Monday, August 07, 2006

Social isolation in America.

Weird article here about Americans and "loneliness" -- by which is actually meant social isolation, not a feeling. I call it weird not because of the problem itself (which I would think is ubiquitous), but because of the proposed explanations and solutions. Here's one:
"People are increasingly busy," said Margaret Gibbs, a psychologist at Fairleigh Dickinson University. "We've become a society where we expect things instantly, and don't spend the time it takes to have real intimacy with another person."
Considering I know of and have known of people who spend hours chatting online to the same person, day in day out, I'm not sure where Dr. Gibbs came up with this little conclusion. I'll accept the "busy" angle insofar as it limits the opportunities for social engagement (less time to cruise the bars!), but I don't see why it follows from that that we "expect things instantly" or "don't spend the time" to get to know people. If opportunities are limited, then they have to be exploited to maximum benefit, but that doesn't mean that things are expected instantly, nor (more importantly) that we aren't willing to spend time to get to know people. What follows instead is that people are less willing to invest time and effort into getting to know someone who doesn't immediately seem worth it. And what's wrong with that?

(It's worth noting that Dr. Gibbs has actually no academic or professional expertise in "diagnosing" causes of social problems. From her own faculty webpage: "Although my Ph.D. is in clinical psychology, I have always believed, perhaps as a function of going to liberal universities in the sixties, that clinical psychology should try to ameliorate the impact of social conditions." In other words, she's pretty much a counsellor, who has interests in social problems. And her research interests bear this out: "Psychological impact of disasters and trauma, both environmental and social trauma, including sexual and domestic abuse and sexual harassment", "Psychological functioning of minority and cross-cultural groups", "Personal Problem Solving System on the TAT" and "Malingering".)

Our next participant is Dr. John Powell, "a psychologist at the University of Illinois counseling center" -- in other words, he's probably going to give us a few anecdotes rather than anything rigorous.


John Powell, a psychologist at the University of Illinois counseling center, says it's common for incoming freshmen to stay in their rooms, chatting by computer with high school friends rather than venturing out to get-acquainted activities on campus. "The frequency of contact and volume of contact does not necessarily translate into the quality of contact," Powell said. John Powell, from his vantage point at the Illinois counseling center, says students increasingly have difficulty "making really satisfying connections" even though the university offers many activities to bring students together. "All the students I work with have incredibly many pseudo-intimate relationships online — but without the kind of risk and vulnerability that goes with sitting across a cafe booth from another person," Powell said.
Where to start. First, it's bullshit to say that the "risk and vulnerability" that goes with sitting with another person is necessarily a good thing. It can be, but that's a contingent, contextual feature, not something that goes hand in hand. Indeed, more often than not, the risk and vulnerability of being around another person can lead to embarrassment and its uglier cousin, humiliation. It's hardly surprising that many college-age people, who experience enough embarrassment on a regular basis, might opt for a safer alternative, at least at first.

Second, chatting with high school friends is no bad thing. Maintaining a network of contacts and friendships from several years ago seems to be exactly the sort of anti-isolation solution that Dr. Powell should be encouraging.

Third, Dr. Powell's comment that "[t]he frequency and volume of contact does not necessarily translate into the quality of contact" directly contradicts the claim that college students should venture out into the get-acquainted activities, which involve little more than making a large volume of contacts in a very short space of time.

Fourth, I have no idea what "pseudo-intimate" means. I wonder how old Dr. Powell is. Seriously -- in my experience (yes, this is just anecdote), older people have a hard time taking seriously the idea that online relationships can be as serious as "real" ones.

Fifth, in my experience (again, anecdote), university get-together activities involve some variation on drinking, sports, and/or popular music. If you aren't into all three -- and a significant minority are not -- then the activities will not reach you.

Sixth and finally, rather than accepting that the modern university is largely faceless and inhuman, little more than a degree-factory, to most students -- who, it should be noted, tend to live at home and not on campus due to the paucity of on-campus housing -- Dr. Powell is blaming students for lacking social development through the university. If universities are serious about helping their students' social development, I question why, for example, the college system has mostly been disbanded, and why common meal-times have been replaced by buffet-styled cafeterias.

Finally, we have a sociological study that is supposed to be damning:

In June, an authoritative study in the American Sociological Review found that the average American had only two close friends in whom they would confide on important matters, down from an average of three in 1985. The number of people who said they had no such confidant soared from 10% in 1985 to nearly 25% in 2004; an additional 19% said they had only one confidant — often their spouse.
Let's suppose it is authoritative, although I have no idea how one is supposed to conclude that on the basis of one study in a controversial area. But, the supposedly shocking result is that most people have one less close friend in 2004 than in 1985. Egads. The other supposedly shocking result is that 25% (compared to 10%) have no close friends. I wonder if the study asked whether this were a bad thing -- there's a presumption under the surface here that not having close friends is bad. But why presume that? (I'm ignoring the 19% figure as, without the context of the original study, it's meaningless.)

There's a fatuous comment to close this out, from a sociologist who worked on the study (and, according to her faculty website, has no special expertise in this area):

"That [19% only have one confidant, their spouse] may be the most worrisome thing," said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociologist who co-authored the study. "If you lose that one person, because the relationship declines or the person dies, you have no one to support you. If we're all becoming more dependent on our spouse or partner for that kind of complete knowing of each other, we're all vulnerable to losing that."
This is why I don't take sociology serious. "COmplete knowing of each other"? Jesus wept.

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