Why I picked it up: A client, after hearing my research, suggested it as he thought it had findings rather similar to my own … especially for my broader population contextual work.
Main thesis of book: American communities are evolving, and perhaps struggling, because the way our society is structured has fundamentally changed. Over the past few decades, most Americans have grown closer to a smaller number of intimate relations and close friends (an inner ring), and increased interactions with casual acquaintances (an outer ring of like-minded individuals in some way, such as professional contacts, fellow doorknob collectors, etc.), at the expense of a middle ring. That middle ring, of more ordinary friends and people we rubbed up against in our neighborhoods, is where community has historically been made.
Why the shift? He cites three reasons:
The problem with the shift is that we only rub up against like-minded others. We have "nichified" ourselves to form a heterogeneous society of homogeneous, well, cliques. And within those cliques of like-minded individuals, we actually are driven to conform. (Bill Bishop covers this nichification in The Big Sort.)
By skipping over that middle ring, of community and making friends from that community, we don't encounter other viewpoints, don't learn how to engage in disagreement effectively, we cannot bank social capital, and we also lose the creative friction all of this generates. It is now way too easy to skip over the hassles and challenges of the middle ring in our transactions and our affinities. And he nails it when he points out that in the past, when the middle ring was thicker, "neighborliness" meant reaching out to the people who live next door. Today, it means leaving those around you in peace.
Dunkelman doesn't try to say the shift towards thicker inner and outer rings is good or bad, as he thinks it is a done deal and our society now needs to create new ways to mitigate the challenges that arise out of this shift. Disappointingly, while he wants us to be thoughtful on how we build new structures to take its place, he isn't all that forthcoming on ideas.
My take, based on my research: Generally, I agree with many of the themes in this book. My client was right that much of it my research finds similar trends.
In my work, I have found a shift in emphasis from communities of necessity, which was the old structure Dunkelman argues we have lost, to communities of interest. In other words, 50 years ago people created community out of their neighbors, and joined things like the local Elks. But today, we can create virtual communities based on our idiosyncratic interests instantly, so many of us spend our time doing so … at the expense of local community. An example might be doorknob collectors (which you might smile at, but this is a specific example from some of my qualitative work).
This graphic is one I have developed to illustrate people's capacity to engage with others, from taking care of themselves to engaging with the broader world. In this case, "community" is grayed out as I am illustrating how my research indicates young adults in particular struggle to connect with their community. Dunkelman's thesis would put most Americans where I have the young woman … not engaging with that middle ring. I generally agree with that.
One concept that I kept thinking about as I read this book, however, is the idea that we have "nichified" ourselves to form a heterogeneous society of homogenous cliques, at the expense of understanding, empathy, etc. And here I think museums may have an opportunity.
In open-ended questions from my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, a sizable number of museum-goers wrote in that museums had made them more understanding of others by broadening perspectives, presenting different viewpoints, etc. (See my Research Release #4, "The Value of Museums.") I followed that up with a closed-ended question in my 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, and found that 43% of museum-goers felt museums had benefited them in this way. That's pretty sizable. (Research release forthcoming.)
So this begs the question if museums can be a proactive part of the solution. After all, among the niche of museum-goers, we may be making a difference. But is our audience of museum-goers enough to make a societal difference? I doubt it. Extending this work to broader audiences would be necessary, which brings a host of other access challenges.
Read or skip? Skip. The thesis is compelling, and I see it in my own work, so I liked that. But I felt there was a lot of filler in this book. A quick Google search, and my skim, indicates the following two articles by Dunkelman are good synopses.
Full citation: Dunkelman, Marc J. The Vanishing Neighbor: The Tranformation of American Community. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.