Friday, June 23, 2006

Social isolation in America increasing dramatically

The front page of today's Boston Globe announces "It's lonely out there." For substantially more detail on this sobering topic, see "Social Isolation in America," published today by Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew Brashears in the American Sociological Review. The paper states:
The number of people who have someone to talk to about matters that are important to them has declined dramatically. [Between 1985 and 2004]... we have gone from a quarter of the American population being isolated ... to almost half of the population falling into that category.
The paper later suggests, "Shifts in work, geographic, and recreational patterns may have combined to create a larger demarcation between a smaller core of very close confidant ties and a much larger array of less interconnected, more geographically dispersed, more unidimensional relationships." It then concludes:
Whatever the reason, it appears that Americans are connected far less tightly now than they were 19 years ago.
See also today's Washington Post for similar news coverage.

While many sociologists are shocked that American's social connectedness may be even worse off than Robert Putnam suggested in the landmark Bowling Alone, others argue that the data are not at all clear and that dramatic increase of Internet socialization casts doubt on the dire conclusions of "Social Isolation in America." See "The Strength of Internet Ties" by Jeffrey Boase, John Horrigan, Barry Wellman, and Lee Rainie (on behalf of the Pew Internet & American Life Project), which specifically challenges McPherson et al for being too narrow in their definition of "close ties":
There is more to being “very close” to a person than being a confidant discussing important matters. Having frequent intimate contact — whether in person or online — and providing help to each other clearly play roles.
Long ago I put my own two cents into this debate: I share Putnam's concern and furthermore find it striking that amidst so much decline in community, two venues where American socializing is actually increasing are self-help groups and the Internet. I call this the "Cross Talk Crisis"; Barry Wellman more optimistically calls it "Networked Individualism."

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License and is copyrighted (c) 2006 by Connective Associates except where otherwise noted.


Dixie Girl said...

Could it be that the dramatic use of internet sites such as Yahoo 360, My Space, Blogger, and others is an unconscious reaction to this increase in isolation?

Will human beings, who are extremely social individuals, create ways to socialize when the structure of society has changed in such a way as to practically eliminate socialization through face to face contact.

Families have to separate for job opportunities, the front porch is gone, so is the hardware and corner diner. We live in apartments 10 floors or more above the street and buy at discount houses. Church attendance is in decline. (My theory is that this is connected to the first statement in some way.) And lets not forget the outsourcing and telecommuter aspects of employment.

For example, here I am trying to connect to a total stranger because I was intrigued by his website. By posting, you invite comment, presto socialization.

You know, this poses some additional intriging questions....

James Kelso said...

Dear Bruce and readers

I too share your concern with the decline of social connectedness and the increase in social isolation and loneliness.

I come from Melbourne, Australia and sadly have to report that things are much the same here. The only thing that people seem to find enjoyment in doing these days is shopping (particularly in big capital cities), and there is plenty of availablity for that.

However, this does not in itself lead to increased social integration, as usually it is done by ourselves or with people we already know. It also leads to problems with status seeking and tends to exclude those that cannot afford to do so to any great extent.

I work is mental health services in Melbourne and I see some truly desperate situations out there.

I agree with Dixie Girl that humans are inherently social beings and I think that we should celebrate and make the most of this important fact. However many people are not able to exercise their social natures to the extent that they would wish to, due to, as mentioned, social, economic and cultural changes in postmodern societies.

Although I recognise that there may be a role for communication by the internet, telephone etc., I think it should be mostly as an adjunct to face to face communication rather than a replacement for it. There are many reasons for this.

This comment board is not the place to go into a full-scale analysis of the problem. However we do in Australia (as much as I have heard reports of in America) have well-developed and incredibly harsh mechanisms for sorting ourselves out into 'successful' and 'unsuccessful' types (usually an economic measure) which has regrettable consequences for social contacts if one is 'unsuccessful'.

I personally take great pleasure from social contact and interaction although it must be admitted that the number of new people that I meet each week or month that leads to lasting friendships through natural networks is not as great as I would like.

I encourage more people to read books like Putnam's 'Bowling Alone' and other titles concerning the decline of 'community' so that we can start a social dialogue as to what to do about the problem.


James Kelso
Melbourne, Australia