Are Americans Less Neighborly?

This week, I was reading through The Washington Post when I found an article called “It’s not just Rand Paul’s street: Americans are a lot less neighborly than they used to be.” Christopher Ingraham wrote the article after U.S. Senator Rand Paul was attacked by one of his neighbors. Ingraham argues that this type of behavior isn’t isolated, but part of a trend in America—people are becoming less neighborly.

The writer’s main support for this argument is data from the General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS is a nationwide sociological survey which has been administered since 1972 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. The data from this survey is often used by journalists, politicians, and policymakers.

The article says that “In 2016, the share of Americans who say they ‘never’ socialize with their neighbors hit an all-time high of 34 percent, according to the General Social Survey.” Below this statement was the following graph:

WP Graph

This is the claim that I am specifically interested in—whether or not America has actually become less neighborly. The article includes no link to the GSS data, so I had to find the GSS website by myself (you can find it here). The GSS has a search function where you can enter a search word and find all the data connected to that word. For example, if you type in the word neighbor, the GSS will show you all the surveys which include the word neighbor. You can then click on each question and find the response breakdown for each year that the question was included in the survey.

I went through this process, and I was a little confused because none of the questions asked “How often do you socialize with your neighbor,” or some close variant (here are my search results). I thought that maybe I just didn’t know how to use the search function properly, but then I stumbled across the following question: “How often do you spend a social evening with someone who lives in your neighborhood.” Out of all the questions in the database, this was really the only one dealing with neighbors and social behaviors. However, I didn’t really think that this could be the question that Ingraham was referring to. After all, “How often do you spend an evening with your neighbor,” and “How often do you socialize with your neighbor” are different questions. Someone might rarely, or even never, spend a social evening with their neighbor. They might, however, socialize with their neighbor at church or PTA meetings, or play pickleball with them on a Saturday morning.

I thought that The Washington Post article couldn’t possibly be based on the GSS question, until I looked at the data. The graph from above shows that 21% of people in 1974 never socialize with their neighbor. This matches exactly the breakdown for the question that I found on the GSS website—of the 1,484 people surveyed in 1974, 322 said they never spend a social evening with someone who lives in their neighborhood (or, 21.7%). The breakdown of the question from 1974 is below.

GSS 1974

So what about the 2016 data for this question? Of the 2,867 surveyed, 611 said they never spend a social evening with someone who lives in their neighborhood, or, 21.3%. Below is a breakdown of the question for 2016 (you’ll have to ignore all the years in between), as well as the percentages provided by the GSS codebook.1

 GSS 2016GSS Codebook

21.3% is far from the 34% of Americans that The Washington Post claimed weren’t socializing with neighbors. However, I also noticed that if you take all those that responded “Not Applicable”2 out of the 2016 sample, you get 611 out of 1888 that never spend a social evening with their neighbor—which ends up being about 32.4%. While The Washington Post graph claimed 34% in 2016, I still think this is a solid piece of evidence to suggest that the Ingraham was looking at this question and just didn’t include the full sample.

So is The Washington Post’s claim completely bogus? I can’t say for certain, but I think so. Because Ingraham didn’t provide links and I couldn’t follow his path, I suppose it is possible that he was looking at data I couldn’t find. However, I think it is probable that Ingraham took the question about spending a social evening with a neighbor and generalized it to all socialization with neighbors.

In response to my title— “Are Americans less neighborly?”—I think I would say, “I don’t know.” The Washington Post article wasn’t all that helpful, and I don’t think that the GSS question I found is that representative of “neighborliness.” Also, this blog doesn’t address issues of survey methodology such as sample size, the wording of questions, and changes in the survey over the years. I guess what I learned from writing this blog post is to be careful with data collected from surveys, and even more careful with articles based on survey data.

 

 

1 There is no codebook for 1974, or I would have provided that information as well.

2 The “Not Applicable” option was not offered in the 1974 GSS.

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