An excellent article, Family Ties in Western Europe: Persistent Contrasts by David Sven Reher, Population and Development Review, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Jun., 1998), pp. 203-234 contains some fascinating passages which are highly consistent with the arguments we make in America 3.0:
Loneliness is one of the most important social problems in weak-family societies. I refer to the loneliness of the individual who must confront the world and his own life without the safety net of familial support so characteristic of strong-family regions.'” Suicide, often an indirect consequence of loneliness, tends to be far higher in northern Europe and the United States than it is in southern Europe.” The effects of loneliness are compensated in weak-family societies by a strong tradition of civic association, where people form groups, clubs, and societies for the most varied purposes. The number and variety of these associations in England or the United States would be unimaginable for a citizen of southern Europe. In weak-family societies the individual is able to combat loneliness by turning directly to civil society, itself largely the product of the needs and initiatives of its members, in contrast to strong-family societies where the family comes between the individual and civil society, meeting a large part of the needs stemming from loneliness.
Weak-family societies, then, tend to be associational societies with a deep civil component, and strong-family ones tend to be more passive societies, at least in terms of the importance of individual initiatives within them. The sense of individual responsibility for collective norms and needs, so essential for the concept of democracy and civil society in the West, is often conspicuously absent from southern European societies, while in northern societies it is an integral part of the social fabric. In sum, the countries of northern Europe and of North America have well-developed civil societies that thrive on individual initiatives, but with a dark side shown by their lack of social cohesion and by the desperation and anguish so prevalent in them. They are tough societies, but they are also dynamic ones. Mediterranean societies are more pleasant, more comfortable, more conformist, more oriented toward the family group, and less dynamic.
The forces making up the contemporary world, common for the most part in all societies, are not the only factors shaping these societies, because societies’ own historical trajectories, different in each case, will also contribute to the specific contours of the present and the future. This concept, known as “path dependency,” refers to a simple but important reality. No matter how nearly universal the factors of modernization may be, once they enter into contact with different historical, cultural, geographical, or social realities, the end result will necessarily be different in each context. The confluence of factors of change and of structural realities, with different results every time, has occurred many times in the past, and there is no reason that the near future should be different. It is worth invoking this concept here because it underscores the fact that the realities of the present-day world cannot be adequately understood without bearing in mind both contemporary forces and historical traditions.
Foreign complaints about the coldness of Anglospheric life, including American life, are accurate. On the other hand, our critiques of the lack of civic life and public probity in foreign countries is also based in fact.
8 thoughts on “Civic Association and Loneliness: Two Sides of the Coin in the English-Speaking World”
“In sum, the countries of northern Europe and of North America have well-developed civil societies that thrive on individual initiatives, but with a dark side shown by their lack of social cohesion and by the desperation and anguish so prevalent in them. They are tough societies, but they are also dynamic ones. Mediterranean societies are more pleasant, more comfortable, more conformist, more oriented toward the family group, and less dynamic.”
That is very insightful. It reminds me of a recent T. Dalrymple essay where he contrasts the expectations of the citizens in the UK that the government will actually do or deliver what is promised and that of Italy where no one ever expects the government will do or accomplish anything. In Italy, everything accomplished independently, and often financially off the books to avoid taxes and regulations. The government ends up money starved because so much economic activity is underground and unreported. As a result, things function much better, and the actual economy is much healthier than in the UK.
Michael, that sounds convincing. Do you have a link?
That business about lonely/dynamic v. pleasant/less dynamic is indeed interesting. We make a very similar point in our book, which was published before I found this essay.
Lex, Here it is:
The Uses of Corruption
Dalrymple produces these little sociological gems, many of which can be found in City Journal.
America 3.0 has a lot of interesting discussion of the importance of family structure for the evolution of societies.
A good follow-on topic could be the social role of romantic love…see this Isegoria post:
Fantastic essay referenced Mr. Hiteshew, Thank you.
“An uncorrupt leviathan state is, in fact, more to be feared than a corrupt one. Indeed, if the Italian state were to turn honest without a simultaneous reduction in its size, the result would be an economic and cultural catastrophe for Italy.” – T. Dalrymple
On the role of social and romantic in the English-speaking world a key work is Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840. (There are paperbacks for a penny on Amazon. Crazy. Buy one.)
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