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A link to the original paper is at:

http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/2006/06/socialisolation.html

Miller





On Fri, 30 Jun 2006, Andrew Cleary wrote:

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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
> scare you").
>
> 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
> *requiring* confidants.
>
> Andy
>
> > -----Original Message-----
> > From: Social Networks Discussion Forum [mailto:[log in to unmask]]
> On
> > 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
> paper
> > I've
> > seen yet:
> >
> >
> >
> http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/06/28/opinion/meyer/printable1762234
> .s
> > html
> >
> > 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
> 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
> > years.
> >
> > 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
> > believing it.
> >
> > 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
> > 1985.
> >
> > 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
> > one confidant.
> >
> > # 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
> > proximity.
> >
> > 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
> > cruel mockery.
> >
> > 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
> > repairing it.
> >
> > 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.
> >
> > ***********************
> > 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
> higher
> > esteem
> > those who think alike than those who think differently."
> > -Frederich Wilhelm Nietzsche
> > ***********************
> >
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Miller McPherson                     *  *
Professor of Sociology               ******
University of Arizona                   *
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