August 12, 2007

Diversity and Mobility

Well, it looks like diversity is not only scary, it makes people unhappy. Erm, right.

I wrote about what I think is a major hidden variable in the low social capital of modern, urban populations last year when I came back from two months in a small, Costa Rican farming community. Essentially, it seems to me a problem of comparing ad hoc social networks with traditional family or geography-based social networks. It takes a long time to get to know and trust people, which is a lot harder when the population you're looking at is more likely to move house frequently and to live farther from easy proximity to family members.

But also, people's tastes in social activities are changing, which reminds me of a comment and discussion at the rural issues panel at last weekend's Yearly Kos. Bill Bishop, of the The Daily Yonder, said that Republicans had been so successful in spite of their unpopular stances because they'd adopted a social network model that was reminiscent of churches. "Stong social networks repel people who now vote Democratic," he said.

That really ticked me off (I know, not hard, whatever.)

I talked to Bishop afterwards and challenged him on it, saying that for myself, I'd actually like to have access to stronger social networks. I find myself moving a lot, and it's hard to build a new group of friends and acquaintances each time. If I know I'm not going to be somewhere long, I barely bother. Still, for me it's more a question of activities, and as I told him: I don't want to bowl, belong to a lodge, or go to church.

See, he responded, "strong social networks repel you."

No. Bowling repels me. I don't find it entertaining. Sorry. I also don't want to get up early in the morning on Sundays and go to church, I'm pretty happy being an independent agent of my beliefs at the moment. And I hate getting up early in the morning on Sundays. Criminy. Even if the reason I was up late on Saturday is all too frequently that I was surfing the internet by myself.

The fact is, it's hard for a mobile, urbanized population to meet people outside the confines of organizations structured around activities they're no longer interested in. And then we get painted as being cold and unfriendly. When I said that I'd moved at least once a year for the last several years, Bishop's flip response was to ask if I had a criminal record, because yeah, that's the only reason. Not that I've been moving for (among the many reasons over time) work, or to shorten my commute, or to live closer to my then-boyfriend, or to go to a new university.

In Bishop's world, people move because they've become social pariahs. Thanks a lot. I felt so respected as an individual at that moment.

The outrageous irony is that he said this ... at Yearly Kos. At a convention of people who've been working actively for years to turn a loose network of strangers with shared interests into a close-knit community that works for a common cause. He said this to a person, me, whose most consistent source of new friends over the last several years has been the liberal blogging community.

I've said it before, and will again: I'd take first chances with even those people in the progressive blogosphere and netroots who irritate me to have as colleagues than a random stranger. Even when we get on each other's nerves,and we realy, really do sometimes, we're all on the same side. We're on the same page. We've got each other's backs. (Though I'd really like to see our sense of 'we' expand a fair bit, so that more voices felt included in it.)

Yet my problem is that my network of like-minded sympathizers is geographically dispersed. So I share the challenge of easily meeting new people with many, many, many of my fellow city dwellers. The people who sign up for social networking software tools, go to swing dancing lessons, form ongoing relationships and activity circles with people they know loosely through, say, other Burning Man attendees. People who form parenting groups and knitting circles, start Meetups and book clubs, attend Drinking Liberally events, etc. It isn't, by a long shot, that we don't want to meet and interact with other people.

Considering that this dimension of urban life seems overlooked in all this talk about how terrible diversity is for social capital, I haven't got much use for it. Yeah, it's true that I'm not going to very readily trust people I don't know. But it doesn't mean that I wouldn't like to get to know them.

Posted by natasha at August 12, 2007 10:16 AM | Community | Technorati links |

Yeah, well, I have about 30 members of my immediate family within 100 miles of me, and DO get into social networks.

Did this guy actually cite research from somewhere other than

Posted by: rob at August 14, 2007 11:45 PM