america is not getting lonelier
A key empirical question in social network analysis is whether Americans have more or less friends over time. Famously, Robert Putnam argued that indeed, we were “bowling alone.” In contrast, critics contend that these are misinterpreted results. Some types of networks disappear, while other appear.
On the social network listserv, Claude Fischer provides the latest round in the debate. Fischer uses 2010 GSS data to claim that the decline in strong personal relationships reported by McPhereson et al. (2006 in the ASR) is due to survey question construction. I’ll quote Fischer’s entire announcement:
Results of the 2010 GSS Network experiment indicate that the increase from 8 to 25 percent of respondents with no confidants between 1985 GSS and 2004 GSS (McPherson et al., ASR 2006) was a result of procedural differences between the surveys.
In 2006, McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears (ASR) reported that in the 2004 General Social Survey about one-fourth of respondents said they had no one with whom they discussed personal matters, a dramatic increase from the roughly eight percent who said that in the 1985 GSS. This report garnered widespread attention. In 2009, Fischer (ASR) argued that the results were anomalous and likely an artifact. McPherson and colleagues reported slightly adjusted statistics (due to 41 miscoded cases), but strongly defended the basic finding of a sizeable, if perhaps overstated, surge in the percent who reported no confidants.
In 2010, the GSS ran a survey experiment, designed by Peter Marsden, in third wave of its 2006 panel to test whether procedural differences accounted for the 1985/2004 differences. Three random subsamples of the panel were asked the classic “discuss important matters” name-eliciting question, each roughly following the procedures used in the 1985, 1987, or 2004 instances of the networks module: (1) The 1985 procedure asked the question early in the survey, following only the “core” questions of the GSS. (2) The 1987 procedure had the important matters question come later in the interview, following a battery of questions asking respondents about membership in voluntary associations. (3) The 2004 procedure asked the same question near the end of the interview, following the battery of questions about voluntary association membership and questions asking respondents to provide detailed information about one particular association, including the name of a leader and contact information for him or her.
The top-line results of the experiment are:
Percent reporting that they discussed personal matters with no one
1985 procedure (ballot 1/A in 2010)
1985 – 8%
2010 – 5%
1987 procedure (ballot 3/C in 2010):
1987 – 4%
2010 – 13%
2004 procedure (ballot 2/B in 2010):
2004 – 23%
2010 – 21%
Therefore, procedural changes probably account for the year differences, especially for the 2004 v. 1985 contrast.
A recent paper by Paik and Sanchagrin, available on-line (http://ssrn.com/abstract=2101146), conducts a deeper analysis of these (and other) data and concludes that the best explanation is an interviewer effect – more interviewers in 2004 than in 1985 avoided or abbreviated the network module.
Personally, I have always been with the critics. Roughly speaking, my Bayesian prior on the “death of society” thesis was 30%. Maybe we might be more isolated, but my casual observation is that people invent new ways to be social. The McPhereson et al. paper revised my prior to about 60%. Now I’m back to 30%