Sociality is essential to humanity. It is the feeling of care and concern that people have towards each other, and is a deep instinct within us from the time when we lived for several hundred thousand years in small groups which gave us the advantage over fiercer animals that eventually made us king of the jungle and of the world. The instinct to work in small groups is still with us, but is getting weaker:
There is a lot of evidence that our democracy is based on having citizens connected with one another. When we connect with one another in associations we learn that our self interest is actually connected to the interests of others. That gives us a conception of the public good, common identity, and sense of common responsibility as a nation and as citizens. Any decline in that scholars see as potentially detrimental to democracy.Pamela Paxton
Pamela Paxton is a sociology professor and Population Research Center affiliate from The University of Texas at Austin. She and Matthew A Painter II, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wyoming, used the Iowa Community Survey and the General Social Survey to explore the changing nature of voluntary association membership between 1994 and 2004, using responses from approximately 10,000 citizens in 99 small towns in Iowa, as well as a national sample of the United States population. They compared active members, who regularly attend local meetings, to checkbook members who do not attend any meetings and whose only requirement for membership was likely just to write a check.
Small town Iowans on average actively participated in about a quarter fewer associations in 2004 than they did in 1994. Active participation in recreational groups declined the most at 6 percent. The smallest declines in participation occurred for church and political/civic associations. Church participation declined by 3.5 percent, and active memberships in political and job related groups declined by 2 percent, the latter decline being less because 2004 was a presidential election year.
Overall, the evidence from Iowa suggests not only declining membership in general, but also a shift in how members participate in voluntary organizations. All categories show small but significant checkbook membership of all categories, except one which remained level, increased 1 to 1.6 percent. Paxton said:
Even if we thought these checkbook memberships were equivalent to being actively involved in an organization, the decline in the active associations is greater than any increase we are getting in checkbook memberships.
Paxton said scholars are still trying to understand the decline, but if it is happening in small towns in Iowa, the heartland of America, she expects the declines may be even more drastic elsewhere in country. Potential explanations for the shift from active to passive participation include:
- communities have less neighborhood interaction
- commutes are longer
- television and computer gaming inhibit interaction
- generational differences.
Academics have to think of the sources of their funding and therefore are often timid in expressing conclusions that funding bodies do not like. The fact is that capitalism is based on the ruthless exploitation of your neighbor, everyone wants to join the rich man’s club, and capitalism is supposed to be the way to the American dream, trust disappears, neighborliness and sociality seem old fashioned in the increasingly harsh America. People withdraw to their tellies and computers. Turn to any political forum and you find the defenders of the system, people who are doing all right out of it, and many, like these, who are plainly exasperated by unemployment, hardship, uncertainty, unfriendliness:
- interactions between people now always have the motive of profit
- the reality of commercial competition is that anything goes, to win
- a monetarist system always breeds distrust
- employers always have some angle or con going even against their own employees—I’m sick of it
- the system of government and economics is designed for people to screw one another
- I don’t trush anybody any more—I haven’t found one person worth trusting
- poor people are disposable, there are so many of them they don’t individually matter
- societies with large impoverished classes soon acquire repressive means of state control of those populations—the USofA used terrorist threats to set up more repressive mechanisms
- I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who isn’t some sort of con artist or predator or something—to hell with them
- our country became great is because we wanted it to help the poor and the elderly
- it is unfairness that is ruining the country—how does a corporation making billions in profits not pay taxes and get government disbursements every year?
- tax dollars should help our communities not fund foreign wars and corporation bribes—decent government gives us back the tax we pay in better community services, benefits for our people out of work, community projects that create jobs, and community education, then interaction will grow
- it is a sick society that keeps a huge prison population and pays most people peanuts for doing menial jobs like flipping burgers, but an immensely rich minority who takes everything to spend abroad—what’s fair?
- society needs a social contract—without it, a society has no stake in its people, and is ripe for revolution.
Americans have been conditioned for decades to hate socialism, yet it simply means building a society that everyone wants to live in. It does not mean collecting tax dollars from the poor and middle classes to give to the megarich.
The six broad categories of organizations in the study were service and fraternal organizations, recreational groups, political and civic groups, job-related organizations, church-related groups, and all other groups and organizations.