Pulling strings

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Pulling strings
Informal practice commonly found in United Kingdom and the United States of America
Entry written by Peter B. Smith.
Peter B. Smith is affiliated to University of Sussex.

Original Text: Peter B. Smith, University of Sussex

Pulling strings is a procedure for achieving some goal through the use of a more powerful intermediary. The phrase is most frequently used in relation to obtaining employment, or access to privileged treatment in ways which circumvent official or established bureaucratic procedures. Given the prevalence of gender-based power relations, pulling strings is often referred to as using the 'old boys’ network'. The implicit assumption behind this phrase is that powerful men will have established friendly relations with one another either during their education in British public schools (that is to say, expensive private schools), or at high status universities such as Oxford or Cambridge. When they achieve positions of power in later life, they will often be able to accommodate favours requested of them by their peers on behalf of some more junior person.

A related but subtly different concept is that of ‘pulling the strings’, i.e. with the inclusion of the definite article. While ‘pulling strings’ is an informal practice in which the ‘pulling’ is initiated or requested from below, ‘pulling the strings’ is a factual statement about who de facto holds the power or is in control. To ask, ‘Who pulls the strings?’ is akin to asking, ‘Who is really in control?’ For example, in 2012 the Northern Ireland branch of the environmental group Friends of the Earth launched a campaign called Who Pulls the Strings, calling for donations to political parties in Northern Ireland to be made public[1]. The logic was that when large, private donations were made to political parties by business interests, those interests thereby gained some form of hidden political power, and were thus ‘pulling the strings’.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (1973) provides two definitions of 'pulling the strings':

  1. ‘To control the state of affairs.’
  2. ‘To be the concealed operator in what is ostensibly controlled by another.’

The OED definitions suggest that the phrase derives from marionette theatres such as Punch and Judy shows, where the puppets are controlled by strings operated by a hidden puppeteer. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms[2] cites the following examples of usage of the term ‘pulling strings’: 'By pulling strings he got us house seats to the opening', and 'His father pulled some wires and got him out of jail', sourcing both from the nineteenth century.

Pulling strings is widely disparaged in contemporary Britain, being seen as more characteristic of times gone by, and not in accordance with strongly felt norms about equality of opportunity and fairness[3]. It continues nonetheless to be a widespread phenomenon. For instance, during the economic recession after 2008, many recent graduates have found that the only way to obtain employment has been first to take a temporary unpaid internship with an organisation[4]. Achieving an internship in an attractive organisation can rest on use of opportunities for pulling strings. As one 17 year old puts it: 'If parents have a business, then they take on their child or their child's friends. It is really hard because you might have the enthusiasm and the qualifications for it, but if someone else is related to them or knows them, they will have the upper hand on you'[5].

Two recent studies of attitudes toward pulling strings and related concepts in other countries revealed interesting findings. The first study[6] sampled students from four nations – the UK, China, Brazil and Lebanon, while the second[7] sampled business managers from the UK, Singapore, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Russia. In both studies, respondents were asked to react to a series of brief imaginary scenarios that represented processes of informal influence. For instance, one of the scenarios used in the study with students was as follows:

'John is a student who has a job in a restaurant four evenings a week. His friend David is short of money and needs a job too. He has not worked in a restaurant before. Even though there are other candidates with more experience, David asks John to convince the owner of the restaurant that it would be best if he would to take on his friend as extra cover for the times when the restaurant is very busy at the weekend.'

One of the scenarios used in the business manager study was as follows:

'Dan’s father went to the same school as Ashley, who is now the chief executive of the local hospital. Dan needs to get some work experience before applying for an MBA programme. Dan’s father asked Ashley to hire him in a junior position for a year and Ashley was able to arrange this.'

The scenarios were drawn from all the nations represented in the studies, but their national origins were concealed from respondents, through translation into relevant languages and substitution of locally typical character names. In the first study, British respondents viewed twelve scenarios, of which only three were actually instances of pulling strings (the other nine scenarios were instances of similar practices in the other three countries). They were asked to rate how representative each scenario was of pulling strings, how typical it was of what happens in the UK, and how much they liked this kind of behaviour. It was found that the British scenarios that actually involved pulling strings were rated by British respondents as more representative of pulling strings than were the scenarios exemplifying guanxi, wasta and jeitinho that they also rated. In addition, British respondents did see the ‘pulling strings’ scenarios as typical of what happens in the UK, but the respondents from Lebanon, China and Brazil actually rated them as even more typical of what happens in their countries. The results of the second study were similar, with pulling strings being seen as most typical by the Russian respondents.

Thus, it appears that while pulling strings is a recognisably British phenomenon, as a broad type of informal practice it is far from unique to the UK. Respondents from all the sampled nations rated all the informal influence processes portrayed in the scenarios negatively, but the ‘pulling strings’ scenarios were rated less negatively than the scenarios exemplifying Chinese guanxi, Middle Eastern wasta, Brazilian jeitinho, and Russian svyazi. This may have been because the ‘pulling strings’ scenarios exemplified less extreme forms of influence than those drawn from the other countries.

Notes

  1. Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland. 2012. ‘Who pulls the strings in Northern Ireland?’ press release, 28 June, http://www.foe.co.uk/northern-ireland/press_releases/who_pulls_the_strings_28062012
  2. pull strings (n.d.). The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer. (2003, 1997). Retrieved March 6 2015 from http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/pull+strings
  3. Fox, K. 2004. Watching the English: The hidden rules of English behaviour. London: Hodder.
  4. Baker, L. 2003. ‘Internships: The competitive world of work experience’, BBC News, 11 June, http://bbc.co.uk/news/business-22818555.
  5. Baker, L. 2003. ‘Internships: The competitive world of work experience’, BBC News, 11 June, http://bbc.co.uk/news/business-22818555.
  6. Smith, P.B., Huang, H.J., Harb, C., and Torres, C. 2012. ‘How distinctive are indigenous ways of achieving influence? A comparative study of guanxi, wasta, jeitinho and “pulling strings”’, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 43: 136-151.
  7. Smith, P.B., Torres, C., Leong, C.H., Budhwar, P., Achoui, M., and Lebedeva, N. 2012. ‘Are indigenous approaches to achieving influence in business organizations distinctive? A comparative study of guanxi, wasta, jeitinho, svyazi, and “pulling strings”’, International Journal of Human Resource Management, 23: 333-348.