How to Find Help When You Don’t Know Who Can Provide It

Note: the original title to this blog post was “Building and Maintaining Social Capital Through Multiple Channels” but i ditched it in favor of this more human one instead.

Two Saturdays ago, i was driving my wife to the Indianapolis airport for an urgent flight home to Boston, when our transmission quit, leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere. We needed help quickly to get her to the airport as quickly as possible.  Immediately, we began considering the various communication channels we could use to reach out for help, considering the pluses and minuses of each. In addition to a phone call to AAA and to some of our friends, we decided to send out this message, from my phone, to any of my 400-or-so Twitter followers who happened to be online:

Since it was the beginning of Christmas break, i had a suspicion that other people were headed to the airport from Bloomington. I wasn’t sure who those people were, so neither a phone call nor an email would have reached them.

In this case, we were fortunate. A few of my followers re-tweeted the message immediately to their list of followers, quickly reaching a network of several hundred more people:

..and there were two people from my network on route 37 who were willing to pick us up, who posted messages. The first was Ben, who had contacted a family member who was in our general vicinity, and the second was one of my students, who posted this message:

In the end, one of our neighbors (with who my wife had left a phone message) graciously picked us up and drove us to the airport, and all was well, except for the very expensive car repair that awaited us when we returned.

In his chapter “The Forms of Capital,” Pierre Bourdieu wrote that

“The volume of the social capital possessed by a given agent thus depends on the size of the network of connections he can effectively mobilize and on the volume of the capital (economic, cultural or symbolic) possessed in his own right by each of those to whom he is connected.” (Bourdieu, 1986)

Our experience is a great example of how social capital can be maintained and then mobilized. In this case it happened around an automobile breakdown, but the same dynamics hold true in family, organizational, or any other sort of situation. Here are a few thoughts about those dynamics:

  1. The maintenance of a network of social connections and therefore “social capital” can be accomplished through multiple channels, including face-to-face, email, Twitter, etc.
  2. Different channels and different networks afford us different opportunities to maintain and to mobilize that social capital when necessary.
  3. In this instance, the benefit that my wife and i received from our interactions via phone, and especially through Twitter was more than just a ride, but it was also the feeling that tens or perhaps even hundreds of people were trying to help us out in a time of need.

Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York, Greenwood), 241-258.

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