Organizational Structure Creates Valuable Social Connections, Penn Research Shows

The way organizations choose to structure internal relationships among participants can create valuable social connections, if done properly, according to Amanda Barrett Cox, a fourth-year doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, who published her findings in the journal Sociology of Education.

“Organizations can do this in more advantageous ways or less advantageous ways, or not do this at all,” said Cox, who is earning a Ph.D. in both sociology from the School of Arts & Sciences and education from the Graduate School of Education.

Before pursuing a graduate degree, Cox had taught in a boarding school. Some of her students had attended a program called Launch (a pseudonym to protect the confidentiality of the people involved), one of many that help prepare low-income students and minorities to attend elite boarding high schools. The idea is to improve students’ educational opportunities to ultimately diversify the pool of people in professional roles. Attendance at an elite high school begets attendance at a strong college or university, which begets a good job and leadership skills and positions.

Cox watched this process with Launch unfold in real time, with learners she knew.

“I became interested in how students from different backgrounds got to this very elite school. For some students, they were legacies; they had generations of family who had gone there,” she said. “For other students, it was as if they were walking into a completely new world, one they had not known existed.”

Seeing these different experiences spurred Cox’s interest in social mobility, a topic she had considered often having grown up in relative privilege. This experience also spurred her current line of research, which focuses on philanthropy and foundations. Once pursuing her Ph.D., she reached out to Launch about the research opportunity.

Students who pass a rigorous application process attend Launch for a summer, return to their public school for the next school year and then attend Launch the following summer. The program agreed to bring Cox on for one summer session, as long as she agreed to teach a course about ancient civilizations. She also spent time interviewing faculty, administrators and mentors and simply hanging out — at lunch, during study hall — with current students.

Her aim was to better understand the organization’s three structure levels: cohorts, older students and mentors. Cohorts are like classes, she said.

“They emphasize actually seeing each other as ‘family.’ They use this language of family throughout. ‘You guys are like brothers and sisters. You’re supposed to be close, you’re supposed to trust and help each other. Your cohort mates are the people you go to if you need academic or emotional help.’”

Cox called this a horizontal tie. The other two, she said, are vertical ties.

“With the outgoing kids who have already done a little more than a year in the program, they try to create a ‘big-brother/big-sister’ relationship … which gives current students information from those one step ahead in the process,” Cox said. “The mentors, these are kids from similar racial, ethnic and class backgrounds. They’ve gone through the program and they’ve gone to elite colleges and universities.”

Launch’s three-pronged approach provides participants with resources they wouldn’t otherwise have, she concluded. Though this deduction specifically addressed a single program, Cox said she feels that the broader idea behind it applies to any organization. Such places have a choice about whether to use structure intentionally and beneficially for those involved.

“The resources people get from social connections, what researchers call social capital, vary a lot,” she explained. “People who are already relatively privileged, who are white, more educated, higher income, tend to have larger and more useful social networks than people who don’t have those characteristics. Understanding how that inequality gets produced is really important.”

She also thinks it’s crucial to understand the role of programs like Launch, which are popping up more and more as public schools continue to struggle, because, as her work to date has shown, it’s ultimately about the real-life social networks students build that provide more or less advantage.

“We should think about how we’re not only giving students tools like learning algebra and learning to think critically but connections to other people,” she said. “It’s really important. This kind of work is one way to understand some of the ways we can create organizations that are more beneficial for participants.”