An anonymised Economist blog post takes a reported increase in neighbourhood heterogeneity from recent US General Social Survey data, and links it to an apparent increase in ideological polarisation. Wait, I can explain.
The recent data suggest that ‘Americans have never been less likely to be friends with their neighbours than before’ (yes I agree we should expect a modest level of competence in sentence construction from an Economist journo).
‘In 1974, 44% of respondents said that they had spent a social evening with neighbours more than once a month. By 2008, that number had dropped to a tick over 30%. Over the course of the study’s existence, the number has been dropping consistently.’
OK, so neighbours are less likely 'than before' to be friends. I don’t think it necessarily means they won’t interact in a socially supportive way: but let’s suppose it matters. The author suggests that
‘Reduced interaction with fellow citizens probably only reinforces a person’s own beliefs. However like-minded a neighbourhood is the odds of friends and relatives sharing similar political views seems much higher.’
Hmm, speculative, you might think, but the idea is that (a) neighbours interact less, so (b) people’s political views are more likely to get reinforced, principally by friends and relatives who are likely to have similar views. And there could be something in it, but there’s the usual stack of issues with the first bit, such as –
- neighbourliness isn’t the same as friendship, not even in the US;
- whether it’s adequate to explain neighbourliness over time in terms of spending ‘a social evening’ on a regular basis;
- whether this decline correlates with other alarm-ringing social change;
- whether online interaction detracts from face-to-face local interaction or augments it while changing it, and so on.
Oh, and the almost but not quite obvious question - if strong ties between neighbours are weakening over time, is that necessarily a bad thing?
I’m not going to rehearse that stuff here, but I do want to follow one interesting lead. The article concludes forcefully:
‘The primary culprit here is suburbanisation.’
One of the comments to the article refers to a study of social interaction and urban sprawl (Brueckner & Largey, J urban econ, 2008) which tested the hypothesis that urban density has a positive effect on social interaction. The authors preface their results like this:
‘To understand the argument, suppose that people value social interaction, and that the extent of interaction in a neighborhood is an increasing function of the area’s average population density. By putting people in close proximity, high average density could plausibly spur interaction among them.’
The paper makes an important contribution to challenging negative assumptions about suburbs. It concludes:
‘The results are unfavorable: whether the focus is friendship oriented social interaction or measures of group involvement, the empirical results show a negative, rather than positive, effect of density on interaction.’
Somewhat half-heartedly, they add a rider, which I have raised myself from time to time: it's possible that people who are less inclined to sociability could be more inclined to inhabit certain kinds of housing or areas of greater density. That’s assuming they have much choice in the first place.
But I want to go back to the initial assumption that ‘people value interaction’. Allowing for a small percentage of humankind who maybe don’t, I don’t think anyone’s disputing that basic generalisation; but there needs to be acknowledgment of the differential extent to which that value is attainable.
If you live in an attractive, peaceful, relatively affluent area where the stress levels are generally low, then the cost of investing in social interaction is low. But in some neighbourhoods there are serious real or perceived risks in establishing social contact with a view to interaction. If you try to start talking to someone at the bus stop or in the lift and they mug you, or you justifiably fear that they might, you will be less inclined to seek out social interaction. And if other factors are negative (eg a disordered local environment, poor services, badly maintained housing, child ill-health, domestic violence, do I need to go on?) the risk is too high for the perceived benefit. If the risk is too high, people don't try to connect. And they keep themselves to themselves.
So at no extra cost (tada!) here’s a very special reward for readers of this post who have got this far… a unique never-to-be-repeated offer of an exquisitely-wrought principle: ‘birds of feather’ is a red herring. Indeed it could also prove to be a wild goose; more research is needed. The homophily principle - or come to that, the heterophily principle, if there is one - is neither here nor there: what matters for social policy is to address residents’ differential cost-benefit assessment of the value of social interaction. You do that by improving the quality of life for those who most need it. Unh, that should put the cat among the pigeons.