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Social Resources Theory

This article introduces the theory of social resources (Lin 1982, 1983). It describes the fundamental propositions of the theory and reviews empirical research programs and results pertaining to the theory. It concludes with a discussion of some issues regarding extensions and modifications of the theory.

Resources are goods, material as well as symbolic, that can be accessed and used in social actions. Of particular interest are the valued resources— resources consensually considered as important for maintaining and improving individuals’ chances of survival as they interact with the external environment. In general, valued resources are identified with indicators of class, status, and power in most societies. In the following discussion, resources refer to valued resources.

Resources can be classified in two categories: personal resources and social resources. Personal resources are resources belonging to an individual; they include such ascribed and achieved characteristics as gender, race, age, religion, education, occupation, and income as well as familial resources. These resources are in the possession of the individual and at the disposal of the individual. Social resources, on the other hand, are resources embedded in one’s social network and social ties. These are the resources in the possession of the other individuals to whom ego has either direct or indirect ties. A friend’s car, for example, may be ego’s social resources. Ego may borrow it for use and return it to the friend. Ego does not possess the car, and accesses and uses it only if the friend is willing to lend it. The friend retains the ownership. Similarly, a friend’s social, economic, or political position may be seen as ego’s social resources. Ego may seek the friend’s help in exercising that resource in order for ego to obtain or achieve a specific goal.

Much of sociological research focuses on personal resources. While social network analysis has been a long-standing research tradition in sociology and psychology, attention had been given to the structure and patterns of ties and relations. Only recently, in the past two decades, sociologists and anthropologists have explored the theoretical significance of the resources brought to bear in the context of social networks and social ties. The theory of social resources makes explicit the assumption that resources embedded in social connections play important roles in the interaction between social structure and individuals. More specifically, the theory explores how individuals access and use social resources to maintain or promote self-interests in a social structure that consists of social positions hierarchically related and organized in terms of valued resources. It has been argued that social resources are accessed and mobilized in a variety of actions by an individual to achieve instrumental and/or expressive goals.

Two terms need some clarifications here. I assume that a social structure consists of different levels, each of which can include a set of structurally equivalent positions. They are equivalent primarily on the basis of levels of similar valued resources, and secondarily, similar life-styles, attitudes, and other cultural and psychological factors. For the purposes here, the terms, ‘‘levels’’ and ‘‘positions,’’ are used interchangeably. Also, status attainment is assumed to refer to the voluntary aspect of social mobility. Involuntary social mobility, due to job dissatisfaction, lack of alternatives, or other ‘‘pushing’’ or forced factors, is excluded from consideration. As Granovetter (1986) pointed out, voluntary social mobility generally results in wage growth. Likewise, it is argued that voluntary social mobility accounts for the majority of occurrences in status attainment.

Theory of Social Resources and Social Actions

Attention in this article will be given to the theory of social resources as it is applied to the context of instrumental actions. Instrumental actions are a class of actions motivated by the intent to gain valued resources (e.g., seeking a better occupational position). In contrast, expressive actions are a class of actions motivated by the intent to maintain valued resources (e.g., seeking to maintain a marital relationship). Social resources have broad implications for both types of social actions (Lin 1986). However, for the present discussion, social resources will be considered in the perspective of instrumental actions only. To carry the discussion at a more concrete level, attention will be given to the status attainment process, which can be seen as a typical process focusing on an instrumental goal. In the following material, the propositions of the theory of social resources will be presented in the specific framework of the status attainment process, to illuminate clearly and concretely the theoretical implications in a specific research tradition.

I have specified three hypotheses (Lin 1982): the social resources hypothesis, the strength-ofposition hypothesis, and the strength-of-ties hypothesis. The social resources hypothesis, the primary proposition of the theory, states that access to and use of better social resources leads to more successful instrumental action. In the case of status attainment, it predicts that job-seekers are more likely to find a better job (in terms of prestige, power, and/or income) when they are able to contact a source with better resources (in terms of occupation, industry, income, etc.).

The other two hypotheses identify factors that determine the likelihood of access to and use of better social resources. The strength-of-position hypothesis stipulates that the level of original position is positively associated with access to and use of social resources. For the process of status attainment, it suggests that the original social position of a jobseeker is positively related to the likelihood of contacting a source of better resources. Position of origin can be represented by characteristics of ego’s parents or previous jobs.

The strength-of-ties hypothesis proposes that use of weaker ties is positively related to access to and use of social resources. For status attainment, it states that there is a positive relationship between the use of weaker ties and the likelihood of contacting a source of better resources. For the formulation of the strength of weak ties argument, see Granovetter (1973, 1974).

Thus, the theory contains one proposition postulating the effect of social resources and two propositions postulating causes of social resources. The strength-of-position hypothesis implies an inheritance effect. A given position of origin in the hierarchical structure in part decides how well one may get access to better social resources embedded in the social structure. It is a structural factor and independent of individuals in the structure, although individuals may benefit. On the other hand, the strength-of-ties hypothesis suggests the need for individual action. Normal interactions are dictated by the homophily principle, the tendency to engage in interaction with others of similar characteristics and life-styles. Going beyond the routine set of frequent interactants and seeking out weaker ties represent action choices beyond most of the normative expectations of the macrostructure (see Granovetter 1973, 1974).

It is true that the beginning of a job search often is unplanned. Many job leads become available through casual occasions (e.g., parties) and through interactions with casual acquaintances. It is not necessarily the case that a job search always begins with the individual actively seeking out contacts for this purpose. However, this does not negate the basic premise that individuals are situated at different levels of positions in the structure and have, therefore, access to ‘‘casual’’ occasions involving participants of certain types and amounts of resources, including social resources. In fact, it has been empirically demonstrated (Campbell, Marsden, and Hulbert 1986; Lin and Dumin 1986) that higher-level positions have greater access to more diverse and heterogenous levels of positions in the hierarchical structure than lower-level positions, therefore having greater command of social resources. Thus, it can be expected that ‘‘casual’’ occasions for the higher-level positions are structurally richer in job and other types of information and influence. Such structural advantage, deducible from the pyramidal assumption of the theory, has distinct effect when a job search is eventually launched by the individual. In relative terms, the strength of position should have stronger effects on social resources than the strength of ties. This statement recognizes the significance of structural constraints everywhere in the social structure. In empirical systems, both factors are expected to operate, even though their relative effects may vary.

Empirical Research and Theoretical Extensions

Research programs examining the theory of social resources in the context of socioeconomic attainment have been carried out in North America (Ensel 1979; Lin, Ensel, and Vaughn 1981; Lin, Vaughn, and Ensel 1981; Marsden and Hulbert 1988), in West Germany and the Netherlands (Flap and De Graaf 1988; De Graaf and Flap 1988; Sprengers, Tazelaar and Flap 1988; Boxman, Flap, and De Graaf 1989; Wegener 1991), in Taiwan (Sun and Hsiong 1988), and in China (Lin and Bian 1990). Thus far, evidence strongly supports two of the three hypotheses: the social-resource hypothesis and the strength-of-positions hypothesis. Those with better origins tend to find sources for better resources in job-seeking, while contacting a source of better resources increases the likelihood of finding a better job. These relations hold even after the usual status attainment variables (e.g., education and first-job status) are taken into account. These results, as Marsden and Hulbert showed, are not biased by the fact that only those contacting interpersonal sources in job-seeking are selected for study.

However, evidence is equivocal on the strengthof-(weak) ties hypothesis. For example, Lin and associates have found evidence that weaker ties linked job-seekers to contacts with better resources, whereas Marsden and Hulbert (1988) did not. The different findings may be due to the interaction between the two exogenous variables: the strength of position and the strength of ties. Lin and others have found that the advantage of using weaker ties over the use of stronger ties decreases as the position of origin approaches the top of the levels. Lin, Ensel, and Vaughn (1981) hypothesized a ceiling effect for weak ties. At the top of the hierarchical structure there is no advantage to using weak ties, since such ties are likely to lead to inferior positions and therefore inferior resources. They did not anticipate similar ineffectiveness of weaker ties toward the bottom of the structure. Marsden and Hulbert (1988), however, also found that those with the lowest origins did not benefit more from contacts with weaker ties in gaining access to better resources than from contacts with stronger ties. One speculation is that those at the lower positions have more restricted range of contacts (Campbell, Marsden and Hulbert 1986; Lin and Dumin 1986), rendering the weaker ties accessible less effective. Thus, a nonlinear relationship (interaction) between strength of ties and social resources may be involved (Wegener 1991).

Another elaboration concerns the distinction between two types of social resources: network resources and contact resources. Network resources refer to resources embedded in one’s ongoing social networks and ties. In this conceptualization, the researcher is interested in identifying the ongoing social ties, and from these identified ties, exploring resources they have. These resources are seen as social resources to ego (Campbell, Marsden, and Hulbert 1986; Lin and Dumin 1986; Boxman and Flap 1990). Contact resources, on the other hand, refer to resources associated specifically with a tie or ties accessed and mobilized in a particular action. For example, the researcher is interested in identifying the contact ego used in a particular job-seeking situation and specifying the social resources in terms of what resources the contact possessed (Lin, Ensel, and Vaughn 1981; Marsden and Hulbert 1988; Sun and Hsiong 1988; Lin and Bian 1990). Recent research (Lai, Leung, and Lin 1990) shows that network resources and contact resources are two conceptually distinctive and causally related components of social resources. Network resources, reflecting resources in ego’s social network, contribute to the access of contact resources in the context of a particular action (e.g., seeking a job). Each in turn contributes to the ultimate success of the action (e.g., getting a highstatus occupation).

Further Research Issue

Some theoretical and methodological issues remain in the extension and application of the social resources theory.

One issue concerns the cost of social resources. Unlike personal resources, which ego may use and dispose of relatively free of constraints, social resources are ‘‘borrowed’’ from one’s social ties. Thus, there should be a cost attached to such access. In most cases there is an implied obligation of reciprocity—that is, ego is committed to offer his or her resources as social resources to the alter from whom resources have been borrowed. The problem arises when ego and the alter do not occupy similar social positions, thus possessing dissimilar resources. In the case of ego seeking help from the alter, in fact, the better the social position the alter occupies, the more effective it provides social resources to ego. It is conceivable that ego possesses other resources, which may provide to be useful to the alter in the reciprocity process. For example, a banker (ego) may seek political influence from a politician (the alter), who in turn may secure financial benefit with ego’s help. Fair exchange of different valued resources occurs. There will also be situations where ego with inferior resources gains as a result of help from an alter with superior resources (e.g., a graduate student getting a desirable job with the help of a professor), the reciprocity becomes more intricate. One way of reciprocity requires quantity in compensation of quality (e.g., willingness to put more effort into a research or writing collaboration). Another form of reciprocity requires efforts to increase the value of the alter’s resources (e.g., citations to the professor’s work in one’s publications). Variations in such reciprocal uses of social resources and, therefore, in cost deserve further conceptualization and research.

Another area worthy of research attention is the use of social resources for expressive actions. It has been hypothesized that, in contrast to instrumental actions, expressive actions would be more effective if ego and the alter share similar traits and experiences. The argument is that homophily (sharing similar characteristics and life-styles) increases the likelihood of the alter understanding the emotional stress experienced by ego (Lin 1986). Thus, the expectation is that strong ties, rather than weak ties, may provide the more desirable social resources for expressive actions. However, reality is much less tidy than this conceptualization. In some expressive actions (e.g., seeking support in time of a divorce), both emotional and instrumental support are needed. Further complicating the situation is that often the strong ties (e.g., spouse) are the sources of stress, and expressive actions must by definition be provided by either weaker ties or surrogate strong ties (e.g., relatives or a friend or professional helper) (Lin and Westcott forthcoming). Much more conceptual and empirical work is needed to tease out these issues.

Finally, there is the intriguing question of whether the theory of social resources can help conceptualizing the interplays between social structure and social action. I argue that the theory of social resources makes two kinds of contributions toward an understanding of social structure and social action (Lin 1990a, 1990b). First, research on social resources has offered the plausibility that under structural constraints, individual choices (in terms of social ties and social contacts) may yield different and meaningful consequences. It has been shown that given two individuals with similar personal resources (including original social positions), they might experience different outcomes in instrumental actions, depending on social resources they access and use. To an extent such different access is dictated by structural constraints. As mentioned earlier, original position affects the range of social ties in the social hierarchy and therefore the likelihood of accessing better social resources. However, after such structural constraints have been taken into account, there is evidence that some flexibility remains in the choice of social ties and use of social resources, and such choice and use yield meaningful and different results.

Second, much of past research on social structure as well as social resources has assumed that social structure has a priori existence and imposes constraints within which individuals conduct meaningful actions. The theoretical possibility that individual actions and choices may constitute fundamental driving forces in the formation and functioning of social structures has gained currency in sociology (Coleman 1986, 1988, 1990). Social resources, it is argued, may also contribute to this theoretical formulation.

One may assume that individuals strive to gain resources for the promotion and maintenance of one’s survival and well-being. Personal resources may be preferred to social resources in this striving, since the former incur less cost and are more manipulatable. However, the speed of cumulation may differ for the two types of resources. Acquisition and cumulation of personal resources may be additive. On the other hand, acquisition and cumulation of social resources may be exponential, in that once a social tie is established, not only the tie’s personal resources become social resources to ego, but the tie’s social resources (through its ties) also become social resources. Thus, social ties, through their networking patterns and dynamics, accelerate one’s social resources. While social resources come at a cost, as discussed earlier, it is to the benefit of ego to acquire as much social resources as possible. Thus, social resources constitute the fundamental motivation to networking in the promotion and maintenance of one’s selfinterest and well-being. Such networking constitutes the elementary blocks in the emergence of social structure. Subsequently, the management and manipulation of the constructed and extended network that contains increasingly heterogeneous participants with varying demands for secondary resources (e.g., quality of life considerations) dictate the development of hierarchical positions and role expectations, which in turn reduce the range of possible individual action choices. Further theoretical work along these lines promises to contribute to the current interest and debate in the interrelationships between social actions and social structure.

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