Networking and Social Mobility

This post was written by Jacob on August 9, 2009
Posted Under: Capitalism,Class,Education,Employment

You know that you’re a bit behind the times when you’re blogging about an article that was published almost a month ago, but I’ve been busy recently, and was so incensed by this nasty little article I feel I should write something. On July 11 the Guardian Graduate section put out a piece about networking and finding graduate jobs. We are told by the Guardian that in times like these, when there just aren’t that many jobs around, and there are tonnes of new graduates, the best approach is to network, to get in with people you know, rather than sending off tonnes of applications. Well yes, I mean I’m not going to pretend that the world of work is not horribly nepotistic, but maybe we should be thinking about the wider social consequences messages like this have.

Of course social mobility should not be necessary, but in a highly stratified society such as our own, it is something we can fight for. It is something that may at least start to bring about some equality even if that equality is not systemic. But the problem with networking is that it does the opposite. If you happen to be the child of some posh liberal guardian readers, and spend your time hobnobbing with media types over quiche and claret, the networking agenda means that you are more likely to find your feet somewhere warm and comfortable than if you spend your evenings having a few mates round with a few cans of stella and a take-away pizza. There is nothing clean or reasonable about networking, when the reality is that it simply means opening opportunities for those with one background over another.

And isn’t this what was fought against 30 years ago? Just because your old boys network now has women, just because they didn’t go to public school, just because they have some stories about 1968, it does not mean that in networking you aren’t excluding others from jobs. We have fought the case for fair access to universities, and yet people who proclaim themselves to be liberals cut off all of the benefits that may be gained as soon as the degrees are handed out. So maybe, if you think you’re a little bit left wing, and you’re considering exploiting your contacts, or even worse if you’re setting up contacts for your kids, you should have a long hard think about those, who work bloody hard, who you’re screwing over in the process.

But the consequences of a networking society run deeper. The political abhorrence has a nasty personal obverse. Now, maybe I’m old fashioned, but I’m quite interested in people because they’re people. I quite like talking to people because they might have something interesting to say. But all of this is now undercut by the notion that people only enter into social interactions for purely self-interested reasons. Yes, I’d like to get to know you, and no, I don’t want you to try to get me a job. Is that all you consider yourself to mean? Is that all you consider my approach to you to be about? All relationships become a practical matter of self-interest, none are permitted to remain outside of the sphere of pervasive networking.

And so I appeal to you to throw out this idea of the network, to take a bottle of tippex to your address books, taking out all those repugnant souls whose numbers you wrote down because “they might be useful” leaving only those people who wouldn’t mind sitting down for a pint with. I appeal to all those who engage in networking to remember that the system you are buying into is essentially a constriction on the life possibilities of the poor, and of people who have been born into poor families. Just because everyone might be doing it, or because the Guardian tells you that it’s ok, it doesn’t mean you are innocent.

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Reader Comments


Great article. I remember, in the early 1980s, being invited to a couple of meetings of the newly founded Women in Media and felt as if I’d been parachuted into enemy territory. The women were supposed to be mutually supportive and taking on male-dominated media structures but in fact had no notion of or interest in challenging those structures. Though some of them built their careers on their feminist reputations, most were developing their skills at being as harsh, cut-throat and competitive as they needed to be to go places in an industry which generally treats individuals with contempt.

Written By julia on August 9th, 2009 @ 11:58 am

I appreciate your sentiments Jacob and it’s a valid criticism of society at large. But I think appealing on the individual level is misguided. Tippexing your address book and pledging an oath to never use the contacts you might have made in order to defeat networking society is about as sensible as never visiting a shop to take down capitalism. Of course individuals can choose to boycott contacts, just as they can choose to boycott unethical goods and services. But for the majority, doing so will only disadvantage themselves and do nothing to address the wider problem, which is most definitely systemic.

Written By Salman Shaheen on August 9th, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

Jacob completely ignores a hell of a lot sociology that demonstrates that networks are inevitable product of society and are far more ubiquitous than you suggest. For instance see Granovetter’s excellent Changing Jobs: Channels of Mobility Information in a Suburban Population. Networks are found in all sorts of industries and can actually be very positive (see Uzzi for excellent examples of how networks actually increase productivty and ethical behaviour in the garments industry.) To ask people to throw out the idea of a network is impossible as it is pretty innate and to how humans and societies manage to establish norms, communicate information etc. For instance, I became aware of this website because of Sal’s using his network of friends on facebook to advertise an article he wrote.

You also seem to assume that people only hobnob over quiche and claret if they have middle class parents which, as you know from your time at Cambridge is wrong. People form networks at Cambridge by writing for varsity, joining the Union, being active in CUSU for instance. University offers a fantastic opportunity for people to undertake voluntary work, join political parties, write newsletters that all allow them to meet potential employers or those who might help them find jobs. It is complete and utter hyperbole to suggest that all the benefits of university are wiped out by post-graduation networking.

Also if we are going to talk about opportunities for one group over another then there are other groups that are hugely discriminating against others in the job market. A sample of American companies finds that those who find themsleves as CEOs are way taller than average (about 3 inches) and tend to have a lot more hair. A short bald man is far less likely to make it to the top of the company than an equally qualified tall guy with a full head of hair. This pattern can be found throughout the workforce meaning those who are follicularly or vertically challenged are heavily discriminated against.

Finally your definition of self-interest is very narrow and pretty egocentric. Talking to someone who you enjoy talking to is self-interested behaviour. You aren’t doing it out of selflessness. I imagine this article would be highly annoying to friends of mine who are unemployed and having to network or volunteer in order to get contacts to get a good job. Should they just sit on their arses on the dole applying unsuccessfully for countless jobs that will go to someone who has done some networking or volunteering for the higher ethical principle? Do you think Sal is a twat for using his social network for reasons other than going to the pub for a pint?

Written By greg on August 10th, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

Very well put Greg. I’m sure Sal is a twat, but not for his social networking. I agree that universities encourage networking. Agents frequently came to speak at UEA. Should I really ignore the contacts I made there and never send my work to an agent I met and happened to quite like? I really don’t think this argument works on an individual level.

Written By Salman Shaheen on August 10th, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

I broadly agree with this article, especially:

“Just because your old boys network now has women, just because they didn’t go to public school, just because they have some stories about 1968, it does not mean that in networking you aren’t excluding others from jobs.”

There’s been a whole load of controversy on internships in the professions recently, some of it in The Guardian’s very own pages. It’s right to say that networks are an inevitable product of society, but the point is that for a lot of these positions there barely seems to be any real application procedure at all. So whole professions are even more skewed towards the children of the wealthy.

Networking is inevitable, but networking as a replacement for proper job application procedures shouldn’t be.

Written By Edd Mustill on August 11th, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

So this might be a bit of a cliche but haven’t you ever heard of six degrees of separation? Just because you might be the kind of person who’d rather have a pizza and a can of stella doesn’t mean you don’t have a friend of a friend (of a friend etc) who drinks claret and eats quiche with their Guardian reading parent and vise versa. The beauty of social mobility and networking (or as far as I’m concerned, having a life) is that it enables us to reach out of our small circle of friends and meet new people from different backgrounds, cultures and even other countries, and generally broaden out horizons. Whether or not this is useful in terms of career developement sure surely be secondary to our personal development?

Written By Megan on August 13th, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

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