Birds of a feather flock together: It's an old saying that is true in many ways. But as the U.S. population becomes more diverse, those we count as our closest friends and confidants are changing as well, a new study shows.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist Jeffrey Smith's recently published research used data from the 1985 and 2004 General Social Survey to examine how the demographics of Americans' social networks have changed as the nation's diversity has increased.
Looking at five key demographics — race, religion, sex, age and education — the study found that Americans increasingly crossed boundaries of race and religion in their social networks, mirroring the evolving demographics of the country.
"We were expecting the changes in terms of race and religion, that people would have more diverse social networks based on the changing composition of the population," said Smith, an assistant professor of sociology. "And while we expected this change, it is still really important.
"More people now know someone with a different racial/religious background and this may lead to a more integrated country. I mean, we could have seen no changes in interaction patterns, though people had more opportunities to interact with someone with different background as themselves."
The gender composition of social networks also changed between 1985 and 2004, but for very different reasons, Smith said. Over the study's two-decade span, the U.S. gender composition hasn't changed, but there was a larger tendency among 2004 survey respondents to claim a member of the opposite sex as a close confidant.
Perhaps, Smith said, the finding could be explained by examining womens' changing roles. More women than men now hold college degrees and women are more likely to have careers outside the home than in 1985. Their responsibilities in their marriages have changed, as well.
"Men and women have always been in contact with one another, but they are much more likely (now) to see each other as actual partners," Smith said. "You can see this very obviously in 2004, as people were more likely to name their spouse as a close confidant than in 1985."
The study also found subtle changes in the role of age and education when it comes to social networks. Age changes were concentrated primarily among younger respondents. They are increasingly isolated from older cohorts, which Smith said could be explained by the delaying of life course transitions.
"More and more people in their 20s are pushing off things like careers, marriage, kids … and that's affecting who they are in contact with," he said.
The overall changes for education were small as well, but Smith noted that those with high school or lower educational attainment are less likely to have confidants with people with advanced degrees.
"Individuals without educational capital are increasingly isolated and that has large implications for inequality in the country," Smith said.
The study was published in the June edition of the American Sociological Review.