social poaching

Because I am not a real sociologist, I so delight in finding sociologish articles around the web and asking you all “is this for real?!”

Via Jezebel:

“Social Poaching” seems to fall under the category of “human behavior that sociologists really don’t need to waste their time on” but that said, it is a phenomenon that most of us have probably encountered in some form. The article goes on to relate numerous anecdotal accounts of social poaching and the ensuing heartbreak and fallout, of “hurt feelings and broken friendships.” I am of the school who keeps her circles separate for the most part, if only because they are so wildly disparate. But some people even go so far as to “intentionally avoid introducing their friends to each other because they like to keep their relationships separate.”‘

Okay, but what’s the difference between just meeting someone through a friend and the sinister “social poaching” phenomenon? After all, when you trace the histories of most relationships, there’s a middle man involved. Perhaps the difference comes in the sense of purpose, and the deliberate bypassing of the mutual friend. A social poacher, presumably, wants the new friend for himself, to somehow usurp the original friend’s position. There’s also the sense that such a person wants to bypass the normal process of getting to know one another and be instant friends right now. Luckily for you, Jio goes on to present the guidelines for “ethical poaching” — otherwise knows as making a friend. “Thinking about poaching?” the article asks. “Experts chart the path of crossing a friendship boundary.” The rules, by the way, include honesty, inclusion and being “prepared for hurt feelings.” In other words, not being creepy or psychotic. Like many “phenomena” this seems to fall into the trap of overthinking basic human stuff that’s always gone on. But it can’t be denied that social poaching is probably facilitated by modern life. The article mentions social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook as facilitators, and certainly these things allow people to pursue the most tangential of relationships with a new impunity. But even more than this, it seems like the fractured nature of people’s lives, especially in urban centers, leads to a natural segregation of social circles that makes this kind of crossover more dramatic and, potentially, more hurtful.

What the article doesn’t mention is that sometimes social poachers, in their naked avidity, are simply off-putting. Take Emily, the pseudonym with whom I started this. Her pursuit wasn’t flattering; it felt indiscriminate and overly intense and I really just wanted to avoid her without being rude to our mutual friend (another tricky element.) People will always be strange; sociologists will always waste time coming up with names for the things we do and articles like this will pretend that people have no common sense. But you don’t need a neologism to know when to back away, slowly, and go on with your life.

For real? One, did sociologists really come up with the term “social poaching” to describe an infringement on the natural progression of social networks, and two, is this something you should not be wasting your time on (read Jezebel and the snarky editorializing comes with the territory), and three, is this another instance of norm violation facilitated by the internet? Also, would the social poacher have come off so off-putting to the author had her behavior not been identified as such? Otherwise, it might have been someone asking another for coffee, which doesn’t sound that sociopathic to me.

I tend to make friends on an ad hoc basis–I have no crew of homies. So it seems normal to me to talk to someone in class or at a party and exchange an email and have coffee later if we really hit it off. Am I a social poacher? Am I Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female, except that you know, Asian? Not to say that sociopathic social poachers don’t exist, but I don’t think that the breaking off from a social network to form individualized relationships is all that bad. Correct me if I’m wrong?

I actually find the purposeful separation of social networks to be very weird, and the reflexive accusation of encroachment to be narcissistic. That’s the behavior of a control freak, unwilling to mix and mingle friends and colleagues for fear of losing that feeling of centrality and control and possessiveness. If the behavior of a social poacher is somewhat pathological, sure, worry. Otherwise, nothing wrong with sharing friends and expanding networks and strengthening certain ties while keeping other ties weak.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “social poaching”

  1. I don’t know how widely read Ron Burt’s Structural Holes is outside of Econ Soc, but this situation is exactly what he analyzes, in depth, for the whole book. In particular, Burt argues that being in the position of a structural hole (connected to two people who are not themselves connected) offers a wide range of information and control benefits. Thus, for example, managers with networks “rich in structural holes” get promoted faster (in general, though it breaks down for some groups who lack legitimacy). So, the whole intentionally manipulating your network to maintain those holes fits right in with the sorts of strategies Burt suggests – not making redundant contacts, always looking for connections to new groups, playing people off against each other, etc.

    Of course, Burt is smart enough to put exceptions in for friend groups, where he suggests there are benefits from dense networks (since you don’t usually have friends in order to get information or control). But I definitely think some people treat their friend networks like their work networks and like all their social relationships, that is, overtly strategically. That being said, I really don’t know what you mean by “the natural progression of social networks”. What dynamic are you referring to and in what way is it ‘natural’?


  2. Really interesting! Thanks for the tip! I recall reading some literature on structural holes for my micro orgs class, but I hadn’t read that one.

    I don’t know what I meant. I really do mean it whenever I say “IANASociologist,” so I don’t know what I’m doing blogging here. I think I meant it very prosaically, the way laypeople (me) would. I mean, it seems very natural to me that when I meet a person A, A introduces me to B, B introduces me to C, and I could be friends with all of them or only B and C. Did I use A to meet B and then C? Is this social poaching? Is it poaching only if that’s my intent and I am aware of it, or am I just meeting people in a “natural” way? I guess, by natural, I mean “not unnatural,” that is to say “forced, manipulated, etc.”

    I have no idea what I”m talking about, of course. I just thought it sounded interesting, no one was blogging b/c of ASA, and I have taken maybe one graduate level class on social network theory and it seemed vaguely appropriate.


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