On Community, Part II

This is the second part of a four-part series on issues of community in the United States. In the first part, I made the claim that America lacks social cohesion and a strong sense of community, and that this deficiency may be a major factor in cultivating extreme behavior exhibited by school shooters like Adam Lanza. In this part and the next, I will address some possible reasons behind this problem. In the fourth part, I hope to propose ideas for solutions.

I will outline three factors that I consider to be the major, if not necessarily the sole, reasons that the US suffers from lack of social cohesion today. They are historical drivers that span a significant part of American history. The first is industrialization, a phenomenon that transformed the United States and Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries and is transforming much of the developing world today. The second is suburbanization, a more uniquely American phenomenon that took off in post-WWII America and only recently appears to show some signs of abating. The third is multiculturalism, a feature that has arguably always been reflective of the American social fabric, but that has dramatically broadened and accelerated in the past few decades. Three factors, emanating a century and a half ago, a half century ago, and a few decades ago, have conspired to shape and mold the mosaic that is American culture today. To be sure, in no way do I mean to imply that these factors are in some fundamental sense bad or detrimental. They are what make America and American culture unique. This is only to highlight the unintended and potentially negative consequences of these transformative changes, so as to have a basis for proposing ameliorating solutions.

Let’s begin with industrialization. Its most relevant effect with respect to this topic is the transformation of the workplace. In pre-industrial societies, people worked where they lived, and had little incentive to move great distances in search of a better vocation. As a result geographic dispersion was limited, with people generally living and dying in the place that they were born. This in turn meant that the friendships and social relationships that people formed were extremely long-lived. Instead of having one set of friends for elementary school, another for secondary school, yet another for higher studies and a whole network of loose acquaintances as one navigates the professional trajectory of her or his career, people socialized with the same set of relations throughout their lives. They studied and worked together, grew up and died together. Togetherness was a fundamental fixture of daily life. And it is this togetherness that is the core currency of community. By their nature, communities are built on strong social relations. Two people are unlikely to genuinely care for one another unless they know each other, and they are unlikely to depend on one another unless they trust each other. Familiarity and trust are hard won, and can only be forged through long and sustained contact. As industrialization swept across cities, this situation began to change. Some changes were obvious and directly effected by industrialization. For example the rise of factories drove people to leave their villages and hometowns and move to the cities. Vocational specialization also increased, which in turn meant that to find suitable work, people might have to move very far from their place of birth. Industrialization also had secondary effects that unfolded over much longer time periods. Advancements in technology enabled people to travel farther distances, shrinking the effective size of the globe. This had the effect of rendering geographic stability a secondary consideration for many people. Taken together, these changes ultimately led to the decoupling of the workplace from one’s place of birth. The social bonds that were formed over decades and could be relied on in every small town and village no longer existed. By virtue of increased physical mobility, people were now able to move far beyond the confines of their birthplace. This also meant that the stable social fabrics of yesteryear could no longer be taken for granted.

While it is difficult to quantify the concept of social cohesion, my hypothesis is that if one were to plot a metric of social cohesion on one axis, and industrialization on another, there would be a strong (negative) correlation between the two. More industrialized countries, with a fluid economy in which individuals are disposed to move long distances in search of suitable work, would be more likely to have weaker communities than pre-industrialized countries, in which work is closely tied to the land and the place of one’s birth. I would also suspect however that industrialization would not entirely explain this effect. A second driver is suburbanization, a largely if not exclusively North American phenomenon.

The roots of suburbanization are complex. The desire to escape the crowdedness and crime of inner cities, as well as the growth in prosperity in mid 20th century America, are some of the conventional reasons given for the growth of suburbs. Less conventional theories include the idea that suburbs were a consciously engineered response to the rising nuclear threat of the cold war. Dense cities made easy targets for nuclear attacks, rendering the country vulnerable to a crippling assault that focused on the major economic centers of the nation. By decentralizing cities over a large area, the suburban sprawl, it would become more difficult to handicap the country economically, or so the thinking went. Whatever the underlying motivation, suburbs have become a prevalent feature of the American cityscape. Offering larger homes, newer developments, greater automobile accessibility, and safer streets, suburbs embody the American ideal of independent living. Unfortunately, from the perspective of community building, suburbs are far from optimal. Their problems are myriad. First, by their very idealization, suburban homes are created to be little fiefdoms, surrounded by fences and large spaces separating one home from another, with the implicit intention to keep outsiders away. This may make sense as a response to the crime-ridden cities from which the suburbs sprouted, but it acts to significantly hamper unintended social interaction. The unintended aspect is critical, as while it is certainly possible to meet one’s friends and acquaintances in the suburbs by virtue of planned social venues, it is virtually impossible to make new friends in this way. Second, suburbs have the wrong size to density ratio. They are not dense enough to exhibit the vibrant cultural life of the city, and they are not small enough to support the intimate sense of community that is characteristic of the small town. The lack of density means that the primary mode of transportation is the car, an insular vehicle that prevents the social collisions of the streets of small towns or the subways of the cities. Furthermore, standard suburban zoning separates the residential from the commercial, splitting two physical spheres that would otherwise be intermingled, and that in cities and small towns serve a critical role in facilitating unintended social interactions. Finally, due to the typical rapidity with which suburbs emerge, their commercial zones come to be dominated by strip malls and large corporate outlets. This prevents the growth of small and local businesses, operated by members of the community, which would otherwise serve as another focal point for socialization.

All of the above factors conspire to make suburbs, by virtue of their physical features, an impediment to community formation. In the next part, I will argue that multiculturalism, for all its positive effects, can also act to impede the coherence of community due to its cultural features. This is not to say that multiculturalism, on the whole, is a detrimental social force, but merely to point out some of its unintended consequences, and to lay the foundations for the ideas that I hope to propose in the fourth part of this series.


  1. Pingback: On Community, Part III « Some Thoughts on a Mysterious Universe

  2. Pingback: On Community, Part IV « Some Thoughts on a Mysterious Universe

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