New data on how many close friends Americans really have

An influential 2006 study, Social Isolation in America, published in the American Sociological Review suggested this about friendships:

The number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled. The mean network size decreases by about a third (one confidant), from 2.94 in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.

While this paper has been cited widely, a new sociological study suggests the situation may not be so bad:

Although this shrinking social network “makes us potentially more vulnerable,” said Matthew Brashears, assistant professor of sociology at Cornell University, “we’re not as socially isolated as scholars had feared.” However, Brashears isn’t confident in any of the numbers gathered for social isolation in past studies and the current one, suggesting better methods of getting true numbers are needed…

About 48 percent of participants listed one name [of someone they had discussed “important matters” with in the last 6 months], 18 percent listed two, and roughly 29 percent listed more than two names for these close friends. On average, participants had 2.03 confidantes. And just over 4 percent of participants didn’t list any names.

When Brashears looked closer at that number of socially isolated individuals, he found that 64 percent indicated that this was because they had no topic to discuss, while only about 36 percent had no one to talk to. Turns out, female participants and those who were educated were the least likely to report no names on their confidante list.

“Rather than our networks getting smaller overall, what I think may be happening is we’re simply classifying a smaller proportion of our networks as suitable for important discussions,” Brashears told LiveScience. “This is reassuring in that it suggests that we’re not becoming less social.”

Several things are interesting here:

1. The new study was done by Matthew Brashears, one of the co-authors of the 2006 study.

2. The actual numeric findings don’t seem that different from the 2006 study: Americans have about on average about two close confidantes.

3. The change here is the interpretation: Americans suggest that don’t have as much of a need for close confidantes. What kind of effects could this have on society? Have Americans lost the skill or the will to be a close friend? Have we become more private individuals about the most important topics?

4. One of the more interesting bits: “Brashears isn’t confident in any of the numbers gathered for social isolation in past studies and the current one.” Just confident enough to have work published in ASR on the topic? Perhaps it is just worded strangely in this report – perhaps the data isn’t optima lbut this is the best we can do with the tools we currently have.

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