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Posts Tagged ‘intimacy’

American Ties (I)

In July, 2006, the New York Times ran a  scary story headlined, “The Lonely American Just Got a Bit Lonelier.” It was one of many news accounts that summer that reported on a dramatic finding from a study newly published in a major sociology journal. The authors had discovered that about 25 percent of Americans interviewed in a 2004 nationally representative survey had answered “no one” when asked with whom they had “discussed important matters” in the previous six months – and that percentage was way up from the 8 percent who had answered “no one” in a similar survey conducted in 1985.

Ra'ike via Creative Commons

In two decades, commentators decried, the nation had suffered a plague of isolation.The notion that Americans were becoming isolates confirmed many people’s darkest suspicion and soon became the conventional wisdom; the study was cited everywhere. However…..

I was skeptical of the 2004 survey results and explained, in detail, why I thought they were in error – three years later in the same journal. More important, a canvass of many surveys on Americans’ social ties reveals no other data showing growing isolation. Instead, surveys generally show that relatively few Americans report being isolated and that the percentage who do has changed little in decades. Modern Americans seem not particularly isolated and seem not to have gotten more so.

(Disclosure: This post is part of an occasional series drawing from a new book of mine, Still Connected: Family and Friends in America since 1970. Further details can be found there. In an earlier blog post, I discussed the decline of formal dining.)

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Inventing Friendship

Friendship seems as natural as two children meeting on the playground and then, at least sometimes, staying friends long enough to eventually share pictures of their own children. But social history suggests that the sort of relationship Americans call a “true” or “pure” friendship is a relatively modern invention.

The O.E.D.’s first definition of “friend” — “‘One joined to another in mutual benevolence and intimacy’. . .  Not ordinarily applied to lovers or relatives” —  is good enough. Importantly, however, modern Americans usually consider a “real” friendship to be an intimate and benevolent bond that is separate from – or can be separated from – any other connection between the two people. That is  historically new.
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