I’m on record here as being very optimistic about the younger generation. Perhaps it’s conceit. They remind me of us (sixties era and even before). Still, there is no shortage of older folks who are condemned to repeat history by bemonaing how the young ‘uns have gone to the dogs. And the world is going to hell in a handbasket with them. Academics are just as prone to this nonsense as anyone and in 2006 the mainstream media, enablers of whatever conventional wisdom floats their way, were talking about how sociologists were revealing that people were increasingly isolated (“bowling alone”) from each other:
Whereas in 1985 Americans reported that, on average, they had 2.94 friends or family members with whom they could discuss important matters, by 2004 that number had dropped to 2.08. A quarter of Americans had no close confidants at all.
Those findings were startling to the study’s authors, who are sociologists at Cornell University, Duke University, and the University of Arizona. Their paper, which appeared in the June 2006 issue of the American Sociological Review, included a section titled “Could Such a Large Social Change Be Real?” (Chronicle of Higher Education)
Any social survey can be flowed but this one was from the General Social Survey run by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center since 1972. It’s no fly-by-night affair. Still, the information seemed discordant with past data and internally inconsistent to Claude S. Fischer, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on social networks. Already a small software error has been found that allowed 41 non-responses to be coded as zero social confidants, but this isn’t sufficient to explain the findings, so other explanations are being sought. One has to do with what survey researchers call “context effects,” essentially involving the surrounding questions or position of questions in a questionnaire:
The questions about social networks, Mr. Smith said, came toward the end of a long survey, and were immediately preceded by a series of questions about organizations that the respondents belong to. For each organization they named, the respondents were asked four or five minutes’ worth of detailed questions about the organization’s activities.
After that experience, Mr. [Tom Smith, survey director] said, it is possible that some respondents said “no” or “zero” when they were asked about personal confidants, simply so they could speed the survey toward its conclusion. (He added, however, that he is not certain that any such thing occurred. It is possible, he said, that the study’s analysis is basically fine, after the 41-person error has been corrected.)
These questions have been raised in a working paper by Fischer and will soon be published in the peer reviewed literature. This is all part of the “sorting out” process that is normal for scientific and scholarly research.
Meanwhile, here we are tapping away at our keyboard, communicating with a fairly large daily audience spread out around the world. Some of you have gotten to know us and each other electronically through the medium of this blog, and I know off-blog correspondence between some of you is common. How do we evaluate that? That seems to me a vast widening of social contact past any we have ever had. Yes, it’s not the same kind of contact. But it’s not inferior. It’s just different. Moreover digital communication and texting have allowed young people to arrange spontaneous face to face meetings with friends (“I’m downtown; meet me at the bookstore in ten minutes”) or get meetings together for political social purposes that would not have happened without it. My daughter, a mother of two, is in regular contact with friends from her highschool days through Facebook. Last week I got an email from someone I haven’t seen in almost 40 years because he got my contact info from someone else I haven’t seen in person for even longer, although we are in contact electronically, thanks to an old friend I haven’t seen for thirty years.
I have high hopes for this generation. I think they are more interconnected, more aware of the world and more open and communicative with a wider variety of people than any generation in history.
I’m glad to be part of it. Just as “on the internet nobody knows you are a dog,” on the internet no one can see you are an old geezer. Maybe I’m not. How would you know?