[UPDATE: There were so many thoughtful comments posted to in the comments section and sent to me by email, so I wrote about them here. Also check out this guest post by Claude Fischer on what he calls "invented friendship."]
First, let's talk about you. Then we'll get to everyone else. What are your answers to these two questions:
1. Looking back over the last six months - who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?
2. How many friends outside of your household do you have that you see or speak to at least once a week?
The Latest Media Panic about Lonely, Isolated Americans
In 2006, a media panic broke out over a report about the answers to question #1. Maybe you remember some of the headlines - they were everywhere. For example:
The study that ignited the panic had just been published in a prestigious sociology journal. Authors McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears reported the results of a nationally representative survey of approximately 1,500 Americans. The data were collected in 2004, and compared to the answers to a similar survey from 1985.
The findings appeared to show that Americans had become dramatically more isolated over the course of the two decades. In 1985, 10% answered "no one" to the first question. By 2004, nearly 25% (24.9%, to be exact, according to the first report) said that there was no one with whom they had discussed important matters in the past six months.
The average number of people that Americans named in response to that question dropped, too. In 1985, it was about 3 people; by 2004, it was just 2. That's a decrease of about one-third - by sociological standards, a huge change over a relatively short historical period.
To many, the case was made. Americans were growing increasingly isolated. Pundits scurried to their keyboards to offer their favorite explanations and forebodings. More than a few scholars also accepted that conclusion. But was it really true?
Other Perspectives and More Data
In the abstract of their original journal article, McPherson and his colleagues noted that "the data may overestimate the number of social isolates." The group in charge of the survey (NORC) looked more closely at the data and found some errors that rendered the results slightly less striking but the significant trends remained.
Some of the most eminent scholars of the study of social networks, including Claude Fischer and Barry Wellman, were skeptical. Just last year, the same journal (American Sociological Review) published a critical analysis by Fischer, as well as a response from the McPherson team. Some of the disagreements were about the proper statistical models to use and whether it is plausible that Americans' social connections could have changed so much in so short a time. Fischer believes there may have been a technical error (for example, in the devices used to record participants' answers). It is not clear whether we will ever know for sure what to think of the 2004 data that launched countless "lonely American" essays.
To me, it seems most productive to look at other data, both within the same surveys, and perhaps more compellingly, from entirely different surveys. Fischer reported that within the same surveys, answers to other questions did not seem to paint a picture of increasingly isolated Americans. For example, when asked how often they spend a social evening with neighbors, relatives, or friends beyond the neighborhood, the answers changed hardly at all from 1985 to 2004. The same was true for answers to the question, "How many close friends would you say you have?" The number did not shrink over time. The McPherson team responded that the questions were measuring different kinds of social ties, so in their opinion, there was no contradiction.
Now let's return to the second question I posed at the beginning of this article: "How many friends outside of your household do you have that you see or speak to at least once a week?" Hua Wang and Barry Wellman analyzed the answers to that question (and others), as posed in two other national surveys - one from 2002 and another from 2007.
Wang and Wellman found that in both 2002 and 2007, only 5% of American adults said that they had no friends they saw or spoke to at least once a week. (Remember that McPherson reported that nearly 25% of Americans were isolated in 2004.) The friendship study authors also computed the median number of friends, and found that it was either 5 or 6. In their words:
"The average number of friends contacted face-to-face and by phone was substantial early in the decade, and it continued to be substantial. The number of friendships did not decline. Rather, it increased on average between 2002 and 2007 and increased the most for heavy Internet users."
Other studies (described in Fischer's 2009 article and the Wang and Wellman paper) also suggest that Americans are not nearly as isolated as McPherson claimed. The latter team might again say that the questions are not the same - the number of people with whom you discuss important matters is not the same as the number of friends you see or talk to at least once a week. That may be so. Still, the weight of the evidence does not seem to support sweeping statements about how already-lonely Americans have become alarmingly more isolated.
If You've Studied Social History, This May All Sound Familiar
Media panics about social isolation are nothing new. To quote Wang and Wellman again:
"Putnam (2000) looked back nostalgically from the 1990s to the 1960s and argued that Americans were ‘bowling alone' because television watching was keeping people from community involvement. Likewise, in the 1960s, Stein (1960) and Nisbet looked back to the 1930s and mourned the decline of social connectivity. Yet in the 1930s, Wirth (1938) looked to preurban America and worried about the loss of social connectivity in transitory urban life."
Undoubtedly, many Americans are lonely, and their distress should not be dismissed or trivialized. But nor should the number of lonely people be overstated.
I just want to mention two other points that are not always acknowledged. Consider, once again, question #1: In the past 6 months, "who are the people with whom you discussed matters important to you?" The question was NOT, "are there people with whom you COULD have discussed important matters if you had wanted to do so?"
In contemporary American society, many people value openness and communication and having close friends. I'm often one of them. We should not forget, though, that other people are not as fond of emotional sharing. Just because a certain manner of relating, or a certain kind of social connectedness, is generally a good thing does not mean that it is the ideal way of being for every single person.
My second point is perhaps less plausible, and I'm not sure I believe it myself, but I'll put it out there anyway. If there is a real trend showing that people are less likely to discuss important matters with others than they were in the past, maybe that means that their lives have improved. The kinds of important matters that motivate people to seek out a receptive listener are probably more often negative than positive ones. In the (disputed) McPherson data, among the people reporting an especially sharp decline in discussing important matters were the highly educated. Education is often linked to better financial status. Economic disparities have increased over time in the United States. Maybe the better-off Americans just didn't have as many important matters to discuss with others.
The state of social ties is a developing story. Claude Fischer has a book that is about to go to press, and from phone calls I've been receiving, others may also be in the works. If my ideal self prevails, I'll read everything I can find.
[Speaking of Claude Fisher, I'd like to thank him for his help. I don't know him, but contacted him out of the blue with a long list of questions. He responded immediately.]
[On a different topic, thanks to everyone who has been sending me kind notes about my new website and blog. If anyone is interested, there are already a few more singles-relevant entries posted, including one on the Old Maid card game.]