Americans growing more socially isolated

Put this in the column of confirmed suspicions. This study in the American Sociological Review comes via the Washington Post, via Walter Kirn’s excellent new novel “The Unbinding”. (Apologies that this is old news for some, the study came out in June, 2006.) Repeating a procedure carried out in 1985, a large-scale face-to-face survey found that people have fewer close social ties now than 20 years ago. We’re talking about friends or kin who you can confide in, share personal issues.

The mean number of close friends went down roughly from 3 to 2. And, strikingly, the percentage of respondents who reported no confidant at all went up from 10% to 24%, making it the most common response. The number of close connections with non-kin fell most strongly, while close connections with a spouse increased somewhat. With additional questions about a respondent’s close friends and the connections among them, the researchers determined that friend networks have grown more interconnected and the members more similar to eachother — similar in education level and in all the ways that make kin similar to each other. There is vastly less close friendship among neighbors, coworkers, and comembers of voluntary groups — the kind of people who may have differing viewpoints to share. To quote the authors:

The American population has lost discussion partners from both kin and outside the family. The largest losses, however, have come from the ties that bind us to community and neighborhood. The general image is one of an already densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on
the very strong bonds of the nuclear family (spouses, partners, and parents).

This seems like a dangerous direction for society to be headed in terms of civic health, as Robert Putnam argues in “Bowling Alone”. Does this have anything to do with the country being more politically polarized?

Another interesting finding is that, on average, people gain more close social ties with more years of schooling, especially more ties outside the family. There is a crossover point where people are more connected outside than within the family. In 1985, that was about 10th grade. Quoting the authors:

The education level at which one is more connected through core discussion ties to the larger community than to family members has shifted up into the graduate degrees, a level of education attained by only a tiny minority of the population. High school graduates and those with some college are now in a very family-dominated social environment of core confidants.

To the extent that Republican values appeal to the isolated family and Democratic values appeal to the interdependent community, might this explain some of the recent Republican drift of the middle-educated?

Overall, these results are open to many interpretations. Is this a story about the isolating effect of cell phones and the Internet? It may be argued that the social networks have simply become wider and more shallow (to accommodate all the new Internet buddies with limited time), but are just as diverse and fulfilling. However, the authors reference plenty of literature about the importance of close relationships.

One thing I’m always keeping an eye out for is the social effects of suburbanization and exurbanization. Is this a story about lower housing density, longer commutes, and ever taller fences around our McMansions? The Washington Post article references Putnam’s estimate that “every 10-minute increase in commutes makes it 10 percent less likely that people will establish and maintain close social ties.”

There’s one interpretation I wouldn’t have thought of, until reading this in the Discussion section:

In his groundbreaking study of social networks, To Dwell among Friends,
Claude Fischer (1982:125–27) labeled those who had only one or no discussion ties with whom to discuss personal matters as having marginal or inadequate counseling support. By those criteria, we have gone from a quarter of the American population being isolated from counseling support to almost half of the population falling into that category.

So is this an explanation for the current national mental illness epidemic? I have puzzled over causes of this epidemic for a while. I expect that environmental toxins play a part, as does the accelerating pace of life and fragmenting social fabric in general. Might it also be simple lack of informal talk therapy?

At least with a PhD my chance of not having any friends is much smaller than average. Which some would consider counterintuitive.

  1. #1 written by Genug March 15th, 2007 at 23:39

    There was an interesting Op-Ed related to this study in November. It draws a connection between the decline in close friendships and an increased focus on one’s spouse:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/opinion/07coontz.html?ex=1320555600&en=dd470f93d7bfd361&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

    If you can’t view it, I can email you the text.

    RE Q
  2. #2 written by joshuah March 20th, 2007 at 12:04

    Ah yes. The problem with marriage is that we are relying to heavily on it for social support while severing ties to the community. And we sever ties to the community because increases in working hours leave us no time or energy to socialize. You can add that economic explanation to the list of possible interpretations of this study.

    RE Q

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