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Wow, if that scare-mongering extrapolation is the "best", I'm afraid of
what the *worst* is... or by "best", did you mean "most dramatic misuse
of the original study?" (seriously: I'm not sure what you meant by
"best"). I have a hard time with a journalist telling people how they
should feel about the news the journalist is reporting (e.g. "it should
The number of ways in which I disagree with Meyer's conclusions and
methods of drawing and reporting them are too numerous to list here. I
am glad that the authors of the study seem to be doing their best (as
they have reported on this list) to try to undo some of the damage that
these sensationalistic exaggerations have been doing, though I'll say
(having not read the original report) that if Meyer is accurate in
reporting that it said some of these things - "The number of people who
have someone to talk to about matters that are important to them has
declined dramatically we have gone from a quarter of the American
population being isolated to almost half of the populations falling
into that category," - then the authors brought some of this on
themselves by editorializing unnecessarily (here, choosing to define
"isolation" in terms of "reported number of confidants" when it isn't at
all clear that that is the best or even a good definition of
"isolation"), and that's leaving aside deeper issues such as whether
having less confidants might have a *positive* causal factor, e.g.
perhaps when people are happier overall they don't have as many problems
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Social Networks Discussion Forum [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
> Behalf Of Matthew E. Brashears
> Sent: Friday, June 30, 2006 4:26 PM
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: Social Isolation- Best report.
> ***** To join INSNA, visit http://www.insna.org *****
> I think this is probably the best article on the Social Isolation
> seen yet:
> Go to CBSNews.com Home
> The Lonely States Of America
> WASHINGTON, June 29, 2006(CBS) This commentary was written by
> CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
> The American Sociological Review may have just published the social
> equivalent of the 1964 Surgeon General's report that declared smoking
> causes cancer. The unpleasant but long suspected discovery in this
> that social isolation in America has grown dramatically in the past 20
> Some things are uncomfortable to know. We don't like knowing the earth
> getting hotter; some people choose not to believe it. In 1964, about
> of all adults smoked and they did not like knowing the habit caused
> cancer; some people chose not to believe it and some people still
> The scientific evidence about smoking and cancer existed long before
> 11, 1964, but when the famous report was issued that day, people
> believing it.
> I expect something quieter and more eggheaded but quite similar will
> happen with an academic paper with the vanilla title, "Social
> America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades." The
> authors, Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears,
> sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, have no such wild
> pretensions, but I think they've documented an enormous, stunning
> change so clearly that it will alter the way we look at social and
> political life. It should.
> And it should scare you.
> The authors set out to empirically describe how socially connected
> Americans are by asking them questions like, "Who are the peoplewith
> you discussed matters important to you?" They did this as part of the
> General Social Survey, the Rolls Royce of face-to-face social surveys
> has been conducted almost every year since 1972. In 2004, they
> replicated questions about social networks that had not been asked
> Because the findings are so stark and clear, and come with no
> and philosophic adornment, I'll let the numbers speak for themselves
> blunt bullet points:
> # From 1985 to 2004, "the number of people saying there is no one with
> whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled." Now, 24.6 percent
> report they have no confidants, family or non-family that's one in
> Americans. Another 19.6 percent say they have just one confidant. That
> means 43 percent of Americans have either no confidants or just one, a
> slice that has doubled since 1985.
> # More than half, 53.4 percent, do not have any confidants who aren't
> family. In 1985, 80 percent had at least one confidant who was not
> now only 57.2 percent do.
> # The average size of Americans' social networks decreased by a third
> between 1985 and 2004, from 2.94 to 2.08; basically this means the
> one confidant.
> # The kinds of relationships that decreased the most in providing
> important contacts were neighbors and co-members of groups or
> associations (as opposed to spouse, sibling, parent, co-worker, etc.)
> # Women have more family in their networks than men, as they did in
> But then they had fewer non-kin close relationships than men did. Now
> women have about the same number of confidants outside family as do
> Unfortunately, that isn't because women have made more contacts
> kin, but because men have fewer.
> # More education correlates with having larger social networks.
> and the elderly are populations with smaller networks.
> Don't let yourself be numbed by the numbers because they tell a
> story even though there are no victims, tears or sound bites.
> The bottom line: "The number of people who have someone to talk to
> matters that are important to them has declined dramatically we have
> from a quarter of the American population being isolated to almost
> of the populations falling into that category."
> Stop and think about that for a second. Almost half the people around
> have at most one person they feel they can talk to about what is most
> important to them. Seems like a pretty lousy social system we've got
> here, doesn't it?
> Does this cold statistical portrait comport with your own experience
> the world and the people you are acquainted with? My first gut answer
> "no." But when I thought about it harder, the answer changed. There
> people who I think are frighteningly isolated even in my company, my
> neighborhood, my extended family and the community based around my
> school and these are all social networks by definition. The most
> isolated, of course, I wouldn't even come across much.
> The authors were even more surprised at the findings and looked for
> possible reason why the results could be wrong. They explored whether
> people have different notions of the word "discuss" or "important"
> they did 20 years ago. They looked for technical problems in the
> But the news stayed bad.
> So what explains this seismic social thud?
> The paper eliminates a couple suspects. It is not caused by great
> geographic mobility the corporate nomad syndrome. It is not caused by
> employment rates. It does not correlate with increased television
> watching. Most importantly, it is not caused by the demographic facts
> the population is aging and more ethnically diverse; if it were, those
> trends would have been countered by the increased educational levels
> 1985, since education leads to larger networks.
> That means the answers will be deep and complicated.
> Though they are mostly into documenting not explaining, the authors do
> out a couple of hypotheses. The main culprits are work time and
> Both have increased since 1985 and both take time away from families,
> friends and voluntary participation. As women entered the workforce in
> bulk, the total number of hours family members spent working outside
> home went way up. As people fled the cities, suburbs and exurbs boomed
> so did commute times.
> This especially affects "middle-aged, better-educated, higher-income
> families." As the paper points out, these are exactly the people who
> neighborhoods and volunteer groups and those are the social structures
> that have most atrophied in the past 20 years.
> The more speculative hypothesis is that perhaps new communications
> technologies have led to people forming wider, but weaker social ties
> are less dependent on geography. E-mail and cheap phone calling have
> it easier to stay in frequent, sometimes constant touch with lots of
> people, no matter where they are.
> These weak ties are different than the confidant ties that this study
> measures, but the authors are open to the idea that a network of
> ties can provide equally meaningful, but different, social support (a
> supported by a quantitative study done by two university of Toronto
> sociologists for the Pew Internet & American Life Project). But they
> point out the obvious: "some services and emotional support" do depend
> Certainly, it's hard to escape complaints about the busy-ness and
> time-stress of life these days; it's an obvious, bad problem. For most
> people I know, it is exacerbated by the technology that is meant to
> it easier for us to communicate and stay connected. Instead of feeling
> touch, many feel on a leash. Portable, gadget driven communication
> count as soul-feeding bonding for many people I know, but is rather a
> cruel mockery.
> I do suspect that this study overlooks one simple contributing factor,
> decline of real geographic communities places where people grow up
> their parents grew up, where non-nuclear relatives live near by, where
> friendships and acquaintances go across generations.
> Explaining social isolation will be controversial, but not as
> repairing it.
> In primitive and survival-dependent societies, social isolation was
> basically impossible. But modern societies have never been without
> existential worries about isolation and loneliness; it is one of the
> defining marks of modernity. Literary and philosophic examinations of
> American souls and social life began with the very first American
> like Ben Franklin's autobiography.
> Looking at these issues empirically is a different matter. Social
> statistics aren't the stuff of teen angst, novels and high culture.
> the story they tell is just as disturbing and just as hard for society
> accept. Recent social science research, for example, about the decline
> civic engagement and community participation has been exceedingly
> controversial and contested. There are even larger objections to the
> that "social science" can ever get a handle on these kinds of issues
> way that is at all scientific.
> It is hard to believe and accept that we live in a society where one
> person in four feels they don't have someone to confide in. It's
> depressing and even somewhat terrifying. We can, of course, ignore it
> and choose to keep on smoking.
> Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com.
> E-mail questions, comments, complaints, arguments and ideas to
> Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil)
> ones, sometimes in edited form.
> By Dick Meyer
> MMVI, CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.
> Matthew Brashears
> Graduate Student
> Department of Sociology
> University of Arizona
> "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."
> -Charles Darwin
> "The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in
> those who think alike than those who think differently."
> -Frederich Wilhelm Nietzsche
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