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June 16, 2006
Americans' Circle of Friends Is Shrinking
Washington, DC—Americans’ circle of close
confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades and the number of
people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more
than doubled, according to a new
study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of
“The evidence shows that Americans have fewer confidants and
those ties are also more family-based than they used to be,” said Lynn
Smith-Lovin, Robert L. Wilson Professor of Sociology at Duke University and one
of the study’s authors.
“This change indicates something that’s not good
for our society. Ties with a close network of people create a safety net. These
ties also lead to civic engagement and local political action,” she said.
The study, published in the June 2006 issue of American Sociological
Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association, is
based on the first nationally representative survey on this topic in 19 years.
The study compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found that the mean
number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them
dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.
Researchers also found that the number of people who said they had no
one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent.
The survey found that both family and non-family confidants dropped, with the
loss greatest in non-family connections.
The study paints a picture of
Americans’ social contacts as a “densely connected, close, homogeneous set of
ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected,
more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family.”
fewer contacts created through clubs, neighbors and organizations outside the
home—a phenomenon popularly known as “bowling alone,” from the 2000 book of the
same title by Robert D. Putnam.
The researchers speculated that changes
in communities and families, such as the increase in the number of hours that
family members spend at work and the influence of Internet communication, may
contribute to the decrease in the size of close-knit circles of friends and
The study also finds that:
• The trend toward social isolation mirrors other class
divides: Non-whites and people with less education tend to have smaller networks
than white Americans and the highly educated.
diversity among people’s networks has increased. The percentage of people who
count at least one person of another race in their close network has gone up
from about 9 percent to more than 15 percent.
• The percentage
of people who talk only to family members about important matters increased from
about 57 percent to about 80 percent, while the number of people who depend
totally on their spouse has increased from about 5 percent to about 9 percent.
General Social Survey Measures Americans’ ‘Discussion
The data come from the General Social Survey (GSS),
one of the nation’s longest running surveys of social, cultural and political
issues. The survey, which has been conducted by the National Opinion Research
Center at the University of Chicago since 1972, is composed of face-to-face
interviews with Americans over 18 who are not living in institutions.
addition to the standard set of questions, additional questions are added for
specific studies, such as this one. The last survey on confidants was done in
1985. In the 2004 GSS, the questions were repeated to measure how people’s
social networks had changed over time. This study, comparing the data, was
funded by the National Science Foundation and the CIRCLE Foundation.
addition to Smith-Lovin, the study was conducted by Miller McPherson, a research
professor of sociology at Duke and professor of sociology at the University of
Arizona, and Matthew E. Brashears, a graduate student at the University of
In the survey, 1,467 people were asked to give the first names
or initials of the people with whom they had discussed matters that were
important to them in the past six months. Researchers followed up with questions
about the gender, race, education and age of their confidants, as well as family
ties, the length of their relationship and frequency of contact.
answers measure what the researchers call “core discussion networks” and provide
“a window into an important set of close, routinely contacted people who make up
our respondents’ immediate social circle,” the study said.
drop in the number of people in these discussion networks was not anticipated by
the researchers, who have plans to follow up with more surveys in the future.
“We were surprised to see such a large change. We remain
cautious—perhaps even skeptical—of its size. It’s unusual to see very large
social changes like this that aren’t tied to some type of demographic shift in
the population,” McPherson said. “But even if the change is exaggerated for some
reason, given our analyses of the highest quality, nationally representative
data available, we are confident there is a trend toward smaller, closer social
networks more centered on spouses and partners.”
Show Racial Diversity, Disparity in Social Networks
sociologists consider these “discussion networks” to be an important social
resource, providing counseling and other valuable help in people’s lives.
Hurricane Katrina showed how important these resources are, Smith-Lovin
said. “They make up a safety net of people who will help and support us, both in
terms of routine tasks and also of extreme emergency. Americans have become much
more dependent on a small number of very close family contacts -- usually
spouses or partners or parents -- for that kind of help,” she said.
researchers also found that Americans are stratified according to education and
race when it comes to these social networks. African Americans and other
non-white Americans have smaller networks of confidants than white Americans.
African-American men older than 60 have seen the biggest decline, from 3.6
people in 1985 to 1.8 in 2004.
“People who are disadvantaged in various
ways are especially likely to have smaller, more family-based networks,”
Why Such a Large Change?
While this study did not uncover the reasons behind this social change,
the researchers offer some ideas based on other research.
possibility is that people interpreted the questions differently in 2004 than
they did in 1985. What people define as “important” might have changed, or
people might not equate emailing or instant messaging with “discussing.”
The researchers also suggest that changes in work and the geographical
scattering of families may foster a broader, shallower network of ties, rather
than the close bonds measured by this study.
Research also shows a
decline in the number of groups that people belong to and the amount of time
they spend with these organizations. Members of families spend more time at work
and have less time to spend on activities outside the home that might lead to
And new technology, while allowing people to
connect over larger distances, might diminish the need for face-to-face visits
with friends, family or neighbors, the study said.
“Group membership is
very important in creating ties to people outside the family,” Smith-Lovin said.
“But those ties may be more superficial now. If people spend less time in
groups, they may talk to people, but just about matters that involve the club,
and they may be less likely to share personal troubles or triumphs with
For more information or to get in touch with the researchers, contact Sally
Hicks (Duke University) at (919) 681-8055 or firstname.lastname@example.org
. For a copy of the
article, “Social Isolation in America,” contact Johanna Olexy (American
Sociological Association) at (202) 247-9871 or email@example.com
# # #
The American Sociological Review, edited by
Jerry A. Jacobs (University of Pennsylvania), is the flagship journal
of the American Sociological Association.
About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org),
founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to
serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science
and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.