All the Lonely People
April 24, 2012

There’s a whole subgenre of pop sociology and social psychology dedicated to enumerating all of the causes and consequences of the modern American’s crushing loneliness. The latest entry is Steve Marche’s Atlantic article blaming Facebook and other social networking sites for isolating us all from one other, replacing meaningful interaction with pokes and Farmville.*

Sociologist Claude S. Fischer begs to differ. He writes:

Social scientists have more precisely tracked Americans’ isolation and reports of loneliness over the last several decades. The real news, they have discovered, is that there is no such epidemic; there isn’t even a meaningful trend.

If we turned to historians to measure Americans’ degree of isolation over the centuries, they would probably find periods of growing and lessening social connection. The rough evidence indicates a general decline in isolation.

Fischer, being a sociologist with a plethora of empirical research to back him up, seems to have the upper hand here. But if he’s right, then what explains the peculiarly modern anxiety about loneliness? What are we actually anxious about? Will Wilkinson has a theory:

The point is, some of our brightest social theorists seem to over-ready to identify troubling trends or newly urgent problems when there is actually very little evidence of any trend, or that this or that problem has actually deepened. A simple explanation of this sort of error is that we intuitively take our own increasing awareness of a problem as evidence that the problem has become objectively more salient. We should watch out for this.

“Increasing awareness of a problem” is one way of looking at it. A related (and not entirely mutually exclusive) possibility is that we’re seeing something that’s always been true, and, for the first time, turning it into a problem to be solved. Facebook may not make us lonelier, but it certainly promises to salve the loneliness we already carry around with us. Same with other social networking platforms. If we have the theoretical ability to remain in perpetual play and discourse with our friends and loved ones, then what right do we have to be lonely?

Maybe we’re looking at the whole problem backwards. Maybe loneliness isn’t inherently a defect to be fixed by more social interaction. In fact, social interaction can sometimes exacerbate it — even face-to-face meatspace social interaction. In those cases, introspection and solitude can be a balm. A controlled exploration of loneliness may be more healthy, long-term, than resorting to social distraction. You might not be able to construct a permanent bulwark against loneliness, but when it rushes past your defenses you can at least acknowledge it as an old and familiar acquaintance.

This doesn’t sound crazy or counter-intuitive to me. In fact, it sounds pretty obvious. But this whole discussion seems to be predicated on the popular assumption that loneliness is always an enemy from whom you should flee. That assumption, I would argue, is the true epidemic.

*My words, not his. But as far as I can tell, poking and Farmville are both over now.

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Signaling Authenticity
April 14, 2011

Kingdom of Northshield court in the Society fo...

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A friend passes along this study (PDF) from The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography on how members of the Society for Creative Anachronism use what the author calls “bridging discourse” to demonstrate to one another that they’re engaging in authentic group behavior — that, in the terminology of the SCA, their clothes and mannerisms are sufficiently “period.”

The author, Stephanie Decker of the University of Kansas, defines bridging discourse like so (emphasis added):

When individuals engage in behavior that might be considered inauthentic by other group members, they, or other members, often engage in bridging discourse to explain why the behavior is congruent with the idea of being period; in doing so, they demonstrate that their behavior is linked to the same ideology to which other group members link their behavior. When group members engage in behavior that others see as incongruent with the group’s ideology, they risk portraying themselves as deviant and indicating that they believe the ideology of the group is unimportant. Other group members may feel that such actions reflect poorly on the group as a whole, and this may change the collective identity of the group. When individuals engage in bridging discourse, they protect themselves, or others, from stigma but also maintain the collective identity of the group. Members accomplish this by reinterpreting the group’s ideology, redefining their behavior, or offering explanations as to why they should be excused from meeting the group’s standards.

And here’s an example of one member of the group, ostensibly dressed as an authentic medieval warrior, justifying his use of period-inappropriate cotton instead of wool:

Well, I know that they wore wool, but they wore wool because that’s what was available to them, and that’s what met their needs. But if they were in North America I’m sure they would have worn cotton, because that’s what would have been available, and it would have been hot as hell. So I think wearing cotton is totally period, because it’s practical.

The paper’s about a pretty specific and eccentric subculture, but it doesn’t exactly overtax the imagination to try and transplant bridging discourse into other contexts. In the political realm, replace “period” with “seriousness” or “belief in American exceptionalism.” Within the Republican caucus, replace it with “Tea Partier,” “conservative,” or “loves Reagan.”

But what’s most interesting to me about this phenomenon in the political realm is the way politicians sometimes need to use bridging discourse to catch up with evolving standards. American exceptionalism, for example, didn’t used to be the hot button issue it is today — but then conservatives realized they could use it as a semi-veiled way to call into question the American-ness of their opponents, most notably President Obama. Now all of a sudden, even people who don’t subscribe to American infallibility are going out of their way to make public statements about aspirational exceptionalism and the like. It makes you think less of a bridge than one of those stair trucks you see at airports.

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