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Posts published in “Day: August 15, 2018”

Review: Vanishing Neighbor


When we dig down into the substrata underlying our civic problems - our deep divisions, unwillingness to compromise, the too-deep untrustfulness and cynicism - we can see a range of prospective "root causes". For those of us around for enough years to recall a different kind of American society, one of the biggest of these is the loss of social ties and connections.

In a rough sense, that's the subject of The Vanishing Neighbor by Marc Dunkelman, a book that relies more on anecdote than statistics and wanders well afield in places. It does usefully highlight the need for careful parsing in this area, though, and teases out what we have and haven't lost.

Over the period since World War II, which roughly is the time frame Dunkelman scans, some types of contact and community have been lost, and others have not. Dunkelman sketches out three concentric circles of contact between people, and describes how each have changed. And each have, but in different ways, and one of them more dramatically than the others.

The inside, tightest, ring, of family members and closest friends, has changed but not drastically. Families are much more varied now than they once were, and divorce is certainly much more common now than in the immediate post-war period. That said, most of still are close to family and our closest associates. The arrival of digital communications has in some ways even enhanced some of that (parents tracking children via smartphone, for example).

The outer ring too has changed but in fewer sweeping ways than many people may think. Back then, most of us had networks and contacts, and we still do. More of those connections now may be of the digital variety, through social media and other connections, but the relatively far-flung links of yesteryear weren't necessarily a lot more solid. The ranging of networks may even be expanding.

It's the ring in the middle that's been changing a lot. These are the people who aren't in the category of our closest contacts, but they are personal - these are people we know face to face, come into regular contact with, influence and are influenced by. They might be the casual friends met for an after-work drink, or someone in the union hall (when there were such things), or someone in a local pickup sports activity. The book Bowling Alone focused on these kind of connections: People who are just far enough from us, in economic status or occupational interest or religious or political background, that we aren't tight with them; but just close enough that we learn how to socialize and connect with them, with - in other words - people who are a little different from us.

That puts a finer point on the increasing solidity of the bubbles so many of us now live within, the echo chambers so many experience when the only voices heard are of those who think like us.

The step between the formation of those bubbles and the walls between, for example, the reds and the blues, is short and obvious. The inner circle a group of people we do not choose lightly (or in the case of family may not have chosen at all) tends not to piece the bubble much, except in the case of things like family argument blowups at Thanksgiving. The outer circle, our network of loose connections, is too easily replaceable, with names dropping and out, or too focused on a narrow area of interest or commonality, to force us to communicate much with people who are not exactly like us.

We're missing that middle range, that middle circle, that helps us more than the inner or outer layers, to navigate a society where we're not all the same.

It's a useful point, and The Vanishing Neighbor makes it usefully.