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«Eduardo Marques Center for Metropolitan Studies University of São Paulo The literature on poverty has increasingly highlighted the importance of ...»

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Searching for the relational mechanisms behind poverty and inequality

Eduardo Marques

Center for Metropolitan Studies

University of São Paulo

The literature on poverty has increasingly highlighted the importance of

sociability patterns and social networks for the understanding of life conditions. The

different patterns of social connections were already central in Wilson’s classical

formulations (1987) about the relational effects of the concentration of poverty and in

Bourdieu’ s (1986) version of social capital to allow the understanding of both the “large” and the “small miseries” (Bourdieu, 2007 [1993]). More recently, these elements have been considered central in more formal analysis departing from intentional understandings of social capital (Lin, 1999a and b; Burt, 2004), but also in studies that consider non-intentionality in tie formation and social interaction (Briggs, 2001 and 2003; Small, 2009).

The research in which this article is embedded focuses on precisely this issue, contributing to a better understanding of the role of social networks and sociability in poverty conditions, considering different housing and segregation situations (Marques, 2010a; 2010b and at press)1. Following the relational sociology perspective, the networks are considered as the relation fabric constructed continuously by the individuals in their daily practices in several simultaneous settings. Although in constant change, these networks constitute mid-size structures that mediate the access individuals have to material and immaterial goods, services, through different types of social exchanges. These networks may be mobilized differently by the individuals in different situations. Their effects over life conditions, welfare and deprivation situations are, therefore, ambivalent, suggesting that research strategies that depart from normative understandings of the networks will not be able to fully grasp their effect.

Considering this understanding of the networks, I have combined several methods including qualitative and quantitative techniques (Wilson, 2002 and Small, at The research was conducted in two phases, the first in 2007 in São Paulo and the second in 2009 in Salvador. The research team included, besides myself, Renata Bichir, Encá Moya, Miranda Zoppi and Graziela Castello. I am indebted to all of them for their engagement in the field and for their analytical insights. Regardless of their intense participation in the research, all the analyses included in this article are my own, except when otherwise stated.

press) to study the relational patterns of 362 individuals in poverty and 30 middle-class individuals in two major Brazilian metropolises – São Paulo and Salvador. These individuals (209 in São Paulo and 153 in Salvador) live in 12 neighborhoods (7 in São Paulo and 5 in Salvador), characterized by different housing and segregation situations and chosen intentionally considering their characteristics. In each of the cities, I first explored their sociability patterns using network analysis tools and later returned to 40 of them for the qualitative part of the research.

This article is devoted to a specific part of this analytical task – unpacking the relational mechanisms that help explain both network formation and network mobilization in the individuals’ daily lives. This is important because we have been learning a great deal about the importance of networks, but still know little about how their effect takes place. The focus on mechanisms aims at uncovering the social regularities that lie behind the networks and explain their different characteristics and effects among social groups.

The article is divided into four sections, not counting this introduction. In the first section, I briefly review the literature on the topic, to establish the analytical point of departure of the research. In the second section, I summarize the main results of the research concerning the networks, the sociability patterns and their association with poverty and living conditions. In the third section, I present the mechanisms, illustrating them with situations found in the field during the qualitative part of the research. At the end, the last section summarizes the main findings and discusses their importance to the explanation of the reproduction of poverty and of social inequalities in our cities.

1. Networks, sociability and social mechanisms The relationships between poverty, spatial segregation and networks are too complex to be explored in depth in this short section. At the same time, each of these elements has been studied by long and rich traditions. But it is important to outline the most pivotal connections between them, creating the conceptual bridges that organize the research. This section is devoted to this task.

The general idea is relatively simple and involves two steps, starting from the association between segregation and poverty. It is widely known that the spatial concentration of poverty undermines living conditions, hampers social mobility and reduces the sense of belonging individuals have to collectivities (Wilson, 1987;

Jargowsky, 1997; Mustered et al. 2006). This happens because of several associated reasons. Firstly, segregation reduces the access to goods and services, at least in the large cities of the Global South where services are not universalized. But segregation also (and maybe more importantly) restricts social contacts among social groups, making the sociability of the poor even more homophilic than it used to be some decades ago (Wilson, 1987). It also lowers the access of the poor to material elements associated with opportunities such as better jobs and income, and to immaterial aspects such as cultural repertoires and ways of life. In its more stable forms, the combination of poverty with segregation is associated with territorial stigmatization and the dissolution of place, in the conformation of the ‘hyper ghettos’ (Wacquant, 2008;

Ayuero, 1999; Ayuero and Swiston, 2009).

For some others (Sampson and Raudenbush, 1997), all this would lead to the formation of the so-called neighborhood effects, although these effects belong to the realm of strict empirical regularities and do not consider the social processes that might cause these regularities, leading to an environmental understanding of social contexts (Sampson and Morenoff, 1997). I believe that it is more profitable analytically to treat segregation as one of the facets of poverty, understood as multidimensional (Mingione, 1996), and search for the social processes and mechanisms associated with segregation that contribute to the reproduction of inequalities and poverty.

But a second element must be added. Since we are not speaking about ghettos in the strict sense of the term (Marcuse, 1997), social ties may (and effectively do) connect persons, families and groups differently over the boundaries of segregated territories, potentially reducing the effects of concentration and homogeneity in space.

In the most local sense, this process is associated with ties inside the neighborhood and the family and their role in the dissemination of the resources of poverty (De La Rocha, 2001), as well as with the role of informal ties in different issues such as survival strategies and housing (Mingione, 1994; Pamuk, 2000). But those tend to be marked by high degrees of homophily (McPherson et al., 2001), and consequently the relationships with non-primary contacts and people from outside of the communities tend to be more important to social mobility and the reduction of poverty (Briggs, 2003; Small, 2004), enabling, at the same time, some bridging and weaving (Briggs, 2003 and 2005; Small, 2004). In this sense, the joint study of segregation and social networks becomes imperative to the understanding of poverty.

However, this task will not be achieved if networks are considered aprioristically, simply searching for bridging ties, classifying them normatively and considering the individuals as network-seeking rational actors. This leads to instrumental and static interpretations of relational patterns, missing the fact that the same social connections may bond or bridge for different persons and social groups, and even for the same persons in different situations (Blokland and Savage, 2008).

Ambivalence is intrinsic to social relationships and studies must leave room to that in their explanations and narratives. Additionally, the ties (their presence, strength and content) are in continuous change, and a large proportion of them have been created with no purpose at all (Small, 2009). To avoid instrumental understandings of relations, we have to skip normative assumptions about networks, as well as reject environmental understandings of social contexts. To do so, the networks that bind a certain social situation must be studied as they are, associating their consequences (or correlates, considering the multiple causality chains present in each situation) without a priori considerations. Finally, after researching the networks, we must understand how they are mobilized by people in their daily lives, since our representations of social networks are static reproductions of the very dynamic relational settings that structure social contexts.

In what concerns poverty and social conditions, therefore, both social networks and spatial segregation are mid-level structures (in continuous change) that mediate the access individuals have to other relational settings and to society, more broadly speaking. These structures incorporate social mechanisms (respectively relational and environmental mechanisms) in the sense given to the term by Tilly (201 and 2005).

Mechanism in this case does not denote something concrete present ontologically in the networks or in the territory, but a place in our explanations (Mahoney, 2001).

Mechanisms are causal regularities observed in the social processes and postulated by the analyst as causes in her theories. The construction of a mechanism-based explanation intends to allow us to go beyond the simple correlation of processes or attributes (Mahoney, 2001 and Tilly, 2005).

Two last points should be stressed before presenting the research. First, I analyze personal networks, and not community networks, or individual ego-centered networks. Community or whole networks may be spatially or thematically constituted, and are the relational environments that surround social actors within a given context, occurrence or process. This study, taking a different approach, looks at the networks of individuals considering their sociability as the topic or theme upon which the interview questions are to be based. However, these personal networks are not limited to the ego-centered networks of individuals (or egonets) as in many other studies in the field. Ego-centered networks include only the individual's primary contacts and the ties some of these maintain. The decision to concentrate on whole personal networks departs from the idea that an important portion of the sociability that influences poverty and life conditions occurs at greater distances from the ego than her immediate surroundings.

Finally, it is also important to add that in terms of causality, I consider that both networks and social conditions (including poverty) are constructed (and reconstructed continuously) through the individuals’ life trajectories, leading to certain configurations.

The association between networks and social attributes, therefore, does not allow us to talk about direct causes, although their mutual influence dynamically through time might be pictured as multiple causality. The emphasis on mechanisms allows us to consider fully these multiple causalities and at the same time go beyond the description of the attributes and the trajectories of the individuals.

2. The research and previous findings The study surveyed the personal networks of 362 individuals living under conditions of poverty, as well as of thirty middle-class individuals, in the interests of establishing some standard of comparison. In order to explore the effects of spatial segregation on these personal networks, 30 networks were mapped at each of the 12 study sites (seven in São Paulo and five in Salvador). According to previous studies on poverty in the two cities, these locations varied greatly in terms of distance from the center, degree of consolidation, patterns of construction and level of state intervention (CEM/SAS, 2003 and Carvalho & Pereira, 2006 and Carvalho et al., 2004). São Paulo and Salvador were chosen because they present very different characteristics in terms of job market, social structure, poverty profile and patterns of segregation (Gonçalves & Saraiva, 2007), despite both being large metropolises of nationwide – and, in the case of São Paulo, international – importance.

The interviews used a semi-open questionnaire and a name generator and interviewees were selected at random during visits to the study locations, made both on weekdays and at weekends. The middle-class participants were selected from a wide spectrum, with the sole aim of serving as a standard of comparison in the analysis of the other networks. This data was handled using social network analysis tools and statistical analyses. The next step was to choose forty individuals (twenty per city) as subjects for the qualitative part of the study, combining types of network, locale and interviewee characteristics. The present article will explore, above all, this qualitative information.

In what follows I will summarize the main quantitative results in order to better situate the reader in relation to the discussion of the mechanisms.

First of all, when compared with the middle-class networks, the personal networks of the poor individuals tended to be smaller, more local and less varied in terms of sociability. Inter-relations between different social and income groups practically do not exist. This is one of the core characteristics of the reproduction of poverty and social inequality, but does not derive from the networks themselves, but rather represents a relational facet of Brazilian social structure, marked by strong hierarquical features.

By way of illustration, the following sociograms present the networks of two women, one poor and the other middle-class, that serve as representative examples of each group. As we can see, the first network is smaller, simpler, less clustered and more ego-centered than the second.

FIGURE 1 – Average Sociogram of a Poor Individual (woman in São Paulo) Source: Developed by the author from material collated in the field.

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