Sunday, 23 September 2012

Never mind ‘birds of a feather’ – for some people, local social interaction ain’t worth the aggro Are you and your neighbours all similar? And does it matter? 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...

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