Blogging Alone

Review: ‘The Vanishing Neighbor’

• August 9, 2014 5:00 am


"The last refuge of a social-scientific scoundrel is to call for more research," quipped Robert Putnam near the end of his seminal 1995 essay "Bowling Alone." Yet that is what he proceeded to do, and his fellow scoundrels have obliged. The latest round of research comes from Marc Dunkelman, whose book, The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, is a valuable contribution to our understanding of how America’s rhythms of civic life are changing.

Putnam was among the first to discuss an alarming loss in American togetherness, what academics call "social capital." While American community was for centuries characterized by high levels of civic engagement, Putnam found that participation in civic staples like parent-teacher associations, Elks lodges, and Boy Scout troops declined precipitously in just a few decades. Per the title, while more Americans bowled than ever before, participation in league bowling had declined dramatically.

Americans were joining mass-membership organizations instead. Putnam cites as an example the AARP, which in 1993 was "(after the Catholic Church) the largest private organization in the world."

"From the point of view of social connectedness," Putnam wrote, "the Environmental Defense Fund and a bowling league are just not in the same category." Sending a check to a band of lobbyists in Washington, while "plainly of great political importance," is no substitute for mowing the lawn of an elderly neighbor.

In very important ways, civic engagement had been outsourced away from communities and toward bitterly gridlocked hubs of political power. Putnam alerted Americans to an emerging reality they had felt intuitively for some time: fewer of their neighbors did neighborly things, though the folks from Health and Human Services came around more frequently.

Like Bowling Alone, Dunkelman’s The Vanishing Neighbor began as an essay, which was published in 2011 by Yuval Levin’s National Affairs. Dunkelman argues that social capital is not disintegrating, per se, but it is being radically reinvested, with wide-reaching implications for the United States’ ailing communities and public institutions.

"It’s time to repurpose social capital. Rather than imagine it as a gross measure of a society’s connective tissue, we should think of it as we think of, well, capital … we should think of it as something that, like money, we control and invest," writes Dunkelman, a research fellow at Brown University’s Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions.

As Alexis de Tocqueville famously documented, American community life has traditionally centered on small townships that were rich with voluntary civic organizations. Citizens within these townships were close to their immediate family and friends, but they also maintained important ties with other community members—the local reverend, bartender, and grocer. Dunkelman argues that these ties formed the critical mass for civic engagement at the local level; insofar as they exposed Americans to individuals from all walks of life, they were critical for mutual understanding and compromise at the national level.

Dunkelman believes that Americans are divesting from these critical local ties in favor of other relationships. To illustrate this, he uses a model of Jupiter’s rings. If Jupiter represents the individual, the planet’s "inner rings" represent close family and friends, its "middle rings" represent neighbors and local community members, and its "outer rings" represent individuals who share some single interest with the individual, but may not share geographic proximity with him or her (think "tweeps").

Increasingly, Americans spend their time with the inner and outer rings, while impoverishing middle-ring relationships. They "aren’t being lost in a sea of social isolation," Dunkelman writes. "They’re shifting their time and attention from one constellation of rings to another." To the extent they do invest in middle-ring relationships, it is with individuals who are just like them, as scholars such as Charles Murray and Bill Bishop have pointed out.

Driving this change, according to Dunkelman, is the so-called Chinatown bus effect, or the narrowing "chasm separating what we want from what we can get." The name derives from the experience of Chinatown shop owners in the 1990s who needed to shuttle workers between franchises in different cities. Rather than rely on a multi-leg voyage of Greyhound buses, inner-city circulators and subway systems, the shop owners provided their own nonstop service. A direct line can be drawn from this service to today’s Megabuses and Bolt buses. In short, the Chinatown bus effect creates convenience where previously there was hassle. It expands Americans’ horizons and gives them choice.

Dunkelman does not lament the change brought by the Chinatown bus effect, as well he shouldn’t. But he does caution about its influence on townships and the middle-ring relationships that made them special. The Chinatown bus effect has made it possible for Americans to reconsider how to invest their finite time and energy. Instead of going to casinos—which Murray argues are among the most diverse, "middle-ring" institutions in American life—more are turning to online gambling. Instead of getting to know the progressive next-door neighbor, "#tcot" is a tempting five keystrokes away.

As a result, Americans have sacrificed community for convenience, heterogeneity for homogeneity. The result, Dunkelman says, is a perfectly comfortable society that is wracked by partisanship and gridlock.

So far, scholars of this phenomenon have been heavy on prognosis and light on prescription. They highlight the negative externalities of life in "the bubble," but run into a brick wall when it comes time to recommend solutions. After all, Americans make these choices voluntarily and seem content with their lot, if not their lawmakers. What exactly is to be done?

Dunkelman offers some solutions, though few seem directly relevant to the dearth of middle-ring relationships in America. Where they do seem relevant, they are unsatisfactory. A proposed system of community forums seems suspiciously like town hall meetings; a proposed "universal national service" program for young people is unabashedly a return to conscription.

Conspicuously absent from Dunkelman’s book is a proposal that he heralded in his 2011 essay for National Affairs: the "New Urbanism" school of design, which emphasizes walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods developed around a community center, or hub. Such neighborhoods seem sure to foster middle-ring relationships. One wonders why the idea was left on the cutting room floor.

The Vanishing Neighbor is a lucid guide to more than 60 years of social science research. Dunkelman has performed an exhaustive review of the literature and relies on it throughout. As a textbook on American community life, you could scarcely ask for better.

Published under: Book reviews