Fragmentation and Cohesion in American Society

In R. Dynes and K. Tierney, Disasters, Collective Behavior, and Social Organization, 1994, Univ. of Delaware Press. I am grateful to Susan Eckstein, Ciaude Fischer, Russ Neuman, Susan Silbey, David H. Smith and Jim Wood for their suggestions.

11/98 note to reader: The data reported here are not up-to-date, although I doubt that recent data would be radically different. However, as discussions of cyber-space and community become more important, the implications considered are current. Sources

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Gary T. Marx

Only connect. That was the whole of her message. --E. M. Forster, Howard's End Much of Henry Quarentelli's professional life has been devoted to the study of community, although not as the term is conventionally defined in sociology. Following Shakespeare's advice to "'by-indirection find directions out" he has looked to the rupture (or anticipated rupture) of community and established social patterns during situations of crisis. In the rich tradition of deviant or contrasting case analysis, he has given us insights into processes of ordinary behavior by looking at extraordinary situations. Through his extensive worldwide efforts he has also helped create new institutions and communities. In this chapter I continue this interest in community by considering some issues around fragmentation and cohesion in American society. In doing this I also touch on other issues that have occupied him such as mass communications, popular culture, and collective behavior.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, American society was criticized for its conformity and homogeneity. Observers such as David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950), William Whyte in The Organization Man (1956), and C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite (1956) decried what they saw as the leveling and stifling effect of bureaucracy and mass society. The individual was seen to be overly responsive to the group and unduly timid. In the 1960s, many idealistic and optimistic young persons heard John F. Kennedy's charge to "ask not what your country-can do-for you, but what can you do for your country?" But in recent years these concerns have rarely been heard. They have been replaced by what is in some ways an opposite concern over the pronounced differences and indifferences in contemporary society. Worry over the tyranny of community has been replaced by worry over whether or not there is any community to begin with, or what kind of community it is.

Consider the following:

It is possible to look at such examples and conclude, as many popular and scholarly accounts have, that social bonds are weakening and that American society is becoming less cohesive.

Is differentiation based on life-style, race and ethnicity language, single issue political commitments, occupation, leisure interests, or geographical location increasing? Are the selfish concerns of the individual lessening concern for the needs of others? In this more private and privatized society are social ties fewer and weaker? Is trust in others and in basic institutions decreasing? Is the society becoming more intolerant, contentious, factionalized, and parochial? Is there a decline in the willingness to compromise and related conditions that are essential for a civil society, or is the nature of the social bond simply changing Are some of the old forms weakening and being replaced by new forms? Does increased involvement in a local group or increased cultural diversity necessarily imply fragmentation relative to the larger society? These questions are not easily answered. Yet they are vital.

The examples just considered are quite diverse. If we ask how they can be conceptualized in more general and abstract terms, each in its own way can be seen to involve a form of fragmentation.

Fragmentation is an inclusive multidimensional concept that touches familiar social concepts such as: atomization, isolation, privatization, alienation, anomie, disintegration, segmentation and tribalism. Conceptual overlap, trends, interrelationships, processes, and basic causes in each of these should be analyzed. But my purpose here is merely to identify issues, summarize some data and suggest some possible interpretations on a broad level.

As used here, the concept of fragmentation is not fully captured by the dictionary definition, "a part broken off." Some examples deal with parts that have recently been added (e.g., new Asian immigrant groups). Other examples involve parts that, rather than being detached, are simply loosely attached (e.g., the socially isolated). Other examples involve the level at which attachment, linkage, or integration occurs, for example, local or national. In other cases what is of interest is a feeling of disconnectedness rather than external behavior or structures. Fragmentation is not a perfect concept, but its breadth permits capturing some related phenomena.

There is no simple way to assess fragmentation. A variety of types of individual and group data are required to measure it: (a) behavioral indicators of social attachment and isolation; (b) attitudes and feelings regarding trust and tolerance; (c) indicators or group heterogeneity and homogeneity; and (d) indicators of group structure. Here because of space limitations, I emphasize the first and the last with brief mention of the other two.

Social Attachment-Isolation

One obvious indicator is the extent and form of connections with others. consider: (a) measures of direct involvement; (b) measures of indirect involvement such as exposure to mass media; (c) measures of pro- and antisocial behavior such as charity and crime.

Direct Involvement

One factor suggesting an increase in isolation is the greater prevalence of single-person households. The percentage of persons living alone increased from 16 percent in 1970 to 22 percent in 1987 (in 1950 this figure was only 11 percent).' Married couples accounted for less than 63 percent of all households. Yet the marriage rate has not changed --it was 10.6 per thousand population in 1970 and the same in 1980. Divorce, however, increased from 3.5 to 5.2 per one thousand. However, in 1981, for the first time in twenty years, the number of divorces actually declined by 3 percent relative to the preceding year. Rates of remarriage remain high; about three out of four divorced persons remarry, most within a few years after their divorce.

Work is a major way that individuals are connected to society. Labor force participation has been increasing for women. The 1980 census found that for the first time a bit more than half (52 percent) of all women were working outside the home. In 1987 this figure had increased to 56 percent. At the same time, the labor force participation of adult males is declining. The latter went from a high of 87 percent in 1951 to 76 percent in 1987. Early retirement has become a reality for many workers. In 1987, 30 percent of males aged fifty-five to sixty-four, were not in the labor force.

Although the image of an America turning increasingly inward and persons withdrawing from others and broader social participation may have dramatic appeal, there is no trend data to support it. The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has regularly asked representative national samples about the frequency of spending "a social evening with relatives," with "someone who lives in your neighborhood," and with "friends who live outside the neighborhood." There is no consistent pattern of change between 1974 and 1983. For example, in 1974 about 56 percent of the sample visited with relatives several times a week or more (11 percent reported visits of once a year or less), 41 percent visited with friends living outside their neighborhood (19 percent reported visits of once a year or less). In 1983, these percentages were 52 percent spending a social evening with relatives (12 percent reported visits of once a year or less, 43 percent reported visits with friends who live outside the neighborhood, 17 percent reported visits once a year or less). NORC polls in 1973 and 1978 found approximately 70 percent of Americans reporting "a great deal" or "a very great deal" of satisfaction with their friendships.

One of the characteristics that the astute nineteenth-century French observer of American society, Alexis de Tocqueville, found most interesting was the proliferation of voluntary organizations. The United States may not differ from Europe today in this regard, but it is clear that a majority of the American public belongs to organizations and that this has not changed much in recent years. According to NORC data in 1974, 25 percent or Americans reported that they belonged to no formal groups and organizations (e.g., fraternal, service, labor, hobby, professional, and church affiliated groups). However. 50 percent of the population belonged to two or more such groups. In 1983, these figures were about the same.

These overall patterns can obscure differences across types of organization. For example, participation in labor and religious organizations has been declining, although this is far truer of the former than the latter. The unionized sector of the U.S. work force has declined from a high of 37 percent in 1940 to 27 percent in 1970 to 24 percent in 1980. There has been a slight decline in religious participation judged in terms of the percentage of the population belonging to a religious body (this general trend masks increased membership in more fundamentalist and newer religious groups). In 1960, 64 percent of the population reported belonging to a religious organization, as against 63 percent in 1970 and 59 percent in 1980. In 1972 half the population reported attendance at religious services a few times a month or more, whereas in 1978 this-figure dropped to 44 percent.

Beyond asking individuals about their membership in groups, we can ask about the availability of groups for people to join. Opportunities for participation appear to have increased. For example, the number of organizations listed in the Gale Encyclopedia of Associations increased from 10,734 in 1970 to 17,644 in 1984. The vast majority of these are national nonprofit membership organizations.

This listing represents only a fraction of all voluntary organizations because those with minimal formal organization and those at the local level arc generally excluded.

Involvement in leisure and cultural activities has increased significantly over the last two decades, and new forms of participation have appeared. With respect to sports, both participation and attendance have increased. For example the number of persons playing softball went from 16 million in 1970 to 37 million in 1987. The number of recreation boats owned went from 9 to 15 million. In 1970, 36 million people reported they had gone fishing and/or hunting, whereas in 1980 this figure was 58 million.

The more passive attendance at major sports events also increased. Thus, attendance at major league baseball games went from 29 million in 1971 to 53 million in 1987. Significant increases also occurred for football, basketball, hockey, and even greyhound racing.

Attendance at cultural events also increased. For example, the number of opera companies went from 648 in 1970 to 1,019 in 1981, with attendance increasing from 4.6 million to 11.1 million. The number of symphony orchestras increased from 1,441 to 1,572. The number of concerts went from 6,599 to 19,327, and attendance went from 13 to 23 million.

Attendance at rock concerts also appears to, have increased. Forms of entertainment on a massive scale such as Woodstock and the 1982 "US" festival appeared. At the US concert, for example, more than two hundred thousand persons gathered in a field near San Bernardino, California for three days of almost nonstop performance by major rock stars. Although hardly the equivalent of a close-knit community where one is personally known, these nonetheless are a type of social participation. Concert organizers sought to create "a new kind of unity" through music. Themes of community and peace were self-consciously put forth. There was little conflict or disorder. Many participants reported a strong feeling of solidarity. For some persons such concerts represent a secular form of religious participation.

Shopping malls represent another new arena for participation. Whether initially intended to be so or not, they have become social centers. Shopping malls are the third most visited places in America. Although clearly not offering the intimacy of a club or visit to a private home, neither are they as impersonal as city streets. For some young people, visiting the mall has become what driving up and down the main drag was to an earlier generation of youths. Malls have a social as well as an economic function. For many Americans going to the mall is an event in and of itself, apart from shopping. Malls offer a protected environment with a variety of diversions and place to see and be seen.

Rates of geographic mobility in 1980 closely resembled those for 1970. In 1970, 47 percent of the population had moved in the last five years,1970, whereas in 1980, the figure was about the same. Between 1975 and 1980 25 percent of the population was living in a different house but in the same county; 10 percent were in a different county; 10 percent were in a different state; and 2 percent were living abroad. In 1980, 18 percent of all households moved. Although relative to a broader trend, it appears that such mobility has been dropping since the mid-nineteenth century. Still the average American will move fourteen times in his or her lifetime.

Another special measure that traditionally suggested isolation, but probably is less important now, is the density of the area in which a person lives. The percentage of the population living in Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (the Census Bureau's measure of metropolitan areas) was the same in 1980 as in 1970 (77 percent). Yet there has been a slight deconcentration of population and growth outside of incorporated places. In a shift without precedent, population has disproportionately increased in rural areas and smaller urban clusters. During the 1970s metropolitan areas grew by 10 percent, whereas nonmetropolitan areas grew by 17 percent.

Mass Media and Electronic Communication

Face-to-face interaction and group membership are not the forms of social attachment. Exposure to the mass media and interaction that occurs via telephone, mail, telegraph, fax, audio and videocassette recorders, video-text, videodisc, teletext, television. computer and other emerging technologies also merit consideration. Various portable paging devices, along with cordless telephones, answering machines, devices for the remote reception of messages and shortwave radios are like an invisible spider's web reaching over vast areas and making possible instantaneous interaction.

People are receiving and sending more messages than ever before, from a greater variety of sources. This increase generally goes well beyond that which can be attributed to population increases. The chance to receive messages beyond a face-to-face context has significantly expanded, and to a lesser but still marked extent, so too has the chance to send messages.

To take a familiar example, mail received per capita increased from 411 to 632 pieces between 1970 and 1987, and the number of first class letters increased from 245 to 326. Word processing, which makes possible personalized mailings at a fraction of the traditional cost, is likely to significantly increase mail communication.

Telephone use has increased even more dramatically. The percentage of households with telephones steadily expanded from sixty-two in 1950 to ninety-three in 1988. The number of telephones per thousand population increased from 582 in 1970 to 789 in 1981. The number of daily phone conversations has come close to doubling each decade in recent times. Domestic long-distance calls increased from about 3 to 9 percent of all calls between 1970 and 1981. The number of overseas calls annually went from 3.3 million in 1970 to 199.6 million in 1980.

Beyond an increase in the amount of phone communication, types of interaction over the phone have become more varied. Terms such as hot line and warm line have entered the vocabulary. The variety of phone counseling, information, and recreational services available seems to be continually expanding, from those dealing with drug abuse, suicide, consumer, and parenting issues (a group that includes "phonefriend," an after-school telephone help line for children alone while parents are at work) to dial-a-prayer, dial-a-joke, and dial-a-sexual conversation lines.

The merging of television, radio, telephone, and computer networks in the home, perhaps supplemented by a television camera and a printer, can mean vastly expanded communication possibilities. When phones are connected with computers and with videotext systems, the possibilities for information retrieval and specialized contact are greatly expanded. In 1983, there were an estimated 4 million home computers and in 1987, 16 million. Beyond strictly instrumental uses, such as for banking, ordering goods and services, and obtaining information, interactive computer networks permit playing video games, sending messages, and getting involved with electron c bulletin boards.

Such computer communication can be the equivalent of the ham radio and even the singles bar. Depending on the format, participants may leave messages or participate in instantaneous "conversations" with others through a central computer. Some commercial dating services help subscribers make initial contact through home computers. The exchange of electronic messages, often using a code or alias, may eventually Lead to direct social encounters. This is a more active form of participation than computer-aided dating services that merely show a videotape and/or generate a list of persons with particular characteristics.

Various forms of 'teleconferencing such as video telephone calls may serve as substitutes for travel and be socially richer than mere print or verbal communication. With the spread of fiber optics, video phone conversations in the home may become widespread soon.

One experiment in interactive cable television linked elderly persons living alone to neighborhood community centers, relatives, and friends. An evaluation found that the experiment had reduced their sense of isolation. Such new forms of communication and information retrieval can be particularly helpful for those who have physical disabilities. The computer may serve to reduce isolation in other important, if less personal ways. Thus, the interactive cable television Qube project in Columbus, Ohio, offered a variety of uses. Programs on ten community channels sought viewers' opinions. The system also offered a motion-sensing burglar alarm and a smoke detector. For example, sensing smoke, an electronic message would automatically be sent to a central computer and the address, number of persons in the household, and nearest fire hydrant and police station would be displayed.

Radio and television ownership have also become more prevalent. Radio possession has gone from 2.1 per household in 1950 to 5.1 in 1970, to 5.6 in 1989. Ninety-seven percent of cars have radios. The percentage of households with television sets increased from 9 in 1950 to 95 in 1970, to 98 in 1988. The average number of sets per household has also steadily increased. Half of American households have multiple sets. The average viewing time per day has increased from 5.1 hours per household in 1960, to 6.1 In 1970, to 7.1 in 1988. Cable television subscribers went from 4.5 million in 1970 to 21 million in 1982 to 43 million in 1988.

The only form of communication not showing a significant increase is newspaper circulation. Thus, although the population increased almost 20 percent between 1970---and 1987, daily newspaper circulation remained at about 62 million. Only one city in four now has a daily newspaper.

Surprisingly, these increases have not come at a cost of more traditional forms of communication such as reading. Americans are reading as much or more than ever. although reading has become more specialized. About 50,000 books were published in 1983, compared to 40,000 in 1970 and only 11,000 in 1950. Book sales per capita and the number of retail book stores have been increasing. Library circulation has increased at twice the rate of population growth in the last four decades.

Pro- and Antisocial Behavior

Some inferences about cohesion and fragmentation can also be drawn from trends in pro- and antisocial behavior. One sign of caring about others is charitable contributions, although this is also effected by the state of the economy and the tax system. Over the last two decades, United Way contributions have just about kept up with inflation, going from $457 million in 1960, to $788 million in 1970, to $1,530 million in 1980. Using dollars adjusted for gross national product and population size, private philanthropy by individuals, foundations, corporations, and charitable bequests increased from $9 billion in 1960 to $20 billion in 1970, to $54 billion in 1981 to $94 billion in 1987.

An interesting form of prosocial participation lies in the expanding self-help movement. In 1983, an estimated 15 million persons belonged to approximately 500,000 self-help groups. Twenty-four regional clearinghouses, were available to refer callers to appropriate organizations. Traditional self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous have been joined by Gamblers Anonymous, Weight Watchers, neighborhood crime and arson watches, food and other cooperatives, community development organizations, a rich array of support groups concerned with women's, men's, and family-related issues such as pregnancy and birth, parenting, divorce, jealousy, juvenile delinquency, child abuse, retarded children, aging parents, retirement, widowhood, and groups concerned with a variety of other mental and physical health issues.

Crime rates arc one indicator of antisocial behavior. Although crime rates increased in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they have remained relatively constant over the last decade. In 1982, the number of people victimized by serious crime declined by 4.1 percent. This was the largest one-year decline since the National Crime Survey began ten years before. To be sure, both white-collar and street crime are serious problems in American society, but data on the latter do not suggest an escalation in rates consistent with sensationalized media reporting.

Although not antisocial in the way that predatory crime is, suicide represents the extreme form of social withdrawal. Suicide rates for those over forty-five have not changed much in recent decades, but this is not the case for younger persons. In the last two decades the suicide rate among young persons has increased sharply. For persons fifteen to twenty-four this figure was 5.2 per 100,000 in 1960, 8.5 in 1980 and 10.2 in 1986. Homicide rate have also increased among the young, particularly among minority group members.

It would be nice to have measures of change in white-collar crime such as political corruption, embezzlement, price-fixing, and violations of consumer protection laws, but adequate trend data on these are not available because of their low visibility. Prosecution rates have increased, but that need not reflect absolute increases in the violations themselves.


The aforementioned data hardly suggest an unraveling of social bonds. With respect to most traditional measures of social involvement, the United States has not changed much in recent decades, and new forms of participation have appeared.

However, it might be argued that the heart of fragmentation is not so much any overt behavior, but the way people feel about themselves and society. Looked at in this way, fragmentation implies malaise and demoralization. In a famous speech in 1979 President Jimmy Carter talked of "a crisis in confidence [that] strikes at the very heart and soul of our national will."

The subjective aspect is of obvious importance, but it may be only weakly or indirectly linked (particularly in the short run) to more objective factors. Objective social conditions need not be automatically accompanied by feelings of attachment or perceptions of a cohesive society.

A society lacking in cohesiveness is likely to be one where persons do not care about, or worse, arc intolerant of others and believe others to feel the same way. This may lead to feelings of mistrust, suspiciousness, cynicism, and pessimism. These attitudes may as well extend to basic social institutions.

The case for fragmentation is perhaps strongest with respect to the attitudinal data. As Lipset and Schneider (1983) reported, the survey research data does not suggest a very trusting society. Yet this is hardly new. The United States has always been mistrustful relative to much of Europe. There has not been much change in the last decade, although changes relative to the 1960s are more pronounced. There is some evidence that trusting attitudes are increasing relative to the decline that followed Watergate. Tolerance for diversity has been increasing over the last decades. The data does not suggest a badly demoralized, pessimistic population. Space limitations permit consideration of only one area tolerance.

With respect to tolerance for and acceptance of diversity, the trend data suggest that Americans are becoming less prejudiced (at least at the level of what they will admit to a poll taker) and more supportive of Constitutional protections for all persons. One indicator of this is whether or not a person would consider voting for a minority group member for president. For example, according to Gallup polls in 1958, the percent of the population who would consider voting for a black, a woman, a Jew or a Catholic for president was 38, 52, 62, and 68 respectively, whereas in 1983 these figures had increased to 77, 80, 88, and 92 percent. Other measures of support for non-discrimination in housing, jobs, accommodations, restaurants, and public service and social relations suggest that the American public is becoming increasingly tolerant, at least as measured by surveys. The belief in racial inferiority has declined. Reviewing evidence from the last four decades of public opinion, Smith (1982) concluded that there has been a general shift toward liberalism. This is particularly the case for attitudes toward abortion, civil rights, race relations and religion.

Heterogeneity and Homogeneity

Let us turn from these measures characterizing individuals to some aggregate measures that characterize groups or cultures. Among the most important traditional axes of group diversity have been race and ethnicity, religion, sex, age, and region. These in turn are often associated with class, life chances, life-styles. and a variety of attitudes and behavior.

Perhaps the simplest approach is to ask for each of these whether the different elements are proportionally increasing or decreasing and whether new elements are appearing and/or old ones disappearing. Our attention is restricted to three areas: age, race and ethnicity, and life-style differences.

The youth culture that gained prominence in the 1960s may be balanced by a "mature" or "gray" culture that will become increasingly important in the next decades. This reflects the fact that the U.S. population is aging. The median age is expected to rise from 30 in 1981 to 36 by 2000 to 42 by 2050. Census projections put the proportion of the population over 65-(which was 11 percent in 1982) at 13 percent by the year 2000 and at 22 percent by 2050. The "old, old," over 85, increased by 56 percent in the last decade. The percentage of the population over 85 is expected to go from 1 percent in 1981 to 1.9 percent in 2000 and to 5 percent in 2050. This group has different needs than the "younger old" in areas such as health-care, housing, and transportation.

As the population ages, the work force may shrink in size and ethnic diversity may be encouraged as a result of the increased need for immigrant workers. Under more liberal immigration laws special provisions for refugees, and changed economic conditions, the last several decades have seen significant legal and illegal immigration to the United States. According to some estimates, almost nine million persons came here between 1970-80, a figure close to the peak immigration period of 1900-10. The 1980 census found 11 percent of the population speaking a language other then English at home. Immigration, of course, bears on the general issue of ethnic and racial diversity. Between 1970-80, the white population increased by 6 percent. Rates of increase for nonwhite groups were more pronounced. Thus the rate of population increase for blacks was 17 percent, for persons of Hispanic origin 61 percent, for Indians and Eskimos 72 percent, and for persons of Asian origin 27 percent. If present trends with respect to birth rates and immigration continue, by the year 2000, Hispanics are likely to be the largest ethnic group in the United States with 12 percent of the population (35 million persons). This would put them slightly ahead of the blacks and the two largest groups today whites of, Anglo-Saxon and German background. The Asian population may rise to 10 million.

It is possible to imagine an American society that is increasingly balkanized along Anglo, Afro, Hispanic, and Asian lines. The spread of bilingual education (which for some persons may mean little or no effective education in English), a requirement that under certain conditions ballots be printed in a language other than English, the economic and political advantages (and technical case) of foreign language mass media communication and marketing, and the continual influence of the home country, through immigration or patterns of going back and forth, suggest this.

However, the current data point away from such a conclusion, although bilingualism and strong ethnic communities at points of entry such as Miami, El Paso, and San Francisco are likely to remain strong. Relative to European immigrants who came here in the early twentieth century, the more recent immigrants from Asia and the Western Hemisphere arc closer to the American population in social characteristics. They are more geographically dispersed between regions and within cities. The ghettoization that characterizes blacks seems unlikely to occur on a large scale. Groups such as Asians and Cubans have experienced significant social mobility in a short time. Rates of intermarriage for the second generation are very high (e.g., for Asians, over 50 percent).

The United States as an industrial state with its historic values, economic interdependence and opportunities, higher education, geographic and social mobility, and rapid communication exerts stronger pressure toward assimilation, the mixing of cultures, and pluralism, than toward separatism. Many of the correlates of ethnicity, particularly those associated with racial definitions, are of course strong, yet in many areas they have diminished. We are far from being a unisex or nonracial society where knowing a person's sex or race permits you to predict no more about them than would knowing the color of their eyes. Yet we are also far from the traditional patrician and racist society where gender and race were highly correlated with almost everything else. The declining significance of ethnicity is part of a broader move toward a society where ever more choices are open to the individual.

One of the major consequences of the 1960s was increased tolerance for, and legitimacy of, life-style diversity. Persons today have more choices about how they will live than ever before. Those whose nontraditional preferences were previously hidden or not expressed find it easier to locate each other and form support groups. These in turn further the group's concerns and also help it to draw new adherents.

Diversity has been encouraged by greater resources and new forms of communication. The United States has always been highly diverse, but previously this was not valued and legally protected to the extent that it is today. Ethnic immigrants, for example, were expected to shed their old ways and fully adopt the dominant culture. Homosexuality and prostitution were hidden and stigmatized. The physically disadvantaged were often segregated and invisible. The merits of continuing to speak a non-English language were little appreciated. In recent times, pluralism has become more legitimate.

The standards and life-style associated with being white, male, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, youthful, eastern, urban, and middle class, although still very strong, are not as dominant as they once were. As traditional ascriptive sources of division have weakened, the range of groups that a person can affiliate with and life-style choices have broadened. More than seven out of ten Americans feel they have "more freedom of choice" with respect to how they will live their lives than their parents had. Whether in living arrangements, work, architecture, food, clothes, music, or recreation, cultural diversity appears to have increased within the United States, at least within some broad confines.

Family and work patterns have also become more varied. In the early 1950s, 70 percent of households were composed of a father at work and a mother at home with a child or children. Today this is the case for only 15 percent of households. A variety of other living arrangements and patterns have become more prominent-from hetero- and homosexual cohabitation to group homes shared by unrelated persons. In 1988, 29 percent of total households were made up of "nonfamily" persons whereas in 1970, this figure was 20 percent. By 1988, 8 percent of total households were made up of unmarried persons of the opposite sex sharing living quarters, a group that has increased significantly since 1970.

The detached single-family dwelling has been supplemented by cooperatives, condominiums, and multiple-dwelling units. In some cases, as with housing designed for the retired, the physically handicapped, and the young unmarried, these represent efforts to build community through architecture and spatial separation.

Work force involvement has become more diversified. Greater variety in work schedules and career patterns can be noted. The recent decade has seen an increase- in flexible work hours and days (including compressed work weeks), shared part-time jobs, time off from work, whether for maternity (or in a few cases, paternity) leaves, and sabbaticals. In 1982, more than one worker in five was on a flextime work schedule, a compressed work week (e.g., forty hours in four days), or part-time employment. It is possible that more adults will desire part-time work and that-career shifts, whether at mid-life or earlier, will become more prominent.

Whether on balance work is becoming more differentiated is unclear. A new social division may be emerging between the highly skilled and rewarded specialists who have undergone extensive training and other unskilled, poorly paid, interchangeable workers.

One indication of expanded life-style and leisure choices is the increased diversity and expansion of communications media. Persons have an astounding number of choices when it comes to deciding. what to watch, read, and listen to.

Russell Neuman and Ithiel de Sola Pool (1984) estimated that the supply of mass communication (TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, books, and motion- pictures) increased at a rate of 6.7 percent between 1960 and 1980, although media use grew at only 2.1 percent per year. Looked at another way, in 1960, the mass media offered three million words per capita per day, whereas in 1980, this had grown to 11 million words, an increase of 367 percent! Users have increased control over what they can watch not only because more is available to watch, but also because inventions such as videotaping permit viewing at one's leisure apart from standardized transmission.

The standardized days of the Saturday Evening Post, Life, Look, and Colliers, three national television networks, and a few national radio networks are gone. They have been supplemented by media catering to much more specialized concerns.

In various areas of popular culture, markets have become more differentiated. Let us consider music and food. In the past in most areas of the country those seeking to hear classical, jazz, blues, folk, or country and western music were lucky to find these on one radio station, and then for only a limited time. Such programming is much more accessible now, as stations that specialize in one type of music have appeared. Even within a broad type of music, there is much more choice. In the case of what was once simply called popular music, there are now soft rock, hard rock, rhythm and blues, punk, funk, and disco stations.

In the case of food, beyond the plethora of international, gourmet, diet, and health foods increasingly available in frozen or fresh form, there has been a proliferation of diverse restaurants. In larger urban areas those eating out can choose between Italian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, and Middle Eastern restaurants. In some urban areas, even within the cuisine of one country such as China, a diner may have a choice or Cantonese, Mandarin, or Szechuan.

Marketing specialists who once treated consumers as if they had homogeneous buying tastes now compete for more clearly defined segments of the market. Differentiated products are increasingly aimed at selected groups. In commenting on this "segmentation" one specialist observes "every market --is breaking into smaller and smaller units, with unique products aimed at defined segment." This targeted marketing both responds to, and helps further the splintering of, consumer tastes and needs. It pays to create products for diverse markets, and diversity itself has become a more important value. This runs counter to one aspect of the mass society argument regarding the leveling and homogenizing effect of industrial society.

Group Structure

This broad factor refers not to the behavior of individuals but to organizational structure and relations, particularly aspects of the national society and relations among groups. A major aspect of modernization is the incorporation of diverse localities into a national entity. Whereas this need not involve a highly centralized political system, it is associated with transportation and communication.

We have seen the steady incorporation of rural into metropolitan areas, of villages into towns, towns into cities, and cities into sprawling contiguous urban areas (e.g., the Boston-Washington and San Diego-San Francisco coastal corridors). The spanning of the United States by a network of superhighways, the continued building and expansion of airports, and improved telecommunications help create a national society. Federal Express and related delivery services, able to move goods anywhere in the country overnight, are a good example, as is the success of the daily national newspaper, U.S.A. Today. The strengthening of the physical elements of a national infrastructure has encouraged some forms of economic centralization, as suggested by the rise of large chain stores, conglomerates, and multinational corporations, in place of small locally owned businesses.

But equally apparent are examples of economic decentralization--from the AT&T breakup to new forms of enterprise based on the production and distribution of information. Although industrial production needs economies of scale and, hence, concentrates production, information production can be dispersed, because communication with outlying areas can be instantaneous.

The number of small businesses has grown significantly in recent decades from 93,000 in 1960 to 600,000 in 1980. Rather than working in huge, impersonal environments, over three-quarters of Americans work in settings of twenty or fewer persons. Smaller businesses create a majority of the new jobs that are added to the economy- At the same time, the Fortune 500 companies employed 1.2 million fewer people in 1983 than they did in 1970.

Although bureaucratic organization is not about to disappear, its limitations have been more clearly appreciated. The turn toward decentralization,the simplification of paperwork and procedures and participatory management are efforts to overcome some of these limitations. This is also the case with more explicit organizational efforts to nurture and create networks that transcend formal organizational lines. In many settings the fine between formal and informal organization has become more blurred. Informal relations have, of course, always been present in organizations but generally they were viewed as something to be stamped out or ignored.

As recent Japanese economic successes have helped make the problems of traditional bureaucratic structure more apparent, efforts to incorporate elements of the informal structure and to back off from rigid bureaucratic forms have appeared. The new emphasis on networking is a good example. Because social networks cross organizational boundaries and hierarchies, communication tends to flow more rapidly and honestly. Networks may serve both the individual and the group. The individual may feel more a part of the group, and diverse groups are linked horizontally together via individual network-participants.

Apart from their increased presence (or at least visibility) in formal organizations, networks appear lo be increasing in importance as elements of informal and voluntary associations, whether for leisure or self-help. The increased case of locating and communicating with persons with highly specialized interests through electronic means has aided this. Along with greater leisure and resources, there seems to be a new boldness and new norms regarding interaction with strangers who share a special interest. Informal horizontal linkages based on shared leisure, health, political, and consumption interests have increased in importance relative to traditional sources of group participation based on the extended kin group, religion, and neighborhood.

Although it might be surprising to some of the conservative social theorists who, since the French Revolution, predicted and feared an inexorable march toward an ever more powerful, liberty-destroying, centralized nation-state, the last decade has seen some move toward decentralization of political power. Evidence of this can be seen in increased political participation at the local level, including more referenda and initiative, weakened federal regulatory agencies and greater state powers.

There has been a decline in voting for nationally elected officials. For example, in 1964, 62 percent of the population voted in the presidential election, whereas in 1980 this figure was 53 percent. In off-year Congressional elections the decline was from 53 percent to 35 percent. Voting at the local level, however, has increased. Spirited local issues sometimes draw more than three-quarters of the voters. This greater local action reflects intensely felt political concerns, as well as resources provided by interest groups and the appearance of professional entrepreneurs skilled at political mobilization.

The increase in local political activity has not always been at the expense of broader issues. As awareness of national and international interdependence has spread, many national issues have become local. As on activist observed, "the exciting thing for me, is that the average American, on the grassroots level, is connecting his or her local problems with global issues...they're starting to ask questions about where their tax money is going that they never asked before. They are getting active- in the village square on global issues." Local referenda on issues of foreign policy and nuclear arms are an example.

Conclusions, Complications, Implications

What are we to conclude from this review of developments relevant to fragmentation and-cohesion in American society? In a society as large and diverse as the United States, for almost any trend a countertrend (or at-least a contrary anecdote) can be found. And as a Yiddish proverb holds "for instance is not proof."

As prestidigitators well know, what you see depends on where you look. What is seen as increased fragmentation at the national level may mean increased cohesion at the level. This is likely to be the case with political decentralization. Or if we look at increased conflict between groups engaged in collective behavior, we may miss an increase in solidarity within them. Looked at broadly, the construction of a superhighway linking cities with each other and with suburban and rural areas can be seen as integrative. Yet taking a micro focus, it may be disintegrative, because it can break up what were once socially and physically close knit communities (e.g., by bringing in outsiders, eliminating housing in the highway's path as a result of construction, or creating physical barriers between sections of a neighborhood).

The temporal frame of reference is also important. Inferences about general societal trends based on only a limited time may prove deceptive. For example, some recent indicators of fragmentation, such as decreased concern with welfare needs and the move toward privatization, may be a function of the economic slowdown that will be reversed if times improve.

The presence or absence of an external crisis is also relevant. For example, in times of a broadly supported war, internal cohesion and altruism are likely to be greatest. The external threats may serve to counterbalance forces tending toward fragmentation. However, when these threats are absent, centrifugal forces are given greater play.

Awareness of broader time frameworks can call attention to longer range unifying consequences. The various civil rights struggles of recent decades have clearly meant increased conflict between groups. But looked at in the longer run, they may create national unity, as the society becomes more open and inclusive of previously excluded groups.

Looked at in the short run, some of what appears to be directional change will be shown in the long run to be a temporary blip or part of a random pattern. Or it may represent periodic oscillation and the dynamic nature of social systems. Like natural systems, social units experience a cycle of growth, decay, and reformulation. This seems to be the case with centralization-decentralization. When the limits of either are perceived to be reached, social forces come into play that generate their opposite.

An important insight from Henry Quarantelli's disaster research is that humans are rarely frozen into collective inactivity in the face of crisis. Instead they innovate and act back on the environment. Identifying and publicizing a trend may trigger countervailing efforts that then reverse it. It may be that beyond a certain limit fragmentation generates counter-efforts, as persons search for ways to mediate its harsher consequences. Collective behavior in the form of political challenges, the self-help movement, and the search for more fulfilling human relationships may be part of this reaction.

Similarly, although there is an apparent increase in social conflict and in the tendency to see relationships in legal terms, there may be an equivalent increase in the willingness to compromise. This is suggested by the rise of alternative processes of dispute resolution such as arbitration and mediation carried out in neighborhood justice centers or informal courts.

Even if we are clear about the level of analysis, the time frame, cycles, and the validity of an empirical pattern, persons may disagree on the meaning of a given indicator or on the value implications of an indicator whose meaning is agreed upon.

Some measures are not easily interpreted:

Does this take the haunting "lonely crowd" to a new low? Or do we need to know more about what they are listening to, to reach any conclusions? How would our assessment vary depending on whether they are able to listen to a broad range of specialized material that uniquely suits them, or only a narrow range of standardized material that has been produced and sanitized by big government or business? In the case of the former, granted diversity and choice are positive values, but is there a point beyond which these are undesirable? What if people are not listening to the same language, or the messages they receive share nothing with those received by others, and even denigrate them? In a related example, does the lonely person watching television indicate the height of fragmentation, or is television an important integrative device for a person who otherwise would be isolated? How does the assessment change if the person is watching general and/or national networks versus highly specialized and/or local networks?

Future Trends

We began by noting examples suggesting that American society is becoming increasingly fragmented. Where is our society headed? The data do not point clearly in one direction. A detailed prediction or what the next two decades will be like with respect to fragmentation and cohesion requires distinct predictions for multiple indicators. There is no single overarching conclusion.

The current data present a mixed and complicated picture. yet a consistent case for increased fragmentation cannot be made. If we were to create an elaborate typology-combining dimensions of social involvement, attitudes, diversity, and structure (each with a high and low value relative to fragmentation-cohesion), at the extremes we find two models,of particular interest. One involves a heterogeneous, decentralized society, high in socialization and feelings of distrust, composed of unrelated groups with few, if any, unifying interests or beliefs. At the other extreme we would find a homogeneous, centralized society, low in social isolation and feelings of distrust, composed of tightly linked groups with a great deal in common. Contemporary American reality does not easily fit into either of these extremes.

Yet I find three trends of particular interest: (1) the increased tolerance for diversity and the emergence of a new pluralism increasingly based on choice rather than ascription; (2) the increased importance of electronically based interaction and the weakening of physical place as a factor in cohesion; and (3) the emergence of new social forms that will combine and make less meaningful some of our traditional distinctions, for example, between centralization and decentralization.

Apart from some objective measures of whether or not cultural diversity is actually increasing, diversity is being redefined away from something to be merely tolerated to something more positive, as indicated by laws protecting minority rights and by subtle changes in values. This greater legitimacy, when mixed with increased affluence, entrepreneurs seeking to serve and create markets, and the ease of communication, encourages diversity.

The element of choice seems to be more important with respect to cultural diversity. Traditionally, many behavioral differences were simply expected as a result of the race, ethnic background, or gender one inherited. All behavior correlated with these will not disappear, but to a greater extent than ever before. where there are differences, it will be as result of conscious choice, not the unreflective acceptance of social definitions. For example some distinctive ethnic behavior will remain, but more as something proudly sought, than as something unwillingly thrust upon an individual. Elective groups will play a more important role in societal differentiation and as sources of cohesion and group identification.

Although there are important new elements favoring diversity, there are also strong elements operating to incorporate diversity into the broader society. This greater legitimacy for diversity ironically also serves to shape the broad national culture that persons share. The same technology and values that encourage this diversity also may contribute to increased national integration. As diverse groups touch, they may-blend, as well as grate. Contact may mean conflict over scarce resources and heightened group identification. But It can also mean the appearance of altogether new forms such as Chinese restaurants serving kosher food. or the appearance of a new language "Spanglish" among many persons living near the Mexican-United States border. And rather than remaining distinctive, local cultural elements may be incorporated into an ever-changing national culture. This countertendency toward the incorporation of diversity can seen in examples such as the '-nationalization" of country and western music, southern barbecue food, Californian hot tubs, and the slang from drug and computer subculture groups that has spread far beyond its origins. Similar dynamics at the international level, such as multinational firms and improved communications, were to diffuse what had once been insulated cultural forms.

We are moving away from a society whose major resources of solidarity/cohesion were importantly determined by geography --whether the face-to-face presence of others such as kin and friends, neighborhoods or regions, to a society where community is ever less restricted to physical proximity. Related to this is a change in temporal dimensions. In what amounts to "freeze dried" interaction, electronic media store relevant data and are always ready to offer it up at the leisure of the user. The further weakening of spatial and temporal barriers to interaction (begun by the telegraph and telephone) will likely have profound implications.

The meaning of loneliness and isolation may be redefined. Out of sight need not mean out of mind. Rather than being defined by how much persons interact on a face-to-face basis, or are part of a geographically defined cormmunity, integration will increasingly be defined by how much persons are involved with each other electronically and are part of some community of interest, rather than of place. Face-to-face interaction can decline, even as societal participation increases. More specialized social ties will become increasingly important and easier to make.

What is most interesting about the present paradoxical period is that new forms are coexisting rather than displacing old forms. We are seeing a re-assertion of some processes that were in decline during the industrializing era. We may be in a transitional period where the balance will eventually tip one way or the other. But it is likely that opposing trends will continue in the coming decades. The great processes of centralization, bureaucratization, standardization, and specialization may be altered or weakened in some spheres, but in others they will grow stronger. What is new is a greater duality, as trends involving their opposites-decentralization, networks and lateral forms of organization, heterogeneity and generalization gain in strength.

Value Implications

Beyond social science issues there are questions involving value judgments. The value implications of fragmentation and increased integration are also complex and contradictory.

The mere fact that some traditional forms of social participation and sources of social solidarity are being replaced does not insure that new forms are, better, or even equivalent. Are vicarious and symbolic forms of participation as gratifying as direct participation? Is interaction via machines and over long distances as satisfying as the direct human contact that occurs in face-to-face settings? Will the possibility of greater efficiency, convenience, predictability, and anonymity create a preference for interaction with machines rather than persons? How close ran machines to using the discretion and judgment of the wise human being? Do computerized forms, letters, and machine produced phone messages debase communication by their standardization and impersonality? Will social skills be lessened and emotional needs unfulfilled as more interaction occurs directly with, or through, machines? Can we have the advantages offered by a thoroughly "wired" society without the ominous feeling of being watched and violations of privacy and civil liberties.

Interaction on the basis of highly specialized, shared, elective interests has obvious advantages for the cohesion of the group in question. But do other needs then go unfulfilled, because interaction is based on only a tiny facet of the person rather than on the total personality? Furthermore, what happens to those who are left behind and have few choices to make --the elderly, the physically and mentally handicapped, the poor and isolated and marginal persons? In a society whose cohesiveness is based on ascription, such persons are more likely to be taken care of, because their position is not dependent on what they do, or choose, and others cannot as readily choose to abandon them.

Even with adequate safety nets and provisions for those who cannot really choose, the vast array of choices may carry a psychic and political burden for some persons. This can vary from immobilization as a result of sensory overload, to increased receptiveness to totalitarian direction that promises that one will not have to choose, as Erich Fromm argued in Escape from Freedom.

The seemingly rich array of choices offered by the market can make for societal diversity and feelings of individuality, as persons combine their myriad options for consumption, work, and leisure in distinctive ways. Yet questions can be raised about how meaningful some of these choices arc. Some are in reality "pseudo-choices" masking the absence of more fundamental choices. For example, the absolute number of choices open to a car purchaser is enormous with respect to manufacturers, models. colors. and accessories, but the-larger-choice of an effective mass transportation system, as against the personal auto, is not offered.

Will the new forms of communication make for a more democratic, less hierarchical, more participatory and generalist society, as persons are able to quickly, gain knowledge that previously was available only to experts? Is this a logical extension of a democratizing tendency that began with the invention of the printing press and the spread of mass literacy? Or will we see instead an even less egalitarian, more divided society, as access to these means of communication is restricted to the computer literate and affluent? Will the gap between the information rich (and it's likely correlate, the economically rich) and the poor increase and further enhance the life chances and opportunities for interaction and social participation of the privileged?

Questions can also be posed about the balance between two-way communication and the traditional mass media in which the person is simply a passive recipient. In this sense the printing press, the mimeograph machine, and the typewriter may be far more democratic, because the fixed costs associated with obtaining them are far less than for broadcast networks or highly sophisticated computer resources. On the hand, by permitting instant mass feedback, computers may increase involvement and democratic participation as it becomes easier for persons to offer direct responses.

Those concerned over fragmentation in American society often make assumptions about the integrative consequences of homogeneity and the disintegrative consequences of diversity. At the heart of this may lie romantic notions about the supposedly homogenous rural area thought to be united by shared kinship, religious, ethnic, class, occupational, political, leisure, and geographic factors.

Yet even for most persons who do not fall into the error of idealizing a peaceful, pastoral past that never was, fragmentation probably carries a negative tone. It may be associated with disunity, lack of coherence, conflict, redundancy, inefficiency, indifference, selfishness, confusion, and powerlessness. We associate health with wholeness and pathology with separation.

However, there is another side to this. Cohesion can come at a high price, being associated with totalitarianism, oligarchy, monopoly, standardization, and the stifling of dissent and creativity. Second, apart from any perverse aspects of cohesion, depending on the social context, fragmentation may have positive elements. It may be associated with privacy, liberty, individualism, autonomy, freedom, and an enriching democratic diversity. It may mean greater flexibility and adaptability. A degree of skepticism and mistrust is not a bad thing for a healthy democratic society with an active citizenry. Skepticism and vigilance can be virtues in the face of political inequality and the expansive tendencies of power. A certain distance toward or distrust of strangers is prudent in an impersonal urban society.

We have argued that social forces are present that make for diversity and division as we11 as increased similarity. Yet even if the trends were much stronger in the former direction, this would not necessarily mean a less cohesive society, or at the extreme, a fragmented society tottering on self-destruction. The consequences depend on how diversity is patterned, whether or not there are structures to control and mediate conflict, and whether or not unifying values are present that transcend group differences.

Groups may be distinctive yet interwoven- As Durkheim argued, modern society is partly held together by the interdependence found among its highly differentiated parts. A related factor is how measures of diversity for the society as a whole overlap with respect to group formation. Even where the society shows many sources of heterogeneity, if these are distributed between, rather than within groups, cohesiveness may be enhanced. Diversity cutting across groups may increase integration. As S.M. Lipset argued, multiple criss-rossing group memberships and identities can increase understanding and appreciation of the need for tolerance.

Yet even where within-group homogeneity and commitment to particularistic groups is high, this need not mean a divided society lacking common concerns. To be sure, it may mean greater conflict and competition with other groups. However, as Georg Simmel and Lewis Coser observed, these, too, represent forms of social interaction. When conflict is carried out according to limiting rules, it can be integrative.

This is central to the idea of pluralism. In spite of the historic diversity of American society, at a broader level there has generally been consensus about the legitimacy of the society. Some consensus on values and beliefs has brought a degree of unity to highly diverse groups (aided, of course, by police and the military). At a broader level, there is consensus on the desirability of diversity. People can civilly agree to disagree. Increased commitment to one's own group (whatever the base-class, age, race, and ethnicity, religion. sex, recreational, or occupational interests) need not be divisive. When it is accompanied by tolerance for the rights of others, it may contribute to social cohesion.

There is not much evidence that this tolerance is declining. Indeed, as education has increased, survey research suggests that Americans are becoming more tolerant of diversity and more accepting of the rules of the democratic game, however uneven the path. Difference can add richness and variety and out of the clash of divergent ideas can come new forms. Of course, there are limits. Diversity from poverty and powerlessness is highly undesirable, and some of the examples with which this chapter opened are cause for concern. However, given the positive and negative aspects of both fragmentation and its opposites, conclusions must be drawn guardedly. That the traditional sources of these tendencies are changing is clear, even if the facts and value implications are less clear. There is a need for social research on the form and consequences of these changes and for philosophical and policy analysis of the values and choices at stake.


Unless noted all data are drawn from The Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1982 and 1989. For references please consult the original.

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