Research Findings

The unequal reach of social networks at work

September 15, 2022

Social networks can be crucial for getting a job. Cue Mark Granovetter’s enduring sociological insight on the strength of weak ties, the crucial role connections beyond our close networks can play in connecting us to opportunity. Platforms and structures that facilitate professional networking—such as LinkedIn—are based on this insight that extended networks can link people to opportunities beyond their immediate circles.

Researchers have extensively conceptualized and described the ties people use to find work and move up in their field, uncovering a number of ties that transcend the strong-weak dichotomy. Other scholars have shown how those facing adversity—poverty, racism, social marginalization–often draw on strong, reciprocal ties to survive. This work, taken together, reveals how people form and draw on social ties in a range of different ways, and how the form those ties take and their capacity to help people get by—and get ahead–is deeply informed by structural constraints.

However, sociologists have paid less attention to how the spatial and temporal dynamics of work processes and industry structures affect how people form and use social networks over space and time. In a recent article, I draw on interviews with Texas-Mexico borderlands-based agricultural workers and Texas-based oil and gas field workers. Both groups describe forming strong ties with peers while working far from home and living in close quarters for weeks at a time.

However, those networks take very different forms in practice beyond the field. Oilfield workers describe leveraging strong ties formed in the field to move up and around their volatile industry across space, time and companies, forming what I call amplifying ties. In contrast, agricultural workers often renew the same strong ties for survival from season to season, maintaining cyclical ties. Why do the two groups use these ties so differently? Below, I examine how the structural contexts of each kind of work, including the temporal and spatial dimensions of the labor process, inform how workers can use their social networks in practice.

Fictive kinship in the field

Although workers in each case came from relatively different socio-economic backgrounds, both groups described forming ties in strikingly similar ways. The agricultural workers I spoke to in Brownsville, Texas draw on their close peers when working in remote locations across the country, breaking broad together, cooking and becoming, in their words, like brothers in the face of unstable work conditions. When I later conducted research with field-based oil and gas workers across the state, many described bonding in the field with their co-workers in very similar ways to the agricultural workers.

Workers’ accounts of their strong fictive kin ties sometimes subverted and other times reinforced traditional gender ideologies. For example, oilfield workers drew on a number of familial terms to describe the bonds formed across hierarchies, including ‘brother’, ‘wife’, and ‘babysitter’, playing on gendered constructions of masculinity pervading the industry.

Cyclical and Amplifying Ties

Despite bonding in the field in similar ways, the two groups describe using these ties very differently in practice down the road.

Agricultural workers draw on their fictive kinship ties to navigate the challenges of working far from home. They renew these reciprocal ties of fictive kinship seasonally, forming communities in the field to get by. As one worker, Julio, explains, “If we go together, we become a family”: strong ties cohere in their temporary homes. Yet those familial bonds recede when workers return to their families in the US-Mexico borderlands: “And when we get back, we return like family. And what happened over there in the other state, it stays over there, because here we’re already back in our home.” These workers generally were unable to draw on these networks of fictive kinship for mobility, within a persistently unstable yet seasonal labor process. I call the strong ties workers renew and draw on for many forms of support cyclical ties.

By contrast, the dense clusters of ties oilfield workers in the field could later provide a leg up to different opportunities, amplifying over space and time as workers dispersed over a landscape of extraction that shifted with industry booms and busts. In other words, this stochastic tempo and shifting geography of extraction could “rewire” the strong clusters formed in the field, amplifying opportunity—sometimes years later. One worker, Victor, noted that the more geographically dispersed his ties with former colleagues, the more potential job leads. “People see me work so you can call them up for a job, they’ll just give you a job, or they’ll refer you. They know somewhere is hiring. It’s just good to have a lot of friends in the oilfield.”

Such amplifying ties were part of the mobility stories many workers told me—as some with a high school degree or GED leveraged them to move around the industry and access high-paying work, at least during market upswings. As another worker, Sergio, reflected, “I think I’ve done all right for myself. You know I only have a GED? I didn’t graduate high school, I just got a GED. Right now I’m able to make six figures a year and it’s just from coming up from the bottom to now.”  

Unequal Contexts

Agricultural and oilfield workers in my study formed strong, family-like ties in the intense proximity of the field. Yet structural differences—with different industry structures, including tempos and geographies, crucial here–gave those networks unequal reach.

The comparison highlights the importance of industry mobility ladders and work tempos and geographies for understanding how workers form, use, and transform networks in practice. As Mario Luis Small shows, time and space are critical scope conditions for how people form and activate their ties. Our networks and the ties comprising them are dynamic, as people mobilize them differently across situations and within particular structural conditions. Thus we see how similar kinds of ties may come to matter for people in very different ways, depending on the constraints and possibilities of industry structures and other contexts.

Read more

Kathleen Griesbach. “Unequal Reach: Cyclical and Amplifying Ties Among Agricultural and Oilfield Workers in Texas” in Work and Occupations 2021.

image: Library of Congress via wikicommons

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