Bonding, bridging and linking relationships are difficult to discuss in an essay

Clearly I like something about the challenges that the academic world poses, otherwise I would not be back at uni. I do know not everybody shares my interest in finding these different ways to understand things which fit the rules of academic discourse. However, I found marking a number of essays which treated relationships as divorced from people and spoke about power solely as formal system really disheartening, so disheartening that I am going to write this post of vague claims without any proper references.

Before I launch into a poorly structured Friday night rant, I will say that I enjoyed reading the essays. I really liked seeing what students had thought was worth referencing from the course readings, they provided really interesting case studies, and every now and then you get glimpses of how they see and understand the world. I even found a useful reference in one student’s essay that I do not remember coming across before. It is because their essays were so enjoyable that it was so upsetting to see that so many of them did not understand. The essay question about relationships seemed to provide the biggest hurdle.

Radcliff-Brown made a clear case that the social is different to the psychological, but a social interaction still needs to take place between people. These people do not need to be conceived of as individualistic; they are people with all the social, cultural and relational aspects of identity that come with personhood.

Discussing the significance of relationships for community capacity means that you are not just talking about what a community’s capacity is, or should be, and whatever strategies need to be used to get from one point to another. Relationships are about discussing these connections. I would argue that an argument drawing on the notion of social capital means that these relationships have to be conceived as being between people, as social capital is different to the structure and rules of organisations. Programs that seek to develop bonding, bridging and linking relationships really draw on the assumption that underpins the idea of social capital – one thing can bring about something qualitatively different.

This is a particularly difficult thing to think about when suddenly depending on a person to do the right thing is a big no-no in organisational thinking. Of course people are head hunted all the time, places write jobs around a staff member’s capacity if they want to keep them, and there is a unique void when somebody has to leave. However, at least in my experience, organisations are supposed to have enough contingency/ ‘under the bus’ planning so that individual people are expendable. Organisational diagrams generally show positions, not people.

Hiring somebody because you know their brother could be scandalous if it is a high profile appointment. When an ex-politician is appointed to a desirable overseas post what do people say? On the other hand, the job market is one of the more common examples used in explanations of social capital.

In way of an example which has nothing to do with any of the essays I read, I have seen a number of professional people doing charity work with unemployed young adults who go to great lengths to explain the ‘hidden job market’. The struggles these young people face as translated into that they do not know the right people, and often these young adults are encouraged into the work experience opportunities provided by these professional people.

This example is difficult to discuss if you are not working with a strong understanding of difference and power. The job program is not the social capital; it is the relationships that come out of it. These relationships try to mimic the resources available through bonding social capital.  You could be describe them as ‘bridging’ across a divide of difference, but I think this would also call for a discussion of how much mutual recognition is going on here. Finally, these professional people can be seen as being in a position of power so there is evidence of linking. This situation may bring an unemployed young adult in contact with a working professional, but in what way does this really give the young person access to power?

As soon as you start thinking about bonding, bridging and linking relationships, and their implications for access to resources, you realise that the situations you might find them in are messy. To use them in an essay you need to either mobilise a clear definition well or be willing to acknowledge some of the contingencies. Placing two organisations in the same sentence, with a mention of a relationship, is not going to make an argument about social capital.

I have come to the point that I trust my reading of certain literature, but maybe I am wrong. Perhaps I just need to be around a bit longer before being less judgemental? After all, there are plenty of researchers who mobilise rather flimsy accounts of social capital and I have not proven that I can do any better.

Answering essay questions is hard, but I guess responding to somebody else’s demands is a skill we need in all sorts of areas of life. Generally people are employed to fill a position description and contractors, whether they are researchers or plumbers, come in to do an assigned job. I don’t think you have to be an avid reader of Bourdieu to agree that we so often have to converse within a framework relevant to the field we find ourselves in.

I guess it’s slightly cruel that coursework students I meet have so much of their writing constrained by the questions of others, while I have never before had this level of freedom to shape the terms of my analysis.

I do not think that higher education needs to spell the content out for students. University is about moving from being taught to doing your own learning. Tutorials should help with this process of learning as those confusing bits from the reading that are hard to write and talk about can be explored, so students can become familiar with using them to make their points.

My suggestions for this subject in the future include reading more journal articles that critically evaluate case studies. I suppose it is a bit much in the middle of a busy semester to expect students to work out for themselves how to undertake a critical reading of the theory through the case studies.


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