Barry Wellman gives the inside story on the study that has been widely misquoted in the press about social isolation including this one in the Washington Post “Social Isolation Growing in U.S., Study Says The Number of People Who Say They Have No One to Confide In Has Risen“ by Shankar Vedantam published on Friday, June 23, 2006.
Wellman writes to the Association of Internet Researchers (quoted in full with permission):
Re the Washington Post story below [I have noted and linked that story above - pj] (and a similar USA Today story):
To my mind, it’s an interesting case of media distortion.
The good news: the accounts are based on a high-quality survey (US General Social Survey) by first-class reseachers (Lynn Smith-Lovin & Miller McPherson) + Matthew Brashaers whom I don’t know, in sociology’s leading journal, American Sociological Review. I was a referee on this paper, btw, and revealed myself at appropriate time to the authors.
The study replicates one stimulus Q from the General Social Survey 20 years ago about who do you have to discuss important matters with. It finds a mean of about 2 in 2004, down from 3 in 1984 (or was it 1985)?
Here’s the problem:
Based on this, the 2 newspapers have created a huge social isolation spin on this, when it’s well known that people have lotsa ties, not just 2 or 3. See our data from Pew Internet, Connected Lives study) + lotsa others. Indeed, altho we are not as parallel as the US GSS, comparing Connected Lives (3rd East York study, 2004) with the second East York study (1979 data) shows more active ties now, both intimate and significant ties.
Thus the media spin is a huge inferential leap from a decline in the super-core ties to saying Americans are socially isolated.
If you read further in the Washington Post and USA Today articles, you’ll see me quoted as suggesting that we now have more ties — and more contact with ties — but that relationships are differentiated. In other words, the relative decline in discussion partners shouldn’t be generalized to either absolute isolation or even growing isolation.
Of course, YMMV.
Update: Barry Wellman writes again “FYI, the Wa Post is probably going to run a followup editorial in next day or 2 by Sebastian Mellaby.”
Should be Sebastian Mallaby who writes on Mondays. So keep an eye open for that. pj