The American Sociological Review may have just published the social health equivalent of the 1964 Surgeon General's report that declared smoking causes cancer. The unpleasant but long suspected discovery in this case is that social isolation in America has grown dramatically in the past 20 years.
Some things are uncomfortable to know. We don't like knowing the earth is getting hotter; some people choose not to believe it. In 1964, about half of all adults smoked and they did not like knowing the habit caused cancer; some people chose not to believe it and some people still don't. The scientific evidence about smoking and cancer existed long before Jan. 11, 1964, but when the famous report was issued that day, people started believing it.
I expect something quieter and more eggheaded but quite similar will happen with an academic paper with the vanilla title, "Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades." The authors, Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears, sociologists at Duke and the University of Arizona, have no such wild pretensions, but I think they've documented an enormous, stunning social change so clearly that it will alter the way we look at social and political life. It should.
And it should scare you.
The authors set out to empirically describe how socially connected Americans are by asking them questions like, "Who are the peoplewith whom you discussed matters important to you?" They did this as part of the General Social Survey, the Rolls Royce of face-to-face social surveys that has been conducted almost every year since 1972. In 2004, they precisely replicated questions about social networks that had not been asked since 1985.
Because the findings are so stark and clear, and come with no linguistic and philosophic adornment, I'll let the numbers speak for themselves in blunt bullet points: