Research: How Socioeconomic Status Impacts the Way We Network


It’s been said that Covid-19 places us in the same storm, but in different boats. That is, the pandemic is deadlier to some more than others physically, economically, and psychologically. Some of us may live in poorer or minority communities which have endured a disproportionate share of deaths and devastation. Some of us may be essential workers, who are physically at risk and emotionally depleted. Others may be furloughed service workers fighting for economic survival. Still more may be senior managers who are unexpectedly experiencing job insecurity. For others, the pandemic has changed life only a little.

Whether we find ourselves on a raft or a yacht, people are united by a need to connect with others, especially in crisis. The government, our work organizations, and communities can offer us some support, but the holes in those institutional and corporate safety nets are often many — and in turbulent times we might find ourselves fully unmoored from them, like after a job loss. It is our personal networks — our friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances — who ultimately fill those gaps in crisis, protecting us from financial and emotional freefall.

Our research, conducted prior to this pandemic, examined how high and low socioeconomic status people vary in activating their networks when they faced job threats (versus situations of greater job stability). Specifically, by analyzing large-scale national survey data and conducting an experiment, we studied how threatening situations caused economically diverse people to call to mind a distinctive structure of friends, family members, and acquaintances. Drawing from these findings, we consider the unique challenge that this particular crisis presents: How do we draw support from and strengthen social connections, particularly given the obstacles physical distancing presents?

Consider two responses to job losses during the Covid-19 pandemic. Brianna Davis, a recent Arizona State graduate and content creator at a marketing technology company, Student Beans, was laid off abruptly. She immediately informed her LinkedIn network — leading to both emotional support and a few industry connections. We refer to this response as “widening,” or expanding networks beyond one’s inner circle.

By contrast, Tara Burns was a cook in a Cleveland restaurant that shutdown due to the pandemic. She responded to job loss by turning to her inner circle: managers who she described as her “second family” who allowed her to stock up on perishable food from the restaurant and helped her file for unemployment, friends who offered her financial support, and an understanding landlord. We refer to this as “winnowing,” or drawing inwards to smaller, tighter networks.

Through our research, we wanted to examine why people might winnow or widen in crises, and whether socioeconomic status might matter. We first analyzed data in the General Social Survey (a large, representative sample of Americans). We discovered that when high and low socioeconomic status people experienced job threats, lower socioeconomic status people tended to winnow (reporting smaller, more constrained networks), whereas high status people tended to widen (reporting larger, less constrained networks). We confirmed these patterns in an experiment. Both groups reported that losing a job felt equally threatening, but turned to different subsections of their networks in response.

Why do these distinct responses matter? In crises, we all need comfort from our inner circles. But when higher socioeconomic status individuals like Brianna widen to contacts with more novel information and opportunity, Mark Granovetter’s research on the strength of weak ties suggests that they would position themselves to rebound from threats.

Why are higher socioeconomic status people more likely to widen under threat? Our follow-up research indicated that people who feel in control of their environments — such as those with status — can confidently reach outside of their social comfort zone to people who are more likely to ignore and reject them than close friends or family. The calculations of the poorest are also based on learned experience. UC Berkeley professor Sandra Susan Smith’s research reveals that poorer African-Americans struggled to leverage help from their higher status contacts, who did not want to risk their own reputation by recommending potentially unreliable candidates. This is stigma: The poor had the connections, but others did not want the association.

Although this crisis has presented distinctive challenges to all of us, we are each anchored by our relationships. No matter what our situation is at this difficult time, consider the following four ways to develop support networks.

Reinforce your strongest ties.
Today, social distancing limits our ability to give or receive support from even our closest ties. We are celebrating birthdays, weddings, childbirths, and other milestones on video chat, forcing people to improvise creative ways to bond even across distance. Despite these obstacles, the crisis offers a unique opportunity to cement your strongest ties. Adam Grant’s work on giving — and particularly his insight that givers are more likely to reap long run gains — takes on special significance at this moment. Our friend’s husband has cancer, yet she buys groceries for her 90-year-old neighbors, for example. We’ve heard countless stories of such selfless generosity. In times of need, generosity strengthens your strong ties, sowing the seeds for lifelong reciprocity.

Widen the net.
Our ability to widen has also been interrupted. Students are graduating amidst hiring freezes and they face rescinded job offers. Their impulse is to reach out broadly, but they cannot actively network for jobs when companies are fighting other fires. People can’t attend conferences and gather in public spaces so their networks are at a standstill. Likewise, the urban poor depend on “disposable ties,” weakly connected helpers who enter and exit their lives rapidly to cope with poverty’s daily challenges.

Networking in normal times already feels uncomfortable: connecting with people for instrumental purposes rather than as ends in themselves. In a worldwide crisis, asking for favors feels particularly self-promoting. But crises offer an opportunity to widen the chain of reciprocity from a stronger place: giving versus asking. One of our parents (an 80-year-old retired doctor with a heart condition) wanted to come out of retirement to assist the overburdened health care workers. Bad idea. Instead, this desire to contribute was channeled to volunteering to peer counseling depleted workers, opening up an entirely new community of people he would have otherwise never known.

Winnow then widen.
Not all of us can be like Brianna, tapping LinkedIn minutes after getting the pink slip. These are confidence-destroying moments for anyone, but the feelings of shame and vulnerability can be particularly profound for those of lower status. Our other research has indicated a strategy to attenuate this natural paralysis so that we can reach out for help under threat: winnow, then widen. Drawing from psychology professor Claude Steele’s research, we asked people to affirm themselves first. One technique is to simply think of close friends and family who build us up. After we prompted people to affirm themselves, we found that people were then more willing to approach threatening information sources and expand their networks. Rather than being depleted by the threats, they reminded themselves that they had the psychological and social resources to bounce back — so they could courageously reach out for help.

Revive old relationships.
Rather than locate entirely new network contacts through cold calling and other tactics, the crisis offers a unique opportunity to reconnect with “dormant ties.” That is, identify those in your network who have faded from memory — for instance, a former boss who you lost touch with or an old classmate you see pop onto social media occasionally. Normally, it’s awkward to email out the blue, but this crisis offers a rationale (a check-in without an ask, simply based on genuine friendship), allowing us to replenish our reservoir with strong, supportive ties from the past.

In the absence of these physical interactions with others, we’re vulnerable to mental health challenges and economic dislocation — whatever boat we’re in. The disease may not have a vaccine yet, but we inoculate ourselves from these other threats by strengthening our relationships, even from a distance.

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