Light blogging due to an exam, an election, travel and work.
But in transit I have read Andrew Leigh’s new book Disconnected, about social capital in Australia. In his introduction, Andrew L tells us that ‘just as some people collect coins and others collect Pokemon cards, I collect pieces of data’. Much of it on social connection, trust, and organisational membership is reported in this book. As a dabbler in this field myself, I know that much of this data is hard to get and it’s very useful to have it presented in one place.
One piece of new survey research Andrew L reports is on friendship. For something so integral to most people’s lives friendship is a seriously under-researched topic in social science (and in liberal philosophy too, despite it being one of the last spheres of unregulated voluntary relationships).
In 1984, Australians reported on average 8.9 easily available people with whom they could speak frankly without having to watch what they say. Now the number averages out at 6.7 such friends. The average number of people on which respondents could turn to in times of difficulty (apart from those at home) dropped from 4.9 to 4.5. ‘Enough’ in both cases, but drops nonetheless.
In some ways I find this a little surprising. With later marriages, more people not getting married, fewer children and many separated and divorced people, the need for friendship in the absence of family, and the time to pursue it, have both increased. Yet these closer connections seem to be declining in number.
Andrew L has no single smoking gun for explaining the generally (though not entirely) negative social capital trends. Many of the causes relate to how much time we have spare: more long hours workers, more women at work, long commutes, and too much TV. He shows that cultural diversity is associated with less trust (and ‘old’ Australians are bigger joiners than ‘new’ Australians). He thinks impersonal technologies don’t help our interaction with others. And he sees danger in tipping points, such as community organisations getting into downward spirals, with people not joining because others aren’t joining.
He’s not sympathetic to ‘ideological’ explanations – that government at least partly caused the decline in social capital because it took over functions from community groups, or that the market diminishes community connections. I’m glad to say that none of his modest suggestions for generating more social capital involves more government. Some things we just have to do for ourselves.