The United States is living through a major demographic transition that will surely upend our earlier approaches to thinking about identity, community, and social relations. The question of whether by, say, 2040, we will indeed live in an egalitarian majority-minority country, where no group is in the majority and where such inequalities as persist do not track ethnic or racial lines, depends on choices we make now. If we make the wrong choices, we may find that a black/nonblack binary has reasserted itself and that racial privilege is as strong as ever. Yet the demographic opening of the present moment presents an opportunity to renew and even perhaps make good on this country’s egalitarian commitments.
As we have seen, the ideal of assimilation pursues social cohesion while sacrificing individuals’ particular need for connection to their communities of origin. The ideal of multiculturalism valorizes connections to those communities of origin at the expense of both a reasonable account of identity and social bonds. In place of these ideals, I propose an ideal of “social connectedness” that would characterize a “connected society.”
Scholars of social capital distinguish among three kinds of social ties: bonding, bridging, and linking. Bonding ties are those (generally strong) connections that bind kin, close friends, and social similars to one another; bridging ties are those (generally weaker) ties that connect people across demographic cleavages (age, race, class, occupation, religion, and the like); and linking ties are the vertical connections between people at different levels of a status hierarchy, for instance, in the employment context. Bridging ties are the hardest ones to come by. Bonding ties take care of themselves, really. They start with the family and radiate out. But bridging ties are a matter of social structure. Schools, the military, political bodies—these have typically been the institutions that bring people from different backgrounds together. A connected society is one that maximizes active—in the sense of alive and engaged—bridging ties. This generally takes the work of institutions.
Importantly, more connected societies—those that emphasize bridging ties—have been shown to be more egalitarian along multiple dimensions: health outcomes, educational outcomes, economic outcomes. Consider the impact of connectedness on labor markets. Research shows, for instance, that the majority of people who get a new job through information passed through a social network have acquired that information not from a close connection but from a distant one. In other words, bridging ties spread economic opportunity rather than letting it pool in insular subcommunities within a polity. This makes sense. One’s closest connections share too much of one’s world; they are a lot less likely to introduce new information. We all know this intuitively. Whenever we’re trying to help a friend who has been single too long, we scratch our brains to think of a further removed social connection who might connect our friend to a whole new pool of possibilities. Perhaps that seems like a trivial example. But the most important egalitarian impacts of social connectivity flow from bridging ties and their impact on the diffusion of knowledge. Scholars working in the domain of network theory routinely invoke the epistemic benefits of bridging ties to ex plain why so many economic, political, educational, and health benefits flow from them. To the degree that a society achieves greater levels of connectedness, and more equally empowers its members in economic, educational, and health domains, it builds the foundation of political equality.
Perhaps one of the most profound examples of a failure at the level of associational life in a democracy is the case of racial segregation in the United States. I do not refer to a historical phenomenon, for instance, a relic of the mid-twentieth century. Racial segregation continues to have a significant impact on American life in the present and has been pretty conclusively shown to be at the root of racial inequality along all dimensions: educational inequalities in terms of achievement gaps between white and African American students; inequality in distribution of wealth; inequality in terms of employment mobility; inequality in terms of health. Modern segregation is different from the mid-twentieth-century kind, as Thomas Sugrue details in this volume. Both suburbs and middle and upper-class urban areas are more ethnically mixed than they were thirty years ago. But socioeconomic segregation matters more now. And poor African Americans and Latino/as are now more likely to face hypersegregation—along dimensions of both class and race.
A study of segregation by a group of economists shows that social network effects have a great impact on the distribution of goods and resources, such that segregation can be a driver of group inequality, even in hypothetical quantitative models where groups begin with equivalent skill sets and opportunities.
Why does segregation have such profound effects? Common sense points the way to an explanation, which research has confirmed. All you have to do is think about what flows through social networks. At the most basic level, a human social network is like a web of streams and rivulets through which language flows. As language flows it carries with it knowledge and skills. That knowledge can be of the sort we recognize in schools: knowledge about the world or history or politics or literature. Or it can be of a practical kind: which jobs are about to come open because someone is retiring; where a new factory is about to be built, bringing new opportunities to an area. This sort of information also flows with language along social networks.
Any individual has access to just as much knowledge, skill, and opportunity as his or her social network contains. And since knowledge, skill, and opportunity are power, isolation in itself reduces resources of fundamental importance to egalitarian empowerment. Language itself is one of the easiest markers to use in assessing how relatively well connected or fragmented any political community is.
Now I need to underscore that the point I am making here is not about race or ethnicity. It is about social experience for all people. Everyone is benefited by a rich social network and harmed by a relatively isolated or resource-impoverished social network. The American case of racial segregation just happens to be an extreme example of a basic phenomenon that crosses all contexts, times, and places. More egalitarian societies, scholars have shown, are generally more connected societies, and connectivity is equalizing.
Importantly, achieving a connected society does not require that individuals shed cultural specificity. Instead it requires that we scrutinize how institutions build social connections with a view to ensuring that there are multiple overlapping pathways connecting the full range of communities in a country to one another. The ideal of a connected society contrasts with an idea of integration-through-assimilation by orienting us toward becoming a community of communities. A connected society respects and protects bonding ties while also maximizing bridging ties.
A connected society is one in which people can enjoy the bonds of solidarity and community but are equally engaged in the “bridging” work of bringing diverse communities into positive relations while also individually forming personally valuable relationships across boundaries of difference. Importantly, in a connected society the boundaries among communities of solidarity are fluid, and the shape of those communities can be expected to change over time. By continuously maximizing bridging ties, a connected society ensures steadily shifting social boundaries; some bridging ties will, over time, become bonding ties. And as what were once bridging ties become bonding ties, the quest to build bridging ties must migrate to new lines of difference and division.
This post was excerpted and adapted from Danielle Allen’s essay “Toward a Connected Society” in Our Compelling Interests (Princeton University Press, 2016).