Social Isolation in America

by Kieran Healy on June 23, 2006

Here’s an “important new paper”: by two former colleagues of mine (just departed for Duke) and one of our grad students here at Arizona. The paper compares the social network module of the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS) to the 1985 GSS, the last to include network questions. The key question of interest is this:

bq. 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.

The survey went on to probe the respondents about their relationship to the people they mentioned, and the relationship of these people to one another. The new findings are striking: since 1985, the number of people saying there is _no-one_ with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled, rising to about a quarter of the respondents. As McPherson et al say,

bq. The modal respondent now reports having no confidant; the modal respondent in 1985 had three confidants. Both kin and non-kin confidants were lost in the past two decades, but the greater decrease of non-kin ties leads to more confidant networks centered on spouses and parents, with fewer contacts through voluntary associations and neighborhoods. … Educational heterogeneity of social ties has decrease, racial heterogeneity has increased.

The predicted probability of social isolation is much higher the fewer years of education one has. Also. “Young (ages 18–39), white, educated (high school degree or more) men seem to have lost more discussion partners than other groups.”

The observed differences are pretty big, as these things go. Are they real? It may be that the 2004 respondents differed from the 1985 respondents in their interpretation the words “discuss” and “important.” (People might interpret “discuss” as face-to-face discussion, when they may also be pouring out their hearts on a blog somewhere, for instance.) Because of these issues, the authors spend a lot of time investigating the validity of the measure. More interestingly, it may be that we really are observing a shift in patterns of network affiliation. Feel free to speculate in the comments, but also take a look at the paper — it discusses several of the most plausible interpretations of the shift, in addition to documenting the findings.

Stuff and nonsense

by Chris Bertram on June 23, 2006

Just back from going to hear Tony Blair give “a speech”: on the criminal justice system. It was the usual stuff about “rebalancing” the system in favour of the victim, with a lot of noise about the need for “fundamental debate” on principles but no actual discussion of said fundamentals. An important rheorical subtext in the speech was Blair-as-outsider, pitted against the “legal and political establishment”, which is a bit much coming from a legal professional from Derry Irvine’s chambers who has been Prime Minister for the past nine years! There was also a heap of cod sociology, reminiscent of “Henry’s post the other day”: , about how we once lived in nice cosy communities but that this stable order has been swept away by globalisation to be replaced by anomie etc. Blair spoke as if he intends to go on and on, which will be bad news for Gordon Brown if true (but maybe PMs always talk like this).

There was an uncomfortable amount of attention to immigration and asylum seeking in the speech, including this:

bq. Here is the point. Each time someone is the victim of ASB, of drug related crime; each time an illegal immigrant enters the country or a perpetrator of organised fraud or crime walks free, someone else’s liberties are contravened, often directly, sometimes as part of wider society.

I’m quite puzzled by why Blair thinks that the mere entry of an illegal immigrant amounts to a contravention of someone’s liberty.

Gordon Brown and the future of the British left

by Chris Bertram on June 23, 2006

At “urbandriftuk”: , some reflections on the future of British politics and Gordon Brown’s strategy of signalling his moderation to the median voter via a trickle policy announcements.

bq. The worst possible outcome is not necessarily that of a Labour party shut out of power for the foreseeable future, but that of a Labour government enjoying sustained electoral success in a society that has become more rightwing under its watch. Gordon Brown may harbour a progressive vision of the ideal society, but without a different approach, and with time, and the patience of the left running out, the challenge of rectifying the rightward drift of British society will be insurmountable.