Institutionalism and the Growing Class Divide

by W.F. Price on November 14, 2012

One of the striking social differences I’ve noticed since I was a child is a profound change in the way neighbors relate to each other, and a creeping sense of alienation that has come to characterize urban America. Robert Putnam described it in his book Bowling Alone, which details the collapse of community in the US. Charles Murray explored another, related aspect of the issue in his book Coming Apart, which focuses on the social decline of white America.

The change, which I had the opportunity to witness first-hand in the neighborhood I was born in, hasn’t involved the physical replacement of people like me or my family (although the fact that so many fled probably added to it), but rather the decline of the social institutions and communities to which we formerly belonged, hence the feeling of alienation. It isn’t so much that new communities have taken their place and pushed people out, but rather that communities as we once knew them do not exist any longer. Except for a few associations such as golf clubs at the very top of society – the so-called 1% – there is precious little left for anyone, and even less, it seems, for young families than others. So, although I may feel the loss a little more keenly as a native, in truth this feeling of not belonging is the norm amongst urban Americans, and probably contributes a good deal to the childlessness of cities.

Putnam’s studies found that the decline in social trust is directly associated with an increase in diversity, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the cause, because while diversity may decrease social trust between groups it often intensifies in-group cooperation, and in days past led to a lot of ethnic associations of one sort or another. In the early 20th century immigrants and natives alike formed their own fraternal orders, sports leagues and churches. But somewhere along the way, participation in communal endeavors began to lag, and has petered out to an abysmally low level today.

After giving this matter some thought, I think I’ve come up with a something that could explain part of this trend.

In the postwar era, the US became a very institutionally oriented society. More so than any other country on earth. Finishing high school became the norm after WWII, and then more and more people went on to college. By the year 2000, American adults had the highest average length of education of any country, and have only barely been surpassed in recent years by Norway and New Zealand. If it weren’t for millions of uneducated recent immigrants, we’d probably still have the top spot.

Since the 1960s, institutional participation – especially in school – has become synonymous with social participation, and increasingly with social rank as well. Despite its benefits, extended education takes time and effort that could be spent elsewhere. It also shapes behavior, creating a model for work and community early in life, as well as expectations regarding progress and rewards, and it indoctrinates people, giving them a sense of what’s proper and what is not. Finally, and importantly, it separates people according to ability and interest. It is not an institution that brings people together, but rather one that filters and arranges them according to talent, habits, work ethic and other factors.

White American adults are probably the most educated demographic the world has seen, having spent a greater amount of time in school than any other people on earth. The American upper middle class, which could fairly be called the dominant class in the US today, probably has northwards of 16 years of school per individual (as opposed to the average of 12.5). We have created an institutional class, and it is the impersonal, formal institution that has taken the place of the civic organization for this new institutional overclass.

While I don’t know exactly what this shift from social, community-based institutions to formal institutions portends for the future, it makes sense that as more participation in formal institutions is required, there will be less in the civic sort that build social capital. Hence less church attendance, fewer bowling leagues, fewer fraternal clubs, etc.

It seems as though this would lead inevitably to more social stratification, as participation in professional or academic institutions is more exclusive and restrictive than participation in community organizations. For example, while you may have a trucker and a doctor at the same church social function, you certainly aren’t going to find them at the same symposium on new enzyme inhibitors.

So, where people used to be joined in fellowship and community spirit, today collegiality prevails, and we have Putnam and Murray scratching their heads trying to figure out why there’s a growing rift between the classes.

What I’d say to Murray in particular is that it isn’t so much that the upper classes are preaching the wrong message; it’s that they are simply absent from the lives of others except in their professional capacity. People will say whatever they think will appease whatever group is loudest and most obnoxious, but I highly doubt a physician would tell fellow parishioners that their daughters should sleep around and abort the results. No, if well-to-do professionals actually lived, socialized and prayed amongst the humbler sorts, they’d adapt their messages to take their needs and behavior into account. It isn’t the values these people are preaching — it’s that they occupy an entirely different universe.

But at this point I’m not sure much can be done about the problem. Perhaps, as societies grow increasingly complex, institutions must follow suit, and erosion of social capital is inevitable. This may be a major factor in the cycle of the rise and fall of nations; while Genghis Khan would drink and ride with the common horsemen who fought and died to build an empire, his grandson Kublai had time only to administer the affairs of state. Kublai’s grandchildren couldn’t even properly mount a horse, and wouldn’t have been able to relate to a Mongol herdsman at all.

So perhaps the epidemic of single motherhood and bad choices amongst the lower classes today is as much a result of being isolated from people who behave responsibly as anything else, and that isolation is a result of a society increasingly stratified by institutional selection and filtering. Maybe it’s time to rethink our emphasis on institutional achievement. In these lean times, it’s something worth considering.

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