Published by EH.NET (July 2007)

Pamela Walker Laird, Pull: Networking and Success since Benjamin Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. xi + 439 pp. $30 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-674-01907-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Laura J. Owen, Department of Economics, DePaul University.

Pamela Walker Laird (Associate Professor of History, University of Colorado, Denver) has written an interpretation of success in American business which challenges the primary role of individual effort. While the traditional rhetoric of success in American business has individuals pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, Laird argues that the key to success is access to social capital. Her definition notes that “social capital exists and flows through personal connections and individuals’ potential for making connections” (p.2). Since social capital is unevenly distributed, those with access benefit and those without suffer, even in the face of equal individual talents and efforts. The language of social capital within business (networks, mentors, gatekeepers, role models) emerged in the last quarter of the twentieth century, but Laird uses it to retell elements of business history to reveal the social forces which were often behind the success of self-made men. Her interpretation relies on an extensive range of primary resources from numerous archives and secondary resources from a variety of literatures, all documented in seventy-nine pages of footnotes.

In retelling the success stories of numerous Americans ? from Benjamin Franklin, to Andrew Carnegie, to Bill Gates ? Laird does not discount the role of individual skills and efforts; rather she develops the richer social milieu in which these skills and efforts led to success. Franklin’s success in Philadelphia is often attributed to his hard work and ingenuity, but he also had access to networks and significant social capital. He was white, male, Protestant, well-mannered, and a skilled printer ? characteristics which made him similar to other successful people in the Philadelphia community. Andrew Carnegie was able to showcase his talents and drive when his mentor, Thomas A Scott, pulled him into the rapidly expanding railroad industry. Though schools became one of the gatekeepers that limited access, Bill Gates did not need the credentials of an Ivy League degree because he already possessed significant social capital from his well-connected family and exposure to the newly emerging technology of computers in high school.

However, this is not so much the story of how those with access to social capital were able to use it for personal gain, but of how those without access have been thwarted in their efforts to achieve success. Looking at social capital as a determinant of business success, Laird distinguishes between the impacts of push and pull discrimination. “Push” excludes people (women and minorities) but “pull” ensures their access. It is through the latter that the possession of social capital is most advantageous. “Push” discrimination kept certain groups out of the arenas in which business success was possible. Early organizing efforts to address these exclusions are interpreted as attempts to “synthesize” social capital and include labor organizations, women’s groups, ethnic banks, and W.E.B. DuBois’s call for a “group economy” within which African-Americans would patronize black-owned businesses. (Readers will recognize these as the type of activities Robert Putnam identified as the building blocks of social capital in Bowling Alone, 2000). Ultimately, the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s would become the catalyst for legislation that would outlaw “push” discrimination. With the reduction in outright exclusionary policies, the importance of “pull” (access to social capital) became more apparent; people got in the door but did not advance because they lacked “pull.” Affirmative action programs provided some help by ensuring that individuals had access to some of the same paths for advancement (education, job ladders, in-house training), however, they could not completely equalize paths because some access to social capital is social (off-the-job) and women and minorities could still be excluded. Additionally, while affirmative action might successfully be used to “synthesize” social capital, it contradicted the rhetoric of individualism and was attacked for undermining initiative without recognizing the role of “customary” social capital (possessed by those born and raised with it) in business success.

Within this interpretation of the role of social capital in business, readers will find many ties to broader themes in economic and business history. The movement from self-employment (farmer/artisan) to employee status may have exacerbated some on the effects of push/pull discrimination. Employment decisions came under the control of “gatekeepers” (personnel departments) who perpetuated the homogeneity of the work force, particularly within white collar work. Access to schooling acted as another gatekeeper and as a source of social capital through contacts made with school peers. The growth of large-scale business and customer integration invaded the territory (the African-American community) of formally black-owned small business. While “pull” existed beforehand, it was institutionalized with the development of internal labor markets. (Laird never uses the term though she describes all the features of ILMs.) The system codified prejudices of who was considered to have the “potential” to succeed and gatekeepers only allowed those with this potential onto the ladders leading to the top. The “glass ceiling” in corporate America is the classic example of “pull” discrimination in that, regardless of individual effort (from below), it can be broken only with help from above (a mentor, a sponsor, or an affirmative action policy).

Laird analyzes advancement within a firm as the measure of business success, particularly in her late nineteenth and twentieth century examples. Current career patterns are suggesting that internal labor markets (and within-firm advancement opportunities) may be less important today than 20 years ago. If these patterns continue, what will this mean for the further advancement of women and minorities in business? Will it increase or decrease the importance of “pull”?

Laird ends on a cautionary note that the current usage of the language of social capital is no longer directly associated with its anti-discrimination roots. This allows people to recognize the role of social capital in business success (importance of mentors, networks, etc.) without acknowledging its uneven distribution and the need for synthesizing it for some groups. Social capital has been integrated into individualistic notions of success with the suggestion that anyone can get ahead, if they know how to find a mentor and access to the right network.

Laura J. Owen is Associate Professor of Economics at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. She has published articles on labor turnover and employment practices in the U.S. and is currently working on a comparative project of U.S. and Canadian work hours in the post-WWII era.