Loneliness of Affluence

Individuals live simultaneously in a variety of social worlds.  Micro groups such as neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, churches, and associations, which are embedded in meso communities and macro societies.  Individuals are not passive in their choices of which of these worlds to inhabit; they seek out some environments while avoiding others.

From decades of research, sociologists know a lot about human relationships.  We know about your friends, your co-workers, and your neighbors.  Strangely, social scientists know very little about who you actually talk to every day or how well you know them.  In the course of your Saturday, you might spend five minutes with a neighbor and an hour with a friend, but what happened during the rest of the time?  When you exchanged money at the Starbucks or nodded at another parent at your child’s soccer game, you casually interacted with others, but we know virtually nothing about the collective mass of these micro-social exchanges or how they shape your perception of the world.

The proliferation of inequality has had profound consequences for segregation in social networks.  Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods segregated by income and to form families with people from similar class background.  While Americans are not as isolated as the most extreme recent estimates suggest, trust across social classes is low.

Social network analysis was supposed to provide revolutionary insight into the cause and consequences of interactions, but massive data requirements limited its utility.  There is good news, though – the right tools exist to take apart these interactions and study them.  By capitalizing on the wealth of data sources inherent to modern technology, we can track the connections between people, not just relationally, but experiential.

The project asks two major questions:

How do inequality and social class impact micro-social interaction?

I propose that segregation in micro-social exchanges is important to an advanced understanding of how connections and interactions shape large-scale outcomes.  Thus, I ask the simple question: “Who do you actually talk to?”  I want to know who you see every day, even if only for five minutes.

The first part of this project is an attempt to understand the class differences of the pattern of micro-social interactions.  How often do the wealthy and the poor actually interact? Beyond simply charting the frequency of interaction, we seek to understand the context of those interactions.  Do the rich only talk to the working class when they are being waited on, catered to, or served by them?  How much class segregation is there in everyday interactions?

I examine two types of interactions.  Respondents provide information about the context of their most recent interactions.  This includes demographic information on the alter (and a measure of certainty, as respondents may not know the demographics of someone they just met in passing), as well as questions about the quality and content of that interaction.  Respondents also provide information on their own family, friends, neighbors, and workplace interactions, including both .  These types of interactions include more data about the relationships history and than questions about their most recent interactions.

Preliminary Initial results from a seed study of 3,000 respondents shows that individuals experience the highest levels of income segregation among friend relationships, and the least among co-workers.  Income segregation in interactions is greater among high-income earners than low-income respondents.  Preliminary analysis also suggests that area segregation has a greater impact on the class segregation among recent and friendship interactions than among work interactions.  The results are similar when looking at segregation by level of education.

How does social interaction create the basis for economic opinions and attitudes?

From a practical standpoint the economy is an objective phenomena.  Unemployment is rising or it is not.  Jobs numbers are up or down.  Discussions of the economy, both from researchers, policy analysts, and the popular media all make this same assumption.

In truth, economic reality is not identical to all of us.  Humans create and maintain an understanding of social reality through social interactions with other people and institutions.  Some facts are brute, physical or biological facts;  others are social facts we construct out of language and institutional agreements. But they seem entirely real to those experiencing them: “Everyday life presents itself as a reality interpreted by men and subjectively meaningful to them as a coherent world”.

While it appears objective, knowledge of the economy is grounded in these social facts – and therefore in the inequalities that are knitted to them. Even objective facts, what we “know” as true, is derived from these spaces of inequality.  Differences in economic knowledge are the result of other inequality processes, have the potential to create inequality in outcomes, and are a form of inequality themselves.

Because such objective knowledge derives, at least in part, from social position, there is a relationship between economic knowledge and other inequality processes.  Where you sit in a larger tapestry of economic positions determines what you “know” about the economy at large.  Who your friends are, where you live, and the condition of your neighborhood all influence the objective facts that individuals “know”. This project seeks to understand the unstudied and under-defined relationship between interactions, economic knowledge, and attitudes.


Learn More