Robert Putnam argued in 2000 that people are seeing friends and relatives much less than they were in the mid-1960s. For example, family picnics decreased by 60% between 1975 and 1999, and card playing went down from an average of 16 times per year in 1981, to 8 times per year in 1999.
Yet evidence from the Social Ties survey show that the situation is not so dire. For one thing, we did not ask about picnics; we asked directly about social relations. This leads to a focus on social networks, whomever they include and wherever they are located. For example, friends and relatives are now spatially dispersed rather than concentrated in neighborhoods. The difficulty of traveling to get together may explain why picnics have declined as a way for friends and relatives to meet. Yet other ways of interacting have flourished, on- and offline.
Americans have an average of more than 200 relationships with friends, relatives, and acquaintances. The Social Ties survey could not gather information about all these relationships, but it was able to get information about a large number of Americans’ important ties — all of those relationships that are more than just acquaintances. Specifically, the Social Ties survey asked about two types of ties:
Core Ties: These are the people in Americans’ social networks with whom they have very close relationships — the people to whom Americans turn to discuss important matters, with whom they are in frequent contact, or from whom they seek help. This approach captures three key dimensions of relationship strength — emotional intimacy, contact, and the availability of social network capital.
Significant Ties: These are the people outside that ring of “core ties” in Americans’ social networks, who are somewhat closely connected. They are the ones with whom Americans discuss important matters to a lesser extent, are in less frequent contact, and are less apt to seek help. They may do some or all of these things, but not as extensively. Nevertheless, although significant ties are weaker than core ties, they are more than acquaintances and they can become important players at times as people access their networks to get help or advice.
By probing these two types of relationships, the Social Ties survey provides novel information about the social networks of a sizable proportion of Americans. This information helps us develop a snapshot of what these networks look like.