Fast-Paced Networks: How Varieties of Social Capital Impact Fashion Modeling Careers

Friday, 3 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
CLM.3.05 (Clement House)
Frederic Godart, INSEAD, Paris, France
Ashley Mears, Boston University, Boston, MA
Social capital plays a crucial role in enabling the creativity and careers of individuals in the "speeded up" global culture industries.  Work in the creative economy, called entrepreneurial laobr, is typically freelance, precarious and on a per-project basis.  To alleviate uncertainty, cultural producers likely draw upon their social capital—sets of relations with various stakeholders that embed them in social structures—which both enables and constrains their actions. But how does social capital impact the chances of workers to find and retain their professional footing in these volatile worlds?  What types of social ties yield the most benefit?

Research on social capital has generated a wealth of studies exploring the advantages and drawbacks of certain social structures such as brokerage or closure (Burt 2005).  Research on careers and success in art worlds and cultural industries suggests that workers’ positioning within social networks has significant impacts on performance, in everything from the awards received by Hollywood movies to the critical acclaim of Broadway shows and art photographers.  Most of these studies, however, consider only one type of social network as the main driver of performance, either collaborative team networks or affiliation networks such as the sharing of art galleries (Giuffre 1999). The origin and meanings of ties are bracketed in this research, and, as in much of network analysis, the content of social ties is left unexamined.

However, research indicates that different ties yield different outcomes.  For example, relations and interactions that are essential to career success happen both in formal organizational and informal contexts, via semiformal ties and dormant ties.  What kind of networks—formal, informal, or other forms—are best-suited for success in fast-paced precarious careers?

Using fashion models as a case of precarious workers in the creative economy, we examine the networks that sustain fashion models’ careers.  We integrate ethnographic data from the fashion modeling industry with panel data analysis of Fashion Week catwalk records, building a unique dataset of fashion models’ career profiles between 2000 and 2010.  We distinguish between networks that can be formal (being affiliated to agencies) or informal (belonging to national groups). We then consider a new type of network we call “transitory," i.e., made of disposable ties that, while involving intense interactions, are quickly discarded to make room for new, more profitable ties (Desmond 2012).  In transitory networks, actors come together and dissolve their ties quickly.  Each of these three types of networks has an important, yet distinct, impact on the ability of fashion models to reach the top of the fashion industry—curvilinear (inverted U) for formal relations, positive linear for informal, and sigmoid for transitory networks made of disposable ties.  We propose a typology of social capital to explain the role of social ties in career success and beyond.

Burt, R. S. 2005. Brokerage and Closure. Oxford.

Desmond, M. 2012. "Disposable Ties and the Urban Poor." Americal Journal of Sociology117:1295-335.

Giuffre, K. 1999. "Sandpiles of Opportunity: Success in the Art World." Social Forces 77:815-32.