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Americans Are Staying as Far Away From Each Other as Possible

New research suggests the atomization of American culture is proceeding as expected.
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(Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

(Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Are Americans "bowling alone" now more than ever?

In his 1995 essay, sociologist Robert Putnam warned of the increasing atomization of American society. The institutions of American social capital, he wrote, are on the decline: Attendance at public forums, religious groups, civic organizations, and even his eponymous bowling leagues have been steadily declining since the the heyday of the 1950s American suburban community. The social fabric of America is coming apart on the neighborhood level, wrote Putnam—and it’s only going to get worse.

Unfortunately, it seems Putnam was on to something. In a report for urbanism think-tank City Observatory, economist Joe Cortright tracks the decline of American social capital over the past 40 years not simply in terms of membership to voluntary organizations, but also through the relationships Americans have with their geographical neighbors. Data used in the report from the General Social Survey doesn’t paint a pretty picture: According to Cortright, the degree to which Americans trust one another is at a 40-year low.

(Chart: City Observatory)

(Chart: City Observatory)

It’s not only trust, but actual relationships, too: Americans now are less likely than ever before to "socialize regularly" with their neighbors. This is the case even in large cities, where you might expect proximity to breed familiarity; the Washington Post notes that population density in major American cities dropped rapidly as primarily white, well-off citizens fled for the extra room (and distance) of the suburbs during the 1950s.

(Chart: City Observatory)

(Chart: City Observatory)

What’s behind this trend? Cortright posits that social capital is on the decline largely because cities are failing to function as "interaction machines" that facilitate community solidarity. He argues that a growing preference for private spaces over the public commons has dramatically affected how Americans socialize. Nowadays, people prefer the quiet of their own homes or of private organizations than the local commons that are meant to be the centerpieces of communities. These growing divisions manifest themselves in stark ways—Cortright mentions the rise of charter schools, gated communities, and other "exclusive" communities like swimming pools—and more subtle ones, like broad economic segregation.

"Our city governments, schools, and communities are more fragmented and less inclusive than in days gone by," Cortright writes. "In many cases—in leisure, entertainment, and schooling—we’ve enabled people to secede from the commons and get a different level and quality of service."

The social fabric of America is coming apart on the neighborhood level—and it’s only going to get worse.

But the overall trend, regardless of socioeconomic divisions, shows that Americans are opting out of public spaces for private ones. Just look at the American commute: 85 percent of commuters travel to work in private cars, up from 63 percent in 1960. During the same time period, the number of commuters taking public transportation fell from 12 to five percent. And it’s not just upscale communities. More Americans live in "sprawling, single-family settings, rather than dense, multi-family neighborhoods where backyards can play a larger role substituting for public parks," Cortright notes. We to go private gyms, swim in private pools and health clubs. When we retreat behind screens, it’s on our phones rather than around the family set. We’ve even stopped going to the library.

While Americans continue to retreat from each other, Cortright notes that many are finding new public—if not publicly funded—spaces to inhabit. Coffee shops, sporting events, and even farmers markets continue to offer shared interaction spaces for neighborhoods, even if the local bowling alley is no longer open for business.

There is, of course, one space where civic engagement is alive and well, which Cortright glosses over: the Internet. A 2010 Pew study on "The Social Side of the Internet" found that Internet users are far more likely to actively engage in voluntary groups or organizations than others non-Web users. According to the data, 80 percent of Internet users (including 82 percent of social networkers and 85 percent of Twitter users) participate in group civic organizations, compared with 56 percent of non-Internet users.

But can the Internet make up for the growing gulf between American neighbors? Cortright makes a qualitative distinction between online and person-to-person interaction, asserting that "even in an age of ‘social’ media, Americans have arguably become more disconnected from one another in many aspects of daily life." With Putnam’s prediction of an atomized America looking more inevitable with each passing year, one can only hope that Cortright is wrong.