My new JOS article – ‘I’ll just text you’: Is face-to-face social contact declining in a mediated world?

‘I’ll just text you’: Is face-to-face social contact declining in a mediated world?

The Journal of Sociology, 2016

Roger Patulny and Claire Seaman

The rise in the network society might lead to a decline in face-to-face contact as people substitute it with more mediated forms, or an increase in both face-to-face and mediated contact as complements, with unknown consequences for social support. This article examines trends in social contact, mediated contact (phone, online, etc.), and social support in 2002, 2006 and 2010, using aggregated ABS General Social Survey data. Results show an aggregate decline in face-to-face contact and rise in mediated contact in Australia between 2002 and 2010, but no aggregate decline in perceived social support, and a strong positive individual-level association between both forms of contact and social support. There are, however, signs of an emerging class-based digital divide, with low-income older men and less educated respondents reporting lower levels of mediated contact and social support by 2010.

Are we happy yet?

Who doesn’t want to be happy? The last few decades have seen a great rise in the pursuit of happiness. Not the Aristotelian pursuit of a virtuous, well rounded emotional life, nor the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness through liberty as an ‘inalienable right’, nor even the Utilitarian pursuit of happiness as the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. Rather, there has been a surge of interest in measuring and planning for the happiness of nations. The OECD now tracks wellbeing measures across countries, Bhutan has pioneered in interest in Gross National Happiness (GNH) over GDP as a measure of societal progress, and the UK is interested in finding ‘happy places’ by measuring wellbeing and happiness by geographic location. Happiness is clearly now an important measure of social progress.

And yet happiness is still largely individualised as an emotion. Despite studies by world happiness experts like Ruut Veenhoven showing that happiness is clearly linked to social structural conditions in that it varies substantially across rich, poor and unequal nations, the treatments for happiness are still largely individualised. Medication and therapy – including mass therapy, or a societal/national foci on promoting mindfulness, positive psychology and CBT – are put forward as the means for resolving unhappiness, even when changes in economic and work conditions, family, gender, ethnic, and age structures, and urban and social connection may be the primary culprits in causing unhappiness. Can the proliferation of lists on how to be happy in 5, 7, 13, or 25 ‘science-backed’ easy (and obviously non-contradictory …) steps really compensate for broader social change?

And what about other emotions? How much of our unhappiness is about rising anxiety, depression, stress and anger? How much of our happiness depends on peace, contentment and love? And how much does our happiness – in all its related emotional forms – depend on what we are doing, rather than how we might sum up our lives on a 0 to 10 scale of satisfaction? In previous research, my colleague Kimberly Fisher and I found (unexpectedly) that Americans would enjoy their time less if they lived like Australians, because they would spend more time doing unpleasant things like housework, and less time doing fun things like having people over for dinner. We also found that the GFC seemed to have the effect of helping Americans re-evaluate the quality of their time, and enjoy the grind of work less and the pleasantness of social and family time more. Clearly, reflecting on and adjusting the social circumstances and lives that make us happy is an important element of our actual happiness. Mary Holmes calls this emotional reflexivity, or “an embodied, cognitive and relational process in which social actors have feelings about and try to understand and alter their lives in relation to their social and natural environment and to others.”

I say – as I always do with regards to all matters sociological – that structure and agency go hand in hand in the consideration of our happiness. We can change the world – and we can change ourselves – one emotion at a time, with reflection and awareness. I say that we need to be reflexive about what makes us happy (how society affects us), what makes others happy (how we affect society), if there are contradictions and inequalities in happiness, and when it is appropriate to beshow, or change our happiness, unhappiness, or other emotions – rather than assuming we should always try and be simply happy as a default for living. If we can do these things, I think we can start to really understand what it means to be happy in today’s society, and to understand and build truly happy societies.

What do you think?

#S327UOW16 #Tut12

Which is worse – the experience or the stigma of mental illness?

According to Beyond Blue, it is estimated that in 1 year, 1 million Australian adults will experience depression and 2 million will experience anxiety; that 45% of Australians will experience mental health problem in their lifetime; that; and that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience depression.

However, anxiety, depression and sadness are only some of the difficult (or what I would call primary) emotions associated with mental illness. Those who experience it also have to deal with the stigma associated with mental illness, and with a range of secondary emotions associated – disgust, embarrassment, guilt and shame – associated with the experience of stigma. Erving Goffman described stigma as a discrepancy between a virtual and an actual social identity, where a person is “reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one.” Whether at work, home, school or in public, having to hide one’s condition – or suffer the indignity of being treated as a ‘tainted’ person – only compounds the difficult emotional experience of managing a mental illness.

Kathy Charmaz provides a critical sociological perspective to the problem, in arguing that our society sets up standards of normal health – a ‘core’ of healthy images and spaces – and expects people to either commit to a clear core (be consistently healthy) or accept a marginalized position outside of this (with an internalized, stigmatized, and shameful identity), but not to ‘pretend’ health or ‘exaggerate’ one’s illness, as those with mental illness are often suspect of doing. Gillian Bendelow notes that the great rise in pharmacological treatments over previous decades and that the use of anti-depressants is seen as the more socially conventional and acceptable approach to the ‘treatment’ of mental illness. Evidence of this can be seen in the fact that Australia now ranks second in the world in anti-depressant prescriptions.

Are more anti-depressants the solution? Davey and Chan (2012) challenge their effectiveness, and suggest that they should be increasingly used only in combination with psychotherapeutic approaches. However, this approach still individualises the problem, and does little to look at the social conditions and the stigma that compounds the experience of mental illness. Perhaps its time to move the focus away from the ‘core’ and towards the periphery, and do more to end the stigma associated with mental illness, anxiety and depression?

#S327UOW16 #Tut11

What do we feel when we do ‘bad’ things?

Why do people do ‘bad’ things? Is it because they feel bad – or because those bad things feel good? It’s not hard to find instances of terrible, scary things in popular media – youth gone wild, health epidemics, crime waves, etc. Sometimes these are beat-ups and moral panics; and sometimes they are more common than we think, or even unbelievably real. Nasty incidents of online trolling and attacks are commonplace, and mass gatherings channeling anger and even hatred occurred as recently as just over ten years ago Australia in the form of the Cronulla Riots.

But why do these things happen? What are the emotions that drive these acts? There can be a simple thrill or joy in doing the wrong thing – what Jack Katz calls the ‘seductions of crime’ – that tricks and compels some people into committing anti-social acts, but are these secretive, individualized compulsions not shaped by how we relate – or fail to relate authentically – to the people around us? Do we not deviate because we feel (and often hide) a sense of deviance, and maybe even shame? Is it shame and fear of the challenge to identities – to conventional masculine dominance, or the threat of job loss from globalization – that compels some young men to anger and violence, as Ghassan Hage has argued occurred on Cronulla Beach eleven years ago? How do all these feeling mix and feed off each other – fear, shame, repression, thrills, and anger – in the dynamics of deviance?

#S327UOW16 #Tut9

The social experience of bodies and feelings

How do you feel? Bodies and emotions seem like the most basic and essential parts of us. You knew your body before you could talk, and your feelings before you could think. They form the core of you. How can such primal things as bodies and emotions – the greatest markers of who you are as an individual – be influenced by society?

Perhaps a few questions might help answer the question:

  • Do you have a tattoo?
  • Do you wear a dress?
  • Did you have braces?
  • How well do you throw a ball?
  • Do you tell people in your life that you love them regularly?
  • Can you restrain your anger?
  • Are you envious of anyone around you?
  • How happy are you?

Think about your answers to these questions. Were these just simple choices that you made as an individual, or skills you did or didn’t pick up at random? Or did your society shape your answers in predictable ways, based on your sex, age, race, education, wealth, health, and social class background? How has society shaped your body, and the way you display and use it? How has society shaped your feelings, their expression, and how you manage them?

#S327UOW16 #Tut1