Americans are losing faith in this country’s educational, financial and political institutions, and the social pact that promised hard work would be rewarded with economic fairness, upward mobility and the expectation that the next generation would live a better life than the one before.
So, what’s happened? In “The Vanishing Neighbor,” Marc J. Dunkelman, who grew up in Snyder, argues that the erosion of community – what he calls the loss of “middle-ring relationships” – has brought profound implications. Americans, for the most part, he writes, no longer regularly come into contact with the kinds of once mundane but central relationships – such as the next-door neighbor, the barber or people of different social classes, ethnicity and race – that Jane Jacobs identified a half century ago to be necessary for a vibrant and interconnected community.
Dunkelman suggests the degree of societal destablization taking place – much like the intrinsic chemistry successful teams need to succeed – is the byproduct of the transition from routines of everyday life designed for an earlier time, to a networked age shaped by globalization and digitization.
Dunkelman, a research fellow at Brown University’s A. Alfred Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions, and a senior fellow at the Clinton Foundation, explores these issues extensively with impressive research and clear writing. In doing so, Dunkelman draws on the works of sociologists, historians, political scientists, anthropologists, economists and journalists – David Riesman, William Whyte, Alvin Toffler, Jacobs and Bill Bishop among them – while pushing the issues forward.
The future is less clear, as it always is, than the past, but Dunkelman asserts – albeit less persuasively – that more promise and possibility can yet lie ahead if a new societal structure is created to meet the demands of the 21st century. That, he observes, will be no easy task. “The same influences that have worked to flatten the globe, putting us in closer touch with acquaintances around the world,” Dunkelman writes, “have made strangers of the people next door.”
Mark Sommer is a News staff reporter.
The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community
By Marc J. Dunkelman
W.W. Norton & Co.
246 pages, $27.95.