Sunday, June 25, 2006

The alleged social isolation of Americans 

Yahoo's front page headlines a story about the "social isolation" of Americans. Supposedly, Americans today say they have fewer close friends than they did twenty years ago. Fine. That seems plausible to me, although it is not my experience. I still have the close friends I had then, plus a few more. Perhaps the idea isn't longitudinal -- old people with lots of close friends may have died to be replaced by younger people who are so itinerant or jacked in to their iPod (or laptop) that they do not make "close friends" easily, so the average goes down.

Either way, I am prepared to believe the data. People have separated work from their immediate community, they spit out instant messages instead of writing long letters, and entertainment has become less interactive. Fewer people sit around playing Parcheesi or bridge with their friends, I suppose. I do not, however, believe the social commentary offered by the people who did the study.

People were not asked why they had fewer intimate ties, but Smith-Lovin said that part of the cause could be that Americans are working more, marrying later, having fewer children, and commuting longer distances.

Square this reasonably plausible guess with the social commentary:
The data also show the social isolation trend mirrors other class divides: Non-whites and people with less education tend to have smaller social networks than white Americans and the highly educated.

That means that in daily life, personal emergencies and national disasters like Hurricane Katrina, those with the fewest resources also have the fewest personal friends to call for advice and assistance.

"It's one thing to know someone and exchange e-mails with them. It's another thing to say, 'Will you give me a ride out of town with all of my possessions and pets? And can I stay with you for a couple or three months?" Smith-Lovin said.

I would have thought that the people who are "working more, marrying later, having fewer children, and commuting longer distances" are exactly not the people who can't cope with disasters like Hurricane Katrina. I don't recall a lot of stories about DINK couples with long commutes and long working hours being stranded in the New Orleans Convention Center, frustrated that they can't get back to their exciting professional lives.

If, in fact, it is the poorest people who are more socially isolated today than in times past, it seems to me highly unlikely that the changing workplace is the reason for this isolation. Perhaps it is because the old ethnic ghettos have broken up with the greater integration of American society. The more successful people leave to live in the increasingly integrated suburbs. Perhaps the well-documented fragmentation of the American family, particularly poor American families, has also weakened the bonds between families. Either way, if this is a particularly severe problem for the poor, it seems that the recommended "flexible work schedules" to "allow Americans to tend both personal and professional lives" is hardly the answers. Sure, flexible work schedules are great if you can get them, but I find it hard to believe that the lack of them had anything to do with the inability or unwillingness (as the case may be) of New Orleans' poorest people to obey the evacuation order.

This study, or at least the press coverage and the related bleatings of the study's authors, is a classic example of social science gone wrong. A couple of academics detect a phenomenon, "speculate" about the reasons without suggesting the most obvious likely causes (both of which run counter to their likely political beliefs), and then suggest a solution (in this case "flexible work schedules," which I'm sure is their favorite thing about working at a university). In the end, we have nothing other than another criticism of America's culture and a proposal to become more like Europe. Why do we keep funding such stupid stuff?


By Blogger Cassandra, at Mon Jun 26, 05:53:00 PM:

Well, FWIW our social life has certainly suffered since I acquired a full-time career, TH. On the weekends, I'd generally rather spend time catching up with my husband than socializing with people I am not as attached to.

And when I was at home, even with family we spent part of every summer reconnecting. That doesn't happen as often now that I and my sister-in-law both work FT. We just can't all get away at the same time. And women are often the social glue that binds couples who socialize together. If we are exhausted from work, we have less time to spend making sure we don't lose touch with our friends. I was recently really disturbed by the fact that my best friend and I, despite living only an hour apart, couldn't seem to make time for each other. It was mutual, but our jobs and husbands came first.

So I think there may be some merit in the observation that we aren't bothering to keep our social connections alive.  

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