Tuesday, June 27, 2006


Social connections, continued

I wanted to look more into the Social Isolation in America study that I talked about the other day. In the comments section of my original entry, wooddragon speculates that the Internet "has enhanced closeness, rather than added distance," and that's my sense too. So I read the paper, and here are some more comments. Keep in mind that this is not my area of expertise — in fact, it's quite far removed from it — and that I'm reading the study just as a scientist reading a study that's outside his field.

First, let's look at the questions that were asked in the survey on which the study is based (these are quoted from the paper):

  • From time to time, most people discuss important matters with other people. Looking back over the last six months—who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you? Just tell me their first names or initials.
  • Please think about the relations between the people you just mentioned. Some of them may be total strangers in the sense that they wouldn?t recognize each other if they bumped into each other on the street. Others may be especially close, as close or closer to each other as they are to you. Are they especially close?
  • The survey then asked about demographic characteristics of the discussion partner: whether the partner was male or female, his or her race, his or her education and age, and some aspects of the respondents? relationship with the discussion partner.
  • Here is a list of some of the ways in which people are connected to each other. Some people can be connected to you in more than one way. For example, a man could be your brother and he may belong to your church and be your lawyer. When I read you a name, please tell me all of the ways that person is connected to you. (The options were presented on a card: Spouse, Parent, Sibling, Child, Other family, Co-worker, Member of group, Neighbor, Friend, Advisor, Other).

Next, consider that the researchers point out that the respondents vary considerably in how they interpret and answer the questions, referring to one paper that "found that some people cited apparently mundane matters like getting a hair cut when asked the topic of their latest discussion about important matters." Given that, they summarize what the survey measures thus:

[...] these answers do give us a window into an important set of close, routinely contacted people who make up our respondents? immediate social circle.

As to the specific results, and the change since 1985, I find these particularly striking:

  • The portion of respondents with no confidants increased from 10.0% to 24.6%!
  • The portion who counted a co-worker among their confidants went down from 29.4% to 18.0%.
  • Those with a neighbour as a confidant decreased from 18.5% to 7.9%, and those who identified a "friend" went from 73.2% to 50.6%.
  • Taking those together, the portion who have at least one non-kin confidant dropped from 80.1% to 57.2%.
In other words, the number of us who have no one outside of family whom we rely on has more than doubled in the last twenty years. We're not confiding in co-workers, friends, or neighbours as much as we used to. We're not even confiding in members of our social clubs, interest groups, or religious congregations as much any more. That is, to me, a surprising result.

The paper spends some considerable time on the survey methodology and the effects thereof (and notes that these questions are near the end of a much larger survey), and on analyzing the demographic issues. That part is interesting and worth reading, but I don't have any particular comments on it here.

The 2004 study uses the same questions as did the 1985 study, and, therefore, does not take any specific notice of the Internet (there was no significant public use of the Internet or its predecessor networks in 1985). I presume that since respondents varied in how they interpreted the relationship questions, they also varied in how they treated Internet relationships when answering the questions, both in whether they considered them to be significant and worth mentioning, and in what specific relationship they attributed to those people. Certainly, for the respondents who considered relationships where the closeness is maintained over the Internet, the role of the Internet in enabling that is reported. It's possible, though, and, I think, likely, that it is somewhat underreported because some respondents may not have considered relationships maintained using the Internet to qualify for listing here.

The authors discuss the Internet in the conclusions section, which starts with this note:

Since the GSS has few measures other than demographic characteristics that were asked at both points in time, we are not well positioned to explore the reasons behind the social change. Still, it is useful to speculate (with help from other literature) to guide future research.
...and goes on to consider three possible explanations. The first is about the interpretation of what is "important", and considers that "more people might now think that they have nothing important to say." The second centers on the interpretation of what it means to "discuss" things, with the idea that some people would not including the use of cell phones and the Internet as "discussion", dovetailing with my supposition above (though the authors do not go into why cell phones might differ from landline telephone in this regard).

The third explanation they propose is that our social circles have become more geographically dispersed, and the relationships possibly more "unidimensional". Again they mention cell phones and the Internet:

Such families can use new technologies to stay in touch with kin and friends—most notably cell phones and the Internet. While these technologies allow a network to spread out across geographic space and might even enhance contacts outside the home (e.g., arranging a meeting at a restaurant or bar), they seem, however, to lower the probability of having face-to-face visits with family, neighbors, or friends in one?s home [references omitted]. Wellman et al. note that Internet usage may even interfere with communication in the home, creating a post-familial family where family members spend time interacting with multiple computers in the home, rather than with each other. They suggest that computer technology may foster a wider, less-localized array of weak ties, rather than the strong, tightly interconnected confidant ties that we have measured here.
Ah, now we finally get to a point of analysis with which I disagree. The authors go on to say that "[o]nly geographically local ties can offer some services and emotional support with ease," but in that statement they downplay the value and closeness of ties that are not geographically local. Of the six or eight that I mentioned in my earlier post on this, about half are local and half are not. While the local ones are the only ones who can give me a ride when I need one, or who could take care of my kids if I had any, those who live far away are no less emotionally supportive and necessary. I can't get hugs from them, but I can get understanding, commiseration, advice, counsel, and sympathy from them when I need it, as readily and as effectively as from my local friends.

I would love to see a follow-up study that investigates specifically that issue: how geographically distant friends and local ones fit together to form one's social network, what the importance of distant confidants is, and how the use of the Internet in the last ten years has changed that — it certainly has for me. I fully agree with wooddragon (who is one of those in my geographically-distant list) that, while the Internet has given people a new way to withdraw, it has also enhanced our ability to be close emotionally, while we're distant physically.

1 comment:

wooddragon said...

This is something that's very interesting to think about...

In high school, all my important relationships were geographically close. In college, most of them were. Now, almost all of them are not. And they are maintained via the internet (blogs and email) and cell phones.

I think people just are so caught up in day-to-day crap (working, getting the kids to day care and soccer practice, picking up the dry cleaning, making sure dinner's taken care of), that they don't have time to *talk*. Also why fewer people bowl and square dance...