Vitamin B (Germany)

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Vitamin B
Location: Germany
Germany map.png
Author: Ina Kubbe
Affiliation: Tel Aviv University

Original text: Ina Kubbe, Tel Aviv University

In Germany, the term Vitamin B is used colloquially to denote the various benefits that flow from cooperation between individuals. ‘B’ in this context stands for Beziehungen, which means relationships, contacts and connections. The term is also used to mean networking or, in its most pronounced form, favouritism. Vitamin B may for example be used to refer to an influential personal relationship that enables an individual more easily to get a desirable position in the professional sphere. Such informal relationships may be either private or professional, but they usually originate from social networks that have developed during schooling, internships or studies (student fraternities, university alumni associations and so on), shared hobbies (sports clubs, gyms), or social events (conferences, weddings and so on). These relationships often include family members such as cousins, brothers- and sisters-in-law, and so on.

Just as the vitamin B that is found in food regulates vital parts of our cell metabolism and is essential for human health, Vitamin B plays an important role in social life, especially in the work environment. It operates through various channels such as the exchange of useful information (such as learning about jobs, or about other candidates running for office). Practices similar to Vitamin B can be found almost everywhere. In Russia, for example, the practice is called blat and is defined as ‘the use of personal networks for obtaining goods and services in short supply and for circumventing formal procedures’ (Ledeneva 2009: 257)[1]. Already in 1651 Thomas Hobbes described the phenomenon in his Leviathan: ‘To have friends, is Power’ (Hobbes 1909: 66)[2] or, as the blogger Danny Ferguson put it, ‘It's not what you don't know; it's who your college roommate knows’ (Nadler and Schulman 2006)[3].

From an ethical point of view, the use of Vitamin B has a potential dark side (Bourdieu 1989; Plümper and Schimmelpfennig 2007; Gurr 2014)[4][5][6]. It is commonly seen as neither good nor ‘fair’ if someone exploits relationships or contacts to gain informational advantage (Dederichs 1999)[7]. Such behavior is viewed as unethical because one person’s benefits usually come at the expense of others who lack such networks (Lin 2000)[8]. At the same time, however, Vitamin B can have the opposite effect. When a group of relatively disadvantaged people cluster together, the result may be that all the members of the network suffer socially or economically, for example from closed recruitment opportunities or unfair pricing agreements (Flap et al. 2000; Spence et al. 2003)[9][10].

In German, it is common to say that ‘Eine Hand wäscht die andere’ (‘One hand washes the other’), the English equivalent being ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’ In everyday speech, it is also common to say ‘Ich habe den Job über Vitamin B bekommen’ (‘I got the job thanks to of Vitamin B’). Indeed, a substantial proportion of individuals, in Germany and in many other countries, use network contacts when looking for employment. A study by McDonald et al. (2012)[11] found that more than half of the Germans studied had used informal contacts in order to secure at least one job; 40 per cent of them had done so even without engaging in an active job search, compared to just 27 per cent of US workers. According to Germany’s Institute for Employment Research (2011)[12], a quarter of all vacancies that were filled in 2013 were assigned by means of personal contacts; moreover, this trend was rising. Research also shows that the benefits of personal contacts in a job search depend on the size of the institution or company, on an individual’s qualifications, and on his or her gender. The largest share of new hires via personal networks are found among German micro-entities. Furthermore, vacancies that are filled by means of Vitamin B tend to be those that require either very high or very low qualification levels. One in three unskilled or low-qualified worker in Germany owes his or her job to friends or relatives. At the same time, Vitamin B is also used to fill highly-paid and leading positions; this suggests that, if all the applicants for a particular job are equally well qualified, Vitamin B is likely to provide the leap of faith that will secure the post. Men remain more likely than women to secure an appointment by means of Vitamin B because they usually have better connections (‘old boy network’).

Vitamin B is based on trust and reciprocity (mutual exchange) and the logic of how it works is simple: If Person A and Person B get along well together, there is a high probability that Person C, who is also well connected with Person B, will also get on well with Person A; this will be the case in both private and professional relations. Accordingly, Vitamin B is shorthand for an individual’s social capital, the value of all social networks and the inclinations that arise from them to do and to get things for and from one other.

Social capital has been defined as ‘investment and use of embedded resources in social relations for expected returns’ (Lin 2000: 786; Coleman 1988)[13][14]. It is conceptualised as the quantity and/or quality of resources that an actor is able to access or use through his or her location in a social network (Lin 2000)[15]. Following Putnam (2000)[16], who distinguishes between bridging and bonding social capital, Vitamin B refers to bridging social capital and is linked to what network researchers refer to as ‘weak’ ties. These are loose connections between individuals who may provide one another with useful information or new perspectives, but who do not usually provide emotional support. (Bonding social capital, by contrast, is found between individuals in tightly knit, emotionally close relationships, such as family and close friends.) One advantage of weak over strong ties is that the information shared by close-friendship circles members may be very similar and therefore less useful, whereas networks whose members are dispersed and dissimilar are more likely to generate new information.

At times, Vitamin B is seen as a euphemism for corrupt practices, closely linked to favouritism, nepotism, cronyism and patronage, where power is abused in favour of one’s community of friends, family, associates or co-religionists (Nadler and Schulman 2006)[17]. It follows that Vitamin B can undercut the transparency, equality, fairness and accountability that should be part of the hiring and contracting practices of responsible companies and institutions. Proponents argue that it is not wrong to hire or appoint someone you already know, as long as they are well qualified. It however often difficult to define the precise point at which the border between the legitimate use of Vitamin B is crossed and favouritism or corruption take over. Universities and certain other public institutions have adopted procedures that aim to reduce the influence of informal relationships. Members of an appointments committee are, for example, required to declare a conflict of interest and to leave the room when discussion turns to a candidate who is personally known to them. Such practices are as yet rare, however.

Notes

  1. Ledeneva, A. 2009. ‘From Russia with Blat: Can Informal Networks Help Modernize Russia?’ Social Research 76(1): 257-288
  2. Hobbes, T. 1909. Hobbes’s Leviathan. Reprinted from the edition of 1651. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  3. Nadler, J. and Schulman, M. 2006. ‘Favoritism, Cronyism, and Nepotism’ http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/focusareas/government_ethics/introduction/cronyism.html
  4. Bourdieu, P. 1989. ‘Social Space and Symbolic Power,’ Sociological Theory 7(1) 14-25 Coleman, J. 1988. ‘Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,’ The American Journal of Sociology 94: 95-120
  5. Plümper, T. and Schimmelfennig, F. 2007. ‘Wer wird Prof – und wann? Berufungsdeterminanten in der deutschen Politikwissenschaft,‘ Politische Vierteljahressschrift, 48(1): 97-117
  6. Gurr, J. 2014. ‘Tony Blair and the Beautiful People: Funktionen informeller persönlciher Beziehungen innerhalb politischer Führungskreise‘, in S. Bröchler and Grunden, T. (eds), Informelle Politik, Wiesbaden: Springer VS: 305-22
  7. Dederichs, A. 1999. Das soziale Kapital in der Leistungsgesellschaft: Emotionalität und Moralität in 'Vetternwirtschaften.’ New York, Munich, Berlin: Waxman
  8. Lin, N. 2000. ‘Inequality in Social Capital’, Contemporary Sociology, 29(6): 785-795
  9. Flap, H., Kumcu, A. and Bulder, B. 2000. ‘The Social Capital of Ethnic Entrepreneurs and Their Business Success.’ Immigrant Businesses: The Economic, Political and Social Environment: 142-161
  10. Spence, L., Schmidpeter, R. and Habisch, A. 2003. ’Assessing Social Capital: Small and Medium Sized Enterprises in Germany and the U.K.,’ Journal of Business Ethics, 47(1): 17-29
  11. McDonald, S., Benton, R. and Warner, D. 2012. ‘Dual Embeddedness: Informal Job Matching and Labor Market Institutions in the United States and Germany’, Social Forces, 91(1): 75-97
  12. Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung (Institute for Employment Research). 2011. Aktuelle Analysen aus dem Institut für Arbeitsmarkt- und Berufsforschung http://doku.iab.de/kurzber/2011/kb2611.pdf
  13. Lin, N. 2000. ‘Inequality in Social Capital’, Contemporary Sociology, 29(6): 785-795
  14. Coleman, J. 1988. ‘Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,’ The American Journal of Sociology 94: 95-120
  15. Lin, N. 2000. ‘Inequality in Social Capital’, Contemporary Sociology, 29(6): 785-795
  16. Putnam, R. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster
  17. Nadler, J. and Schulman, M. 2006. ‘Favoritism, Cronyism, and Nepotism’ http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/focusareas/government_ethics/introduction/cronyism.html