Common Place   /   September 15, 2014

Do Cities Tear Us Apart?—Part 3

The Coy Divisions of Post-Industrial Cities 

(Credit: Creative Commons Zero)

One of the most critical measures of city well-being over the next century may be an unexpected one: friendship ties. For thinkers interested in the "social ecology" and sense of connectedness of urban areas, this measure may capture the real story of how cultural and economic forces are transforming our day-to-day interactions with those around us.

Why would city scholars care about whom we consider our friends? Surveys of friendship ties reveal the homogeneity or diversity of personal social networks: They can pinpoint how these networks become closed-off "bubbles" of sameness along class, race, or status lines. According to a diverse set of thinkers, closed-off bubbles are becoming the central story of social life in post-industrial societies. Thinkers like Robert Putnam, Bill Bishop, Claude Fischer, and Charles Murray have mapped a rising divide or "coming apart" between the social worlds of educated-class and working-class populations in the last fifty years. For urban contexts, following the work of William Julius Wilson and Robert Sampson, this divide is magnified in areas where concentrated disadvantage has locked in social and economic disconnectedness for multiple generations. Studies of social ties tell the same story: The number of Americans with "bridging" ties across education levels has decreased since the 1980s, even while ties bridging race lines have increased.

Why does this matter? Two reasons, which are deeply interconnected. First of all, upending the arguments of earlier city studies, the challenge of cities does not seem to be some lurking threat of anomie or isolationism. Urban contexts in late-capitalist society provide no shortage of subcultures and leisure activities bristling with social ties. The greatest challenge today follows a more Tocquevillian concern: an individualism that involves withdrawing into enclaves to "willingly abandon society at large to its own devices." As a result of  technological and transportation developments of the last century, insular social worlds now coexist in concentrated areas, a change sociologist Douglas Massey labels the "unprecedented spatial intensification of both privilege and poverty.” While divides along ethnic, class, or neighborhood lines have always characterized cities, today’s enclaving is unique in how it reinforces itself through grocery stores, schools, churches, medical care, restaurants, and leisure activities. A recent Washington Post article labeled this the "skyboxification" of American life. In skyboxified America, social ties across social worlds—such as middle-class professionals knowing manual laborers or ex-cons knowing college graduates—become far rarer.

The second reason this matters may be obvious: Few thinkers see anything positive coming out of this trend. In fact, one finds a strong consensus among liberals, conservatives, communitarians, and libertarians that insular and homogenous social worlds present an obstacle to a just and flourishing society. Social enclaves bear consequences for every moral and political challenge of our time, from inequality, social justice, labor issues, human rights, education, and climate change. None of these challenges fails to be affected by our shrinking exposure to those around us who share in these issues’ outcomes.

So what might be done to reconnect insular social worlds? No magic bullet solutions have yet emerged. Nor can the problem be solved by clever social engineering or policy interventions. Social historians, however, can offer three evaluative criteria to evaluate change. First of all, efforts that fail to address multilayered dimensions of cultural, economic, and design-planning conditions will likely simply perpetuate rather than remedy skyboxification. For example, new urbanism has drawn criticism for the "latent suburbanism" lurking within much of its designed space. Many design efforts are rightly celebrated for producing more shared space and organic interactions, but designers rarely conceptualize how their engineered interactions alone can overcome economic and cultural divisions.

Second, efforts to reduce skyboxification will likely build from the contexts and settings that have historically bridged and bound otherwise separate social realms. This is where city leaders and others may need to take a deliberate lead, as few institutional leaders have responded to calls for change. Institutions of higher education—historically key places for exposing students to others of different backgrounds—have by and large ignored the growing calls to address their complicity in reproducing class divides. A better ally might be particular religious communities that pull together diverse members, such as the one highlighted by Carla Arnell in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. While many religious groups (along with non-religious civic groups) passively absorb the racial or class demographics of their surroundings, there are well-established traditions and groups that proactively pursue linkages across these lines.

Finally, reconnecting social worlds will require a critical assessment of how bonds and interactions do or don't overcome insularity. “Token” friendship diversity likely won't work. In other words, what sort of interactions would allow a social ecology to regain the good lost to skyboxification?

Three forms of social interaction are unlikely to breach the skybox walls: economic transactional activities, paternalistic benevolence, and experiential benevolence. The first fall under what Karl Marx labeled the "dull compulsion of economic relations”: consuming goods in shared space—or in Zygmunt Bauman words "collective consumerism"—or workers sharing the same employer in a radically stratified workplace. Those types of interactions bring people into close proximity while leaving insular social worlds intact.

A second type of interaction is a paternalistic form of benevolence that implicitly perpetuates power divides. Writing on class relations in early twentieth-century New York, historian David Huyssen details the harm committed by affluent activists and altruists in their involvement in labor organizing and philanthropy.

Today, many millennials have tried another apprach to benevolence: a subjectively meaningful “voluntourism,” or temporary immersion into the world of the disadvantaged.  Like the other approaches, this one may provide some impetus for further action, but in itself it does not really challenge the forces behind skyboxification.

A more promising mode identified by Huyssen is "cooperative relationships” that recognize power structures and inequality among actors. In its more political form, this entails organizing diverse groups and actors around shared communal needs: raising a community's "collective efficacy" to address its own challenges. Studies suggest collective efficacy, while a social good in itself, can also offset demographic and economic conditions that otherwise predict crime and social disorder. But cooperative relationships can also take a more interpersonal form. These range from more organic cross-group ("bridging") friendships to more intentional forms of solidarity with marginalized populations. Cooperative relationships would also include CEOs engaged in the wellbeing of workers' families, middle-class churches taking on the needs of an under-resourced public school, or friends stepping in as a “voluntary kin” in cases of family-structure disruption. Cooperative relationships can reconnect disparate social worlds, ensuring public good and meeting human needs that might otherwise be ignored.

Discussions of inequality and opportunity are likely to continue, and the future may hold significant cultural or economic shifts that we can't predict. But as we grapple with these questions, the reality of insular social worlds embodies the very personal and experiential dimensions of life in post-industrial settings. The flourishing of cities depends on conceiving new ways to overcome these divides, both as an end in itself and also as a means of achieving a just and thriving society.

Andrew Lynn is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Virginia. His interests include sociology of religion, social change, and the cultural logic of individualism in American culture.