Social capital — when your currency just isn’t strong enough to access the plum jobs

I recently turned from a visit to China.  What started off as a trip to Guangzhou to visit my daughter over the Lunar New Year, ended off with being more of a “let’s stay in and build a puzzle” occasion. You got it. The coronavirus infection that started in Wuhan, central China, had reared its head throughout the country and the world and, within a week, everything was different; all the rules changed.

When I arrived, we decided to hop through to Hong Kong for the day and, armed with alcohol wipes and masks, we set off. We decided to stay clear of groups of people, but security ushered us forward. When we arrived at passport control, officials  pointed us towards the “foreign” counter. I was surprised they knew we were foreigners without checking our passports … I forgot I have “Western” features. 

I stand out, I’m different, I am ushered and shoo’ed and told what to do. I have little agency. I need to do what I am told. I do not speak the language, I do not understand the customs, I do not know the roads, can’t read the signs, can’t ask questions, miss the nuances. I can’t access information or solve my own problems. Socially, I have little currency to negotiate my way, let alone be able to relax and enjoy myself. Uncomfortable with the density of people in the train, we turned around and went back to the safety of our apartment.

Anthropologists would refer to my experience as one in which I lacked the social capital to play my best game. Pierre Bourdieu speaks about our ability to function in our various environments through the concepts of field, habitus and capital.  “Field” is akin to the proverbial playing field (if you think of our lives as belonging to a team … our family, our job, our community); “habitus” loosely refers to the “feel for the game” (such as being street smart in a tough neighbourhood, or having intuition about when to buy or sell stocks if you come from a family of traders).

But it is the concept of “capital” that has the greatest social leverage. Whereas we are all aware of capital in a financial sense (I own a house, a factory, a car), there are other, equally powerful types of capital. Social capital refers to the embodiment of your social status — posture, habits and accent. 

The dark and potentially most dangerous form of social capital is when it is institutionalised in the form of the art on the wall, the music we listen to, the degrees we possess and the institutions which we graduate from. The effect of being on one or the other side of social capital is evident — if you are in a company where your degree and taste in music are valued, the passage will be easier. To quote Ian Russell’s The Other End of the Telescope: “People like me like people like me.” 

Conversely, if you arrive at work with earphones on listening to music alien to your line manager, eat different food (and eat it in a different way), speak with a different accent and simply don’t have a “feel for the game”, then you struggle to land the job, to thrive, to get the promotion, to be (and feel) included in problem solving, innovation and decision-making activities. 

Worst of all, as social capital is unspoken, it is extremely hard to verbalise and discuss this with your line manager, which then often results in the breakdown of relationships ,with each person retreating into their own corner.

To return to China — neither my savvy, my credit card, my clothes nor my (in)ability to negotiate my way through a bowl of food with only chopsticks had the currency value I needed to optimise my trip, to feel safe and in control of my choices with the agency I am used to “back home”.

What does this have to do with employment, our economy and the plum jobs in the market? My experience in China (like so many experiences before) is just one more metaphor that speaks to what it takes to survive in a field where you don’t have membership, are without a feel for the game, and your social capital (rich as it may be in your own environment) does not have the required currency value.  

In South Africa, our economy is still largely owned and controlled by a demographic whose members in senior and monied positions have tight reins on the “rules of the game”.  Although the workforce today is much more diverse than during apartheid — with a strong, emerging middle class — the glass ceiling is still strong and invisible. 

Our youth struggle to find employment, citing prejudice and unfairness; our captains of industry struggle to find candidates who can fit their bill, add value and thrive, leaving them to fall back on old habits of employing those with social capital mirroring their own. 

Bringing both these frustrated groups together is perhaps not as difficult as it seems, if we can understand and acknowledge the subtle, unconscious bias of one group towards the other. When we can recognise in ourselves that we tend to unconsciously value “people who work, act and think like us” over those who are not only different, but also (in Bourdieu’s “social” sense) excluded from the game, then we can open the conversation, gain access to the other’s worlds, and with that, access to jobs, promotions, markets and increased sales.

Understanding the value of networks (yours and mine); turns of phrase; value systems (for example, my concept of care dictates that I ask you how you are; your respect for my privacy dictates the opposite); interconnectedness; social cohesion; interpersonal ease; sense of identity with the community (habitus); and what it takes to nurture inclusivity and detect exclusion are crucial  aspects of opening up to each other’s worlds.

The challenge is to unlock the value of the currency of the social capital everyone brings to their schools and workplaces — our economic “field” sits on a wealth of social capital that should be recognised and celebrated. At our school, we actively look for opportunities for our donors, supporters and mentors to talk to our students, to get to know each other and, through this — almost by osmosis — to learn to notice, value and admire. These are the tools we must use to learn to value what the other person is bringing to the relationship.

In business, there are scores of employees with a “feel for the (their) game” and sales across new markets could soar if we could see beyond our own field and the social capital we (perhaps unconsciously) covet. It would be a win for all — business, our economy, job creation and the opening and deepening of new markets to stimulate economic growth.

We all want a South Africa with a strong economy in which we can all have a chance to participate with equal social capital, but we cannot just leave it to “quality education”.  The onus rests on captains of industry and business leaders to take the reins, understand differences in currency value and unlock the potential in our employees through opening the door to having conversations that build understanding. The match between different perspectives is much closer than it seems.

Adri Marais is the chief executive of Christel House South Africa

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