Monday, 03 July 2006

Someone to talk to: the weakening of strong ties I was in a discussion the other day when someone calculated the amount of time his partner and one particular group of confidantes had spent chatting over the years (he came up with a figure of 762 hours, in case you're interested). To some of us, this ability to talk freely about things, and to weave in and out of personally important and trivial topics almost seamlessly, is either enviable or puzzling or both. Who do you talk to about important stuff? Who are your confidants? Probably not your neighbours, more likely kin and friends outside your neighbourhood. Now here's a sound paper by the US researchers who brought us a key paper on homophily ('birds of a feather') a few years ago - this time they've looked at core discussion networks in the USA comparing 1985 with 2004. They find surprising and disconcerting decline. The typical American discussion network has slightly less than one fewer confidant in it than it did in 1985; and an adult non-institutionalised American is much more likely to be completely isolated from people with whom he or she could discuss important matters than in 1985. The researchers suggest that 'the social environment of core confidants surrounding the typical American has become smaller, more densely interconnected, and more centred on the close ties of spouse/partner. The types of bridging ties that connect us to community and neighborhood have withered as confidant networks have closed in on a smaller core group.' I'm not sure to what extent this contradicts what we would expect. Don't we assume that most of us now have discretionary personal social networks on which to draw in case of need for informal counselling and support? We would expect there to be increasing educational homogeneity in these networks and the research appears to confirm that. Indeed the key explanatory factor seems to be educational attainment, not race or gender or age. There are all sorts of insights and questions thrown up by the research, and hopefully the debate will result in a little policy attention being paid to informal local social relations. Incidentally, before people rush to blame the internet for increasing social isolation, I'd urge caution in considering what constitutes 'internet use.' Keith Hampton when he was at MIT showed elegantly how web use is quite different from email use. The former is comparable to high tv use and is comparably bad for your social network. Email use is similar to telephone use and is comparably good for your social network. Probably for various reasons people who are not highly localised within their neighbourhoods will use the technologies of remote communication to strengthen existing contacts, not to diversify their networks through serendipitous face-to-face encounters. McPherson, M et al. Social isolation in America: changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American sociological review, 71, June 2006: 353-375.

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