June 25, 2006


Caption: This is a lonely man.

A recent Knight Ridder feature told of a new study that shows that more Americans feel isolated than in the past. According to the article:

The latest research found that men and women of every race, age and education level reported fewer intimate friends than the same survey turned up in 1985. Their remaining confidants were more likely to be members of their nuclear family than in 1985, according to the study, but intimacy within families was down too. The findings are reported in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.

Weakening bonds of friendship, which other studies affirm, have far-reaching effects. Among them: fewer people to turn to for help in crises such as Hurricane Katrina, fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients and fewer participants in community groups. The decline, which was greatest in estimates of the number of friends outside the family, also puts added pressure on spouses, families and counselors.

Something major--and not good--is going on here that goes beyond the lonely feelings of individuals.

In his classic The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills talked about the distinction and overlap between personal troubles and social issues. Personal troubles "occur within the character of the individual and within the range of his immediate relations with others." Potentially, these troubles can be understood and resolved at the individual level.

Social issues, on the other hand, "have to do with matters that transcend these local environments of the individual and the range of his inner life. They have to do with the organization of many such milieux into the institutions of an historical society as a whole, with the ways in which various milieux overlap and interpenetrate to form the larger structure of social and historical life."

For example, if one person or a few people lack health care, it's obviously a personal trouble for the people involved. But when 46 million Americans lack health care, we have a social issue here that goes beyond the problems of a few individuals.

In the current case, we are clearly talking about a social issue.

A disturbing trend noted by social scientists in recent years has been America's declining stock of social capital, which can be defined as all the different formal and informal ways people and groups connect with each other. These include community organizations, clubs, sports teams, religious groups, unions, political groups, coalitions, social networks and friendships.

Causes of the decline in social capital vary. According to the article, "One explanation for friendship's decline is that adults are working longer hours and socializing less. That includes women, who as homemakers tended to have strong community networks. In addition, commutes are longer and TV viewing and computer use are up."

In the last several decades, there has been a growing tendency to what has been called civic privatism as the public sphere shrinks and as civil society (defined as the network of groups and associations not engaged in government or business) erodes. It's not unrelated to the whole issue of privatization (see last week's post on "Deflating the Public Sphere")

This is not a healthy sign. Individuals and groups with strong social networks and connections are better able to deal with both personal issues and social problems. When social capital declines, it negatively impacts both individuals and the larger community.

In the next post or two, Goat Rope is going to look at the issue of social capital, what the research shows about the problem of declining connections between people and possible solutions.



El Ermitano said...

Our forebears felt a part of a close-knit community—whether family, clan, or village. Altruism can arise from the blood connections within a family. Cooperation and compassion can arise when that kernel of altruism finds itself in a close-knit community. It spreads. This is our natural heritage. Despite the modern tools we have for sharing information (phones, email, etc.), communication is poor, and that sense of trust is eroding. When I feel I can’t trust people, it gets awfully lonely.

Web Lover said...

I'm not sure that you can count time spent on the computer as anti-social time. Much of that time is spent emailing or instant messaging friends and family. Email is the number one activity for people using computers.

I agree with the general "Bowling Alone" point, though.

Ted B said...

I think the YOYO's, as Jared Bernstein calles them, has played a major role in this hyperindividualism. As Marks sketched out over 150 yrs ago, the base/superstructure reinforce one another ie economic individualism = less compassion for one another.