How normal is your social circle?

A quarter of a century ago, sitting in a labour economics lecture, I had an Aha! moment. We had been given a lot of dry statistics from the Department of Employment Gazette (remember that?) to look through. Two figures jumped out at me. The number of self-employed people, as a percentage of the total workforce, was around 10 percent. The number of young people going on to degree level education was somewhere around 13 percent of the total.

Among the crowd of seven or eight lads I regarded as close friends at school, almost all had fathers who were self-employed. None of our parents had been to university but there was a general expectation that we all would. And most of us did. Bearing in mind that not all of the 10 percent self-employed would send their kids on to higher education, I realised that my social and educational background was far from typical. I was representative of, at best, somewhere between 5 and 7 percent of the population.

I can’t remember the point of the lecture. I don’t think it was about self-employment or participation in higher education but that lightbulb moment has stayed with me ever since.

In one respect, though, it seems I was typical. I mixed with people from a relatively narrow social circle. A survey by Sheffield University in 2007 concluded that class segregation was increasing in the UK. As Professor Danny Dorling remarked:

Our atlas shows that what is normal changes rapidly as you travel across the social topography of human identity in Britain.

Most people think they are average when asked. In most things most are not.

Perhaps I shouldn’t feel so bad, then, that the fact that I wasn’t average came as such as a surprise to me.

A report published earlier this week revealed that much the same is true of mixing between ethnic groups, or, rather, the lack of it. Only 36% of adults knew people from other ethnic groups well enough to invite them round or visit them at home on a regular basis.

Again, if I think back to my childhood, as far as I can remember my dad only knew one non-white person socially, a Chinese restaurant owner. That wasn’t because my dad didn’t like black or Asian people; he just rarely came across them. Most of the people my dad knew were other people who ran businesses. There were not many such people from ethnic minorities in Nottingham’s outer suburbs in the late 1970s. My dad knew the restaurateur because he was another local businessman. He just happened to be Chinese too.

Nowadays, people from my generation, especially those that live in London, know lots of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. We can sometimes get a bit smug about how cosmopolitan we are and how we can count friends from so many different nationalities.

But wait. How come I know so many more Asian people (by which I mean people of Indian and Chinese backgrounds) than my father did? Because they have worked with me, that’s why. And, when I think of their backgrounds, many had self-employed fathers who didn’t go to university but wanted their children to. Well who’d a thought it eh?

The truth is, I haven’t gone out looking for Asian friends, it’s just that, over the past couple of decades, due to the social and educational patterns among British Asians, we now find ourselves in similar organisations and occupations. Like my father did, I’m still mixing within a relatively small social class, it’s just that more of the people in that class now happen to be Asian. My circle of friends isn’t that diverse at all. Most of them are middle class professional types who are employees, or former employees, of large blue-chip organisations or public sector bodies. The only thing that differentiates my Asian and white friends is that the Asians tend to have posher accents, their regional vowels having been ruthlessly suppressed by aspirational parents.

For exactly the same reason, I don’t know very many black people (by which I mean people of African and Caribbean backgrounds). For reasons I haven’t got room to go into here, and I’m not sure I fully understand anyway, fewer black people have made it into the social milieu that I inhabit. Because, like a lot of people, I almost unconsciously draw most of my friends from work or shared-interest groups, I haven’t got to know many black people. The only place I meet black people is at church.

A few years ago, I asked one of my more right-on leftie colleagues, “Have you ever been to a black person’s house?” The question stopped her dead. The answer was no, as I guessed it would be, but it was clearly something that had never occurred to her before. She was shocked but she really shouldn’t have been.

Because we mix with a narrow range of people in terms of social class, it follows that we only mix with people from different ethnic groups if they happen to be in the same social group. Class divisions therefore reinforce the ethnic ones.

Unlike my right-on friend, I don’t lose much sleep over this. I don’t criticise the majority of people I know for having narrow groups of friends or the much smaller number who actively try to get to know people from more diverse backgrounds. I do, however, think it’s important to acknowledge the restricted nature of most of our close relationships.

That’s what annoys me so much about the politics of I Met A Man. The casual dismissal of evidence by referring to anecdotes from people you know is, as Chris Dillow says, philistinistic:

“never mind your evidence and hard work, just look at me and my chums.” This attitude  naturally retards the growth of public knowledge about social affairs.

Because, if you are anything like me, chances are, your chums, or the man you met, are drawn from a fairly narrow social circle. What they tell you may be true for people like you but that doesn’t mean it’s true for everybody.

I came across a good example on a discussion thread, in response to my post on self-employment.

I tend to disagree with those figures.The place where I grew up used to be full of entrepreneurs.  everyone had a business and people did rather well, or at least, that’s how I remember it.now, I see everyone employed by chain stores, making minimum wage, and all the little shops have closed.
perhaps people are not shopping in the mom and pop stores anymore, but when I hear the guy in the coffee shop downstairs say that he clears 6k € a month, while his employees make the SMIC, I know that these figures must be skewed.

The figures showing that the self-employed tend to have lower salaries than their employed counterparts, and that countries with larger proportions of self-employed people tend to be poorer, must be wrong because this chap knows a few people who run businesses that seem to do well and one who makes €6000 a month.

Politicians and journalists do this a lot. Especially those who claim to speak for business. But I Met A Man proves nothing. It just proves that you spoke to someone like you. As Danny Dorling said, what is normal changes as you travel around the country. What seems normal for you and your chums might not be normal at all. And if it contradicts most of the evidence, it almost certainly isn’t.

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5 Responses to How normal is your social circle?

  1. Doug Shaw says:

    I think and hope most of my friends and connnections have a large slice of the wacko about them, which reminds me we must have a beer soon ;)

    Interesting article I’m off to have a deeper think.

    Cheers – Doug

    PS – I Met a Man – great poem, great song :)

  2. Pingback: How normal is your social circle - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  3. Luis Enrique says:

    too true – we live in very small circles with very little contact with other circles.

  4. This is why politics always trumps management as the decisive factor in Getting Stuff Done, at least in the last analysis. (over politicising management decisions is a danger often warned of but, in reality, I tend to suspect it happens much less often that the polar opposite problem of surrendering inherently political decisions to management control).

    Politics is, in part, the management of the inevitable jostling between groups who don’t meet each other that often, all of whom think they’re the measure of normality and decency and thus the ones to be best rewarded or who have the greatest claim on collective resources. It’s why politicians so often sound false and untrustworthy: they’re aware of how carefully they have to phrase things in order to keep lots of different groups on board and so often end up coming across as slimy and two faced to any given ‘demographic’ (i.e. an audience whose definition of the problem is rooted in a shared but very localised experience of the problem.)

    Of course, some politicians are genuinely slimy and two faced. & perhaps others practice politics so much they get stuck in that mode more or less continuously. But I would argue even these character types can sometimes serve a useful function if they stop otherwise mutually incomprehending groups tearing seven kinds of shit out of each other.

  5. So very well said. If more of us could engage in such honest reflection we might become better connected.

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