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I think this is probably the best article on the Social Isolation paper I've
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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 health
equivalent of the 1964 Surgeon General's report that declared smoking
causes cancer. The unpleasant but long suspected discovery in this case is
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 is
getting hotter; some people choose not to believe it. In 1964, about half
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 don't.
The scientific evidence about smoking and cancer existed long before Jan.
11, 1964, but when the famous report was issued that day, people started
I expect something quieter and more eggheaded but quite similar will
happen with an academic paper with the vanilla title, "Social Isolation in
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 social
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 whom
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 that
has been conducted almost every year since 1972. In 2004, they precisely
replicated questions about social networks that had not been asked since
Because the findings are so stark and clear, and come with no linguistic
and philosophic adornment, I'll let the numbers speak for themselves in
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 four
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 family;
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 loss of
# The kinds of relationships that decreased the most in providing
important contacts were neighbors and co-members of groups or voluntary
associations (as opposed to spouse, sibling, parent, co-worker, etc.)
# Women have more family in their networks than men, as they did in 1985.
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 men.
Unfortunately, that isn't because women have made more contacts outside
kin, but because men have fewer.
# More education correlates with having larger social networks. Non-whites
and the elderly are populations with smaller networks.
Don't let yourself be numbed by the numbers because they tell a dramatic
story even though there are no victims, tears or sound bites.
The bottom line: "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."
Stop and think about that for a second. Almost half the people around you
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 going
here, doesn't it?
Does this cold statistical portrait comport with your own experience of
the world and the people you are acquainted with? My first gut answer was
"no." But when I thought about it harder, the answer changed. There are
people who I think are frighteningly isolated even in my company, my small
neighborhood, my extended family and the community based around my kids'
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 every
possible reason why the results could be wrong. They explored whether
people have different notions of the word "discuss" or "important" than
they did 20 years ago. They looked for technical problems in the survey.
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 that
the population is aging and more ethnically diverse; if it were, those
trends would have been countered by the increased educational levels since
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 put
out a couple of hypotheses. The main culprits are work time and commutes.
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 the
home went way up. As people fled the cities, suburbs and exurbs boomed and
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 build
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 that
are less dependent on geography. E-mail and cheap phone calling have made
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 weaker
ties can provide equally meaningful, but different, social support (a view
supported by a quantitative study done by two university of Toronto
sociologists for the Pew Internet & American Life Project). But they do
point out the obvious: "some services and emotional support" do depend on
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 make
it easier for us to communicate and stay connected. Instead of feeling in
touch, many feel on a leash. Portable, gadget driven communication doesn't
count as soul-feeding bonding for many people I know, but is rather a
I do suspect that this study overlooks one simple contributing factor, the
decline of real geographic communities places where people grow up where
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 difficult as
In primitive and survival-dependent societies, social isolation was
basically impossible. But modern societies have never been without chronic
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 books,
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. But
the story they tell is just as disturbing and just as hard for society to
accept. Recent social science research, for example, about the decline of
civic engagement and community participation has been exceedingly
controversial and contested. There are even larger objections to the idea
that "social science" can ever get a handle on these kinds of issues in a
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 all
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.
Department of Sociology
University of Arizona
"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge."
"The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem
those who think alike than those who think differently."
-Frederich Wilhelm Nietzsche
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