Do we have more friends now than in the past? In our globalized world we are more interconnected, more interdependent now than perhaps ever in human history. We get our products and services from, and sell them to, people all around the world. In a world where our everyday lives more dependent on our social networks, does that mean we also have stronger interpersonal ties with more people? Have our friendship networks also expanded? Are we not only more economically interdependent but also more socially linked?

In a recent sociological study, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades” (pdf), sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew E. Brashears seek to address some aspects of these questions. In their June 2006 article in the American Sociological Review, they asked people for information about the number of people with whom they discuss important matters. They found that the number of people with whom respondents discuss such matters has declined significantly (dropping approximately one-third) since a similar study done in 1985. They conclude, “The number of people who have someone to talk to about matters that are important to them has declined dramatically, and the number of alternative discussion partners has shrunk. . . . [W]e have gone from a quarter of the American population being isolated from counseling support to almost half of the population falling into that category” (p. 371).

Analyzing that decline, they found that the number of non-kin relations declined more than kin, implying that we are more dependent on parents, spouses, and other family than we are with friends when it comes to advice and support. This also means that those from whom we seek advice are more like ourselves limiting the scope of alternative perspectives and experiences upon which we might draw.

Their research also points to the declining significance of community networks and the reduction of social capital. They make a connection to Robert Putnam‘s famous “Bowling Alone” argument in which he found that more people bowl, but fewer do so in leagues. He uses this as a symbol of the decline of social networks and community ties.

The American Sociological Association provides a brief summary of the research findings here. The Washington Post also provided an article on the research here.

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