Social Networks in a 'Discredited' Neighbourhood

Article excerpt

Stigmatized neighbourhoods are invariably home to people with the most limited socioeconomic resources and are likely to have inferior facilities and services compared to more affluent neighbourhoods (Cohen et al., 2003; Forrest and Kearns, 1999). Living in stigmatized neighbourhoods has been observed to corrode trust between neighbours, engender social isolation and limit opportunities for interaction with other communities (Cattell, 2001). It can also be difficult for people living in stigmatized neighbourhoods to mobilize positive experiences of community (Campbell and Gillies, 2001). Features of neighbourhood experience have been identified as key planks for building social capital, but the implications of social stigma for the capacity of residents in impoverished neighbourhoods to develop or access social capital is seldom explored. This article considers the ways in which circumstances and social stigma influence the social networks of people living in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The value of social capital

Social capital is generated out of the relationships between people (Aguilera, 2002). At one level, the value of being connected to others can be conceived as a psychological property that is experienced when people hold a generalized trustfulness towards neighbours, people in the wider community and social and political institutions (Johnston and Soroka, 2001). Social capital also references the positive outcomes of sociability, cohesiveness and connection to community (Putnam, 2000). Social capital is fostered through shared social norms, the qualities of social interaction between people, and the social networks that connect people to each other (Field, 2003). Bourdieu (1986) developed a more stringent definition of social capital by insisting that social capital should specifically refer to social resources that can be converted for material and economic benefit. Despite different emphases in conceptualizing social capital, the idea serves to underline the rewards of being involved in formal and informal social networks, and the more diverse the social networks in which people are involved, the better their potential for generating social capital (Erickson, 1996; Field, 2003; Granovetter, 1973; Grootaert, 2001; Onyx and Bullen, 2001).

Despite efforts to identify the universal value of social capital, it is evident that local contexts and processes figure strongly in the operations of social capital and that such contexts should become an important focus in this field of research (Edmondson, 2003; Lomas, 1998). Edwards and Foley (1997) argue that access to social capital, and the use value of social capital, is significantly determined by the social locations in which it is generated. Understanding the ways in which social environments frame the informal and formal networks in which people are involved will give better grip on the social and economic processes that sustain inequality and disadvantage. Social networks can be conceptualized as 'horizontal', where members are connected in families and even neighbourhoods, and 'vertical'. The latter provides critical forms of social capital because they act as 'bridging' networks that connect people across diverse social networks (Field, 2003; Putnam, 2000; Whitehead and Diderichsen, 2001).

'Horizontal' and 'vertical' networks offer access to qualitatively different social resources. 'Horizontal' or 'bonding' ties with family and friends are sustained over time and, ideally, they are intimate, emotionally intense, mutually supportive relationships that secure for individuals a positive sense of self-identity. Social networks that are characterized as 'vertical' or 'weak' connect people more loosely, but they have the valuable capacity to link individuals to a wide range of social contacts and opportunities (Aguilera, 2002; Erickson, 1996; Granovetter, 1973). In contrast to the intensity of bonding networks, acquaintance through bridging networks can be brief or extend over time, can be a social transaction or a social tie, and such relationships are usually enacted through superficial, and even perfunctory, sociability. …