like the other side of my research into how early learning and child care system builder's use rhetoric to increase access to quality child care. The material improvements in the lives of children and families are the objective of my participants' net work.

  3. Clay Spinuzzi
    February 17, 2011

    Sounds like really interesting and timely research. Send me a cite (or outline)?

  4. reads
    February 17, 2011

    I'll be talking about my work at ATTW. I've sent you my presentation proposal.

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