Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Vexed Link between Social Capital and Social Mobility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

The Vexed Link between Social Capital and Social Mobility for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People

Article excerpt

Introduction

Indigenous-related articles have featured regularly in the Australian Journal of Social Issues (AJSI). These contributions were augmented by a special Indigenous issue, which included a review of Indigenous social issue articles in the journal to date (Jordan & Bulloch 2010). One trend, observed by the authors, is the primary focus of AJSI articles on the persistence of Aboriginal disadvantage. For example, in recent years, the journal has published a number of articles on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (1) and the criminal justice system (Cunneen, Allison & Schwartz 2014; Dennision, Stewart & Freilberg 2013; Hunter & Ayyar 2011; Weatherburn & Homes 2010), Indigenous community development (Curchin 2013; Hunt; 2010; Morphy 2008; Mowbray 2006) and gambling (Nagel, Hinton, Thompson & Spencer 2011; McMillan & Donnelly 2008). Geographically, remote areas have also had a higher focus than urban locations within the published articles.

This commentary on the topics of previous articles is not a criticism. The extreme disparity in the lived experience of Aboriginal lives with those of Euro-Australian origins are critically important to Australia, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. As we know only too well from current socio-economic statistics, they will continue be so into the foreseeable future. Rather, AJSI commentary illustrates the relative rarity of scholarship relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are not socio-economically disadvantaged and who primarily reside in urban locations. It is with this group that this article engages. In doing so the paper questions both the validity of socio-economic statistical similarity as an indicator of equality and the presumptions that underpin these policy directions. (2)

Social mobility as mediator of Indigenous disadvantage

Is upward social mobility an uncontested 'good' for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people? This question is predicated on the contemporary direction of Indigenous policy, which--regardless of the political persuasion of the government in power during a given period--stresses the criticality of the need to improve the socio-economic position of Indigenous Australians. From Practical Reconciliation to Closing the Gap, overcoming the stark disparity in socio-economic outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people has been a core objective. This objective is shared by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from around the nation. Yet, as this paper discusses, there is a small but growing body of evidence indicating that for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people social mobility processes contain hazards and costs not fully shared by socially mobile non-Indigenous households.

Social mobility is a concept with a long pedigree, but is used in this paper to describe the vertical economic mobility of individuals or households up or down the socio-economic scale. As is argued here, there is a nexus between social mobility and social capital, and for Indigenous peoples this relationship is particularly vexed. The concept of social capital has an even broader theoretical heritage than that of social mobility, but in this paper it refers to the individual and household-level networks of social relationships that provide mutual benefit in terms of reciprocity, trust, shared values and norms, information and cooperation. The two concepts are linked in that upward social mobility requires social capital transitions to complete the move between social strata. But this interaction is complicated. As argued by Portes (1998), social mobility can be both supported and constrained by social capital.

Scant literature exists on social capital and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but there is a dearth of literature on the interaction of social mobility and social capital. For Indigenous individuals and households, however, the dual and contradictory supporting and constraining roles of social capital within the process of social mobility has specific characteristics. …

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