A Word or Two More About ‘Asset Flows’

By | June 11, 2015

I was asked in passing the other day about my notion of ‘asset flows’ and in consequence I felt another blog coming on. The aim here is to show how and why I think it a useful as well as a credible ‘meta-sociological’ concept.

First of all, what do I mean by asset flows (with apologies to anybody who already knows)? It is a concept that had its genesis in an attempt to develop an explicitly sociological theory of health inequalities. I was looking for a way of showing that social structures or relations – my focus was on social class, although a plethora of other structures/relations have salience – are important social determinants of people’s health and longevity. I listed a series of assets that biological, behavioural and social scientific research in general, and epidemiological studies in particular, have suggested were causally implicated. The choice of the word ‘flows’ was calculated. It marked the fact that people’s possession of assets significant for their health and life expectancy is dynamic not static: assets, household income for example, can come and go. Moreover, there can be compensation between asset flows. If for example a single mum is made redundant or has her benefits cut to the bone she may, if she is fortunate, have this traumatic turn of events ameliorated somewhat by a ‘strong constitution’, close and enduring social ties, or, perhaps relatedly, high status in her local community.

In a tweaking of my initial writings on asset flows, and in deference to Michael Marmot’s Status Syndrome, I acknowledged that one’s (subjective) sense of one’s asset flows matters, as well as the (objective) strength of the flows.

So which assets flows did I incorporate into my theory of health inequalities as the prime ‘media of enactment’ of social structures and relations? They were: (a) biological assets (health-protectors written into our bodies from or even before birth and more inferred than understood); (b) psychological assets (mechanisms aiding personal coping and sometimes explicated in terms of resilience); (c) social assets (extending beyond strong to embrace weak social ties and what Aksel Tjora and I have called ‘familiarity bonds’); (d) cultural assets (pace Bourdieu, the positivity of taste, empathy and connections compatible with society’s more privileged norms); (e) spatial assets (dwelling in ‘desirable’ neighbourhoods, often gentrified and with high net in-migration); (f) symbolic assets (good standing within actual or virtual communities of moment); and – most importantly, I have always insisted – (g) material assets (possession of wealth and income sufficient for the meeting of basic needs and reaching beyond to ‘well being’).

And subjective versus objective? Well, one’s perception of one’s status in whatever community matters can trump one’s objective status. This can impact either positively or negatively. It is likely to be positive when one’s peer or ‘reference’ group has performed less well, negative when it has performed better.

Now, belatedly, to the purpose of this blog, which is to illustrate the value of the concept of asset flows in sociological explanation. Social structures or relations, few would dispute, insinuate themselves into people’s bodies. In contemporary parlance, they become ‘embodied’. If asset flows are key media of enactment of social structures on bodies, how might this work? Consider the following fictional scenarios. A brief comment will conclude the blog.

Lilian is a 24-year old Afro-Caribbean who was brought up in Salford and who left school at 16. She moved to Lewisham in south London when she married aged 20. Her marriage broke down within a year and she is now reliant on state benefits to support her sons aged four and two in her privately rented one-bedroom flat. She feels insecure and fears a rent rise. Her flow of material assets, never strong, has weakened considerably. She remains isolated in Lewisham: she has no close friends: her social, cultural, symbolic, spatial and material assets are weak and/or weakened. But Lilian’s hopes are still simmering: she is an aspiring writer who regularly turns out short stories, two of which have been published (one in the LRB). J.K.Rowling is her role model! Moreover her family is known for its longevity, and all four grandparents – one pair in Manchester, the other in Trinidad – are still going strong. Her self-esteem has not been undermined. The flows of biological and psychological assets are strong, as is her (subjective) reading of her cultural and symbolic asset flows. So what price her health status and life expectancy? Might it be that a poor social prognosis will be annulled or even overturned by the happenstance of biological inheritance, talent and a fire that will not be dowsed?

Steven’s circumstances are quite different from Lilian’s. He is a married senior lecturer in a well known redbrick university aged 56 with a mortgage nearing completion, a good income and the prospect of a decent – if no longer final salary – pension scheme. His social, cultural, spatial and symbolic, as well as his material, asset flows are strong. But he has been prescribed anti-depressants and has taken several periods of absence from work; he puts this down to stress. Seigrist would diagnose ‘effort-reward imbalance’: Steven feels his diligence and accomplishments are unrecognized by line-managers. Unlike Lilian, his self-esteem has taken a hit. His mother lived to 87 but his father’s life was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 39. The question here is whether Steven’s strong asset flows for health will be countermanded by a weak psychological and suspect biological asset flow. A keen cyclist, he might of course be run over by an HGV.

Peter is 21 and has been living rough for 15 months. A regular truant from school, he ceased studying before 16. He left the parental home aged 20. His parents are both professionals but he felt and was defined as a ‘misfit’ in his mid-teens; aged 19, a psychiatrist diagnosed borderline personality disorder. There is no history of psychiatric disorder in his family. He took soft drugs prior to experimenting with heroine and subsequently becoming a regular user at the age of 20. Peter’s flows of health-enhancing assets have weakened dramatically over a short period. They are recoverable in principle but seem reliant on contingent events. Predictions are gloomy, not least because of an intense clustering of weak asset flows.

Shirley is 31 and finds it difficult to be optimistic about her future. She lives with her parents outside Newcastle. She is a heavy smoker. She has experienced several short-term relationships but none have lasted beyond four months. She has a ‘zero-hours’ contract working in a supermarket. She has two close confidants from work. Her material asset flow derives from supportive parents and is as steady as it is challenging to her (subjective) sense of self-worth. Shirley’s melancholic disposition deepened when her older sister died from breast cancer two years ago, at the age of 33, and her mother is currently undergoing treatment for the same condition. Her father works in the office of an estate agent. Shirley’s biological, psychological, cultural and symbolic asset flows are weak, although the flows of spatial and, derivatively, material assets might offer limited compensation.

I could go on inventing equivalently ‘messy’ fictional scenarios with equally unpredictable outcomes. What I want to stress here, however, is the changeable and compensatory character of people’s health enhancing or threatening circumstances. By utilizing the idea of asset flows salient for health, a realist sociology can offer a partial explanation of the differential distributions of health status and longevity. Biology and psychology, to use a convenient shorthand, will pile in, contingency and (even) agency too. But a few suggestions for a viable research programme that is explicitly sociological – as well as being consonant with the extant evidence base – are: (1) asset flows conducive to health and longevity tend to cluster, as do flows antithetical to these ends; (2) this clustering has maximum impact at certain stages of the lifecourse, most notably early childhood; (3) the strength of and across asset flows can be explained in part by ‘the social’; (4) the social is best studied through the lenses of macro-, meso- and micro-sociology; and (5) sociology requires a notion of ‘totality’ that recognizes the need to specify the linkages between macro-, meso- and micro-investigations and binds them together.

What I hope is that readers of this short blog will detect some kind of union between the social, the nitty-gritty of people’s everyday lives and life-chances, and sociology’s potential to throw a helpful light on affairs. Maybe the notion of asset flows has a broader role to play?


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