Social Capital, Power and the Dark Side

Our social relationships hold power. The more people we know, from a range of different backgrounds, the more likely we are to achieve financial, occupational and financial success. 

The outdoor industry is no exception to this, and in fact, perhaps moreso; accessing the outdoors is much more likely if we know someone who takes part in outdoor activities, and we are significantly less likely to work in the field as an instructor if we haven’t known people from that field as we have grown up and developed our plans for the future. 

Getting into the Outdoors is Easy

Many people would have us believe that accessing the outdoors is ‘easy’, ‘straightforward’ and ‘costs nothing’, but the evidence shows that this isn’t true. The outdoors has a particular set of socially constructed norms. These norms are not universally valid, but instead are ones that outdoors people, largely middle class white men, have constructed through many years of dominating the social and natural worlds. What we saw in the UK at the onset of lockdown was that these socially constructed norms are not understood by everyone. The results of this difference in socially accepted behaviours was the littering and varied treatment of outdoors spaces – very much a deviation from the generally accepted norms; from the perspective of people who venture outdoors regularly. If accessing the outdoors were so easy and straightforward, then surely ‘outsiders’ would have had little difficulty in assimilating these unwritten rules. 

It’s all about the Fit

Access to the outdoors is not equal, and one of the underlying factors in this is the wide variation in people’s social capital. Social capital refers to our networks and the social norms and sanctions within those networks. Social class and upbringing have an impact on access to useful social networks, and when combined with the effects of economic capital (having money) and cultural capital (knowing what’s socially acceptable to say and do in a given situation), things start to become complex. Think about fitting in and feeling like you belong. Humans are sentient creatures who thrive as part of a tribe. When we feel part of the tribe, things are good – we are protected, safe and secure. When this security is challenged, conflicted or difficult, things don’t always feel so great. Social capital can be a wonderful thing, providing individuals with shared goals, boosting cooperation and enabling great things to happen as a collective. However, when groups form there is a tendency to accept only people who are similar to ourselves (homologous reproduction), and when a group becomes so strong, tight and homogeneous, this can create its own unique problems. 

Complex Threat of the Stereotype

When entering a new group, individuals who are different to the other members within the group can experience stereotype threat, where they recognise (and fear) the stereotype linked to their minority status. Contrary to what might be expected, this self-awareness can lead to fulfilment of the stereotype, underperforming and ‘confirming’ the stereotype. Another dimension of tight-knit group formation is shown in numerous behavioural experiments where individuals respond more positively to requests from people who are more like themselves. The implications of this are clear – if we respond less positively to people who are different to us, then a culture of exclusion within groups and communities is a natural consequence.  

Standard Norms

In rock climbing and mountaineering, male-dominated domains with very little ethnic diversity in the UK, it’s easy to see how these phenomena can develop and create exclusive enclaves, even in situations designed for inclusion, such as women’s clubs. Standard sets of social norms and resulting behaviours can develop, producing homogeneity and preventing people from diverse backgrounds from feeling welcome. 

Exclusivities & Reflexivity

Creating strong communities based on shared values and passions is a linchpin of trust, cooperation and success; particularly relevant in climbing, where our partners hold our lives in their hands. Yet, in taking part in group activities and creating communities, as individuals we must recognise the exclusivities which those communities can bring, and actively seek to include people who are not like ourselves, through active engagement not only on social media, but in our individual social interactions. Developing understanding and compassion for the multiplicity of lived realities of others is one way to counteract these tendencies, bringing depth to our own networks and benefitting the wider community. Reflexivity and the ability to challenge our community’s beliefs, values and behaviours, which may have come to exist as ‘standard’ and ‘normal’, is crucial in our industry’s journey to equality. 

Emily Pitts

About the author

Emily is an active member of the Karabiner Mountaineering Club, having been president from 2018 – 2020. In 2013 she started Womenclimb, a women’s rock climbing website, which grew into a community of climbers with 182 official members and over 10,000 followers on social media. She served as Chair of the BMC north west area, engaging 10,000+ BMC members in the democratic process of the organisation and as Director of the International Social Capital Association.

Emily enjoys trad climbing, winter climbing and wild swimming. She works in Higher Education, supporting students in their career development, and she is currently researching social capital in freelance leadership in the outdoor sector.

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