SOCIAL MOBILITY ISSUES

 
 
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GLOSSARY

The Glossary is intended to explain key concepts in our research.  We believe that these concepts, which are commonly used in the social sciences, are vital for understanding social marginality and how to help disadvantaged young people in Hong Kong have better opportunities in life.

Forms of Capital

Having more capital means having a higher position in life and better chances for even more success.  It means having more choices, more opportunities, and more margin for error when there are setbacks like illness or job failure.  This is widely understood when we think of economic capital.  There are, however, other forms of capital which are also important for success in life.  Understanding these is the foundation for providing the resources and training people need to move themselves up in the world.

Social Capital

There are many times in life the old adage often seems to ring true –“it’s not what you know but who you know.” The people that we know and the social networks that we are a part of have a practical value that we often take for granted.  The overall benefit that we get from our social networks is what social scientists call “social capital.”

Social capital, along with other forms of capital, is important for success and for increasing one’s chances to “move up in the world” (upward mobility).  Greater social capital generally means greater and better access to opportunities. These may be more and better quality job opportunities, greater knowledge and more opportunities to understand and experience the wider world and how to overcome difficulties that prevent us from moving upward. And better knowledge and access to higher quality options for finance, education and healthcare. Without social capital, life can be much tougher because options and opportunities can be far fewer and each maybe less valuable and advantageous, worse still some forms of social capital can lead people astray into debt, illness and crime.

The social networks that we are a part of do not happen by accident.  They are formed on the basis of a number of factors, including:

  • What social class we grow up in
  • What schools we attend
  • What neighborhoods or communities we are a part of
  • What clubs or organisations our families or ourselves may belong to
  • What mentors or opportunities we encounter

In other words, our background forms the basis both for our social networks and our skill at forming useful networks with others in the future. This means that success as it is commonly understood is more difficult, and statistically less likely, for socio-economically disadvantaged people whose social networks are made up of similarly disadvantaged people.

An internship programme for a teenager may be far more beneficial if the intern is able to make deeper and longer lasting relationships in the course of the internship. A mentor can be most effective if they identify how they can add to a mentee’s social network as well as help with homework.

Having more capital means having a higher position in life and better chances for even more success.  It means having more choices, more opportunities, and more margin for error when there are setbacks like illness or job failure.  This is widely understood when we think of economic capital.  There are, however, other forms of capital which are also important for success in life.  Understanding these is the foundation for providing the resources and training people need to move themselves up in the world.

Spatial Marginalisation

In every city there are areas that are more “central” to the economic, social, and cultural life of the city and those more “marginal” – literally, figuratively, or both.  It is generally understood that urban neighbourhoods show the class, ethnic,racial, and other differences of a city.  Urban spaces do more, however, than just reflect social differences; they also help to reproduce them.

Cultural Capital

While we all have “culture,” some cultural attributes are valued more highly than others.  A sophisticated understanding of wine generally carries with it more social value than a similarly deep understanding of welding. The benefit from having cultural attributes (eg. behaviours, traditions, etiquette, fashions and vernacular) that have a high social value is called cultural capital.

Our cultural attributes are both signs that are presented to others about who we are, and the frames of reference through which we see the world and interact with others.  These include the language and manner in which we express ourselves, our level of cultural sophistication, the things we own (or aspire to own) and display, our ability to demonstrate professional competency, the prestige of the schools we attend, and our formal educational credentials.

Like with social and economic capital, having cultural capital makes success in life easier.  People with high cultural capital know how to interact with others like themselves in high-level professional and social environments.  In the process, people gain confidence and interact further – it becomes a win-win situation. Those with less cultural capital are not as adept at succeeding in those environments, less comfortable within them, and more likely to be seen as “not fitting in” to corporate cultures – their confidence can fail them and life can become what seems a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Since we learn our cultural attributes from an early age, they can seem natural and thus difficult to change.  The “codes” of cultural capital, however, can be understood and taught.  Like with social capital, a mentor that works with a mentee to develop cultural attributes that are valued in professional contexts is more fully preparing them for future success.

Our internship programme is made deliberately longer than others to allow the gentle development of cultural capital, giving the interns confidence to explore new environments further and return to take other opportunities that lead to better prospects.

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Within disadvantaged areas it is common to find lower-quality educational and medical services, financial services, cultural and media resources and employment opportunities, and, in general, built and natural environments.  Opportunities to cultivate valuable social networks and cultural capital may be limited by the concentration of poor and socially marginalised groups, whether the result of central planning or market forces,as well as by weak socio-economic links to more prosperous areas.  These factors affect the quality of life and life opportunities for those who live, work, and go to school in these areas.

These factors are intensified if the area is geographically remote.  Research from the University of Hong Kong, for example, has shown that the financial and time costs of work commuting from Tin Shui Wai to more prosperous parts of the city are prohibitive, which put practical limits on employment options. The costs of transport also put limits on access to the broader social and cultural resources of the city, further isolating communities that are already socio-economically marginal.

Even with some access to the rest of the city,people from marginal communities are often distanced from urban life in other ways.A young person from Tin Shui Wai, for example,may not have the capital (economic, social, and cultural) to “fit in”the central parts of Hong Kong – like Central.  Being “out of place” in these areas means not having the skills and confidence to navigate them successfully, or even try to navigate them, and therefore not only fail to benefit from them but worse still be discouraged from trying again. Such negative experiences may cause individuals to waste their talents. This is magnified when combined with other kinds of marginalisation, including racial, ethnic, linguistic, or immigrant status.

In sum, typically lesser resources in disadvantaged neighborhoods are exacerbated by physical distance from the full range of urban opportunities; lack of social and cultural capital resulting from growing up and living in marginal communities further isolates members of these communities from other parts of the city.  People generally locate themselves in poor communities out of necessity.  Yet living in these communities increases the chances of remaining in poverty and decreases the chances for upward mobility for young people growing up in these areas.

Programs whose mission is to help young people break out of multi-generational cycles of poverty– poverty traps -must consider the interconnected realities of spatial and social marginality.  Bringing young participants into more “central” parts of the city is not enough.  Programs must also provide young people extensive exposure to learn, experience and digest the social, cultural and human aspects of more enriched environments that will help them be more competitive in the employment market.