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.

17 thoughts on “Disconnected?

  1. “He thinks impersonal technologies don’t help with interaction with others.”

    He’s never heard of Facebook? I think a lot of these claims about declining community groups and so on need to be taken with an enormous grain of salt — if you look at the electronic world, it’s amazing how much interaction there is — there are now informal organizations and groups for almost anything you can possibly imagine.


  2. By impersonal he means interacting only with a machine with no real person behind it. Though it is not discussed in depth, he agrees that Facebook is a plus for social capital (though not necessarily the internet as a whole, as it is a huge time waster…)

    BTW, do you have animal pics on your Facebook page? Otherwise I have just tried to Facebook ‘friend’ someone who has no idea who I am.


  3. I’m not sure later marriage and children should promote close friendships. People tend to make close friends at two points in their lives: when they are at school or uni and when they have children and need support. In 1984, few people went to uni and they had children young, so they would have been more likely to stick with friends they made in high school. Nowadays, people tend to drift apart from high school friends at uni and often drift from uni friends after having children – unless the uni friends happen to have children at a similar time and place. So at any given point in time, one could expect that the average person has fewer close friendships than before.
    Greater mobility of the labour force is another factor. You make not like a friend any less when you don’t see them for years, but the closeness arising from the day-to-day sharing of experiences disappears very quickly.


  4. “By impersonal he means interacting only with a machine with no real person behind it”
    I think this a whole can of worms, since different modalities allow different types of interactions with different people, but I certainly wouldn’t call it impersonal (it’s an endless question for sociologists), and I wouldn’t want to be stuck in the “in my day” sort of mindset where new ways of doing things are considered negative for no real reason.


  5. Rajat – I can’t immediately think of any research on where people meet their close friends, but it makes sense that it would be in situations where they have to spend a lot of time together.

    The labour force mobility issue I need to have another look at -but there don’t seem to be any major trends in job tenure. Eg In 1976, 21% of male workers had been in their current jobs for less than 12 months. This year it was 17.5%, but it had been 21% in 2008, suggesting business cycle factors rather than real trends. 1 to 2 years, exactly the same 11.3% in 1976 and 2010. 20 years or more, 10.5% in 1976, 11.6% in 2010. The more recent published reports don’t break the numbers down by age; older workers are more stable so the ageing of the workforce will have an effect.

    But like the idea of declining job security, the idea of higher job turnover does not seem well-supported by the empirical evidence.


  6. Conrad – As you would expect with Andrew L, the book points out the benefits of changes as well as the disadvantages. I like the speed and convenience of ATMs, supermarket scanners, etc. But I also like going to shops where I am confident I will see the same people as before. For example. I preferred my local milk bar to the supermarket or 7-11 because I liked the people who ran it. Andrew L even uses this example in his book.


  7. Andrew,

    How, or does, the decline of religion, fit into the loss of social capital? My mum and dad got involved in various organisations (eg St Vincent de Paul when it was not a government-funded bureaucracy as now) through the Catholic Church and weekly mass was a way of making friends. As a lapsed Catholic those social and community opportunities are not part of my life, and I suspect, of many others.


  8. Andrew, I suppose I really meant geographic mobility – the greater tendency for people to move region, State or country for work. It’s quite easy to remain close with school friends when you change jobs at a particular location, but much harder when you move from country to city or to a different capital city.


  9. Jeremy – Andrew L has a chapter on this, and it is quite a big factor. He puts it down more to ‘nominalism’ than atheism (most people still claim to have a religion, they just don’t attend) and cohort effects rather than changes in individual behaviour.

    Rajat – Last time I checked, increased residential mobility within Australia was also a myth (like the labour market, it’s high, but always has been). But there is definitely increased international mobility – this has certainly had a big impact on how often I see people I regard as close friends. My life experience is probably in line with Andrew L’s findings for this reason.


  10. Andrew, ditto, but I would have thought that our demographic is too small to impact the overall stats. So it seems likely to be something else.


  11. My favourite example of crowding out was when the State Government approinted an administrator (or some such) to assist with the then thriving Parkes Learn To Swim group. The parents who had been organising it successfully to then found themselves being used as workers, basically, with no collective decision making (and thus ownership) involved as had previous occurred. Mum and dad didn’t go back.


  12. “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). ”

    Unless you’re a bikie gang member!


  13. The downward spiral is very much an issue in voluntary organisations. I’m involved with Girl Guides, and I’ve noticed that when a group has less than 10 members, it is very very hard to hang on to those members, and hard to find new ones. Like it is assumed that the group is dying, so why join? However, if you manage to get the group to 16-20 members, it somehow seems to become self-purpetuating – enough join to offset the leavers.


  14. you dont mention migrants. When you end up inb a strange community it can be rather hostile. Especially if you are not a boozer.


  15. Rob – Such a basic sociological question, but reflecting my comments in the post about the lack of research on this topic I can’t answer it. As I noted in the post, the reduced numbers may not be a problem. But the question raised by Andrew L’s research is whether fewer social contexts in which friendships are formed is translating through to fewer friendships. My personal experience is that friendships aren’t usually the result of calculation (ie no conscious decision to make more friends); they are by-products of mixing regularly with people. To the extent that there are fewer reasons to mix regularly there will be fewer friendships.


  16. Maybe manners play a part. I’m not sure as many people now learn how to initiate a conversation – not a friendship, just a bit of social intercourse, but if you can’t make a start then it can’t turn into any relationship.

    I avoid people as much as possible, but if I’m in a queue of some kind, it’s older people who start talking, and as I jog along the beach in the morning it’s older people out walking who wave. Younger people were brought up with the idea of respecting other people’s personal space – a change in manners that doesn’t encourage social interaction.


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