A bicyclist rides through a neighborhood in Saginaw Township, Michigan, October 10, 2019.
A bicyclist rides through a neighborhood in Saginaw Township, Michigan, October 10, 2019.

When they established the new republic, America’s Founding Fathers envisioned a country with deep community foundations. But as fewer Americans know their neighbors, that sense of community might be eroding.

“We really have moved much more towards a national community and I think even things like social media have abstracted us so much from our local communities, that we've been moving steadily towards a much more kind of nationalized community,” says Brad Birzer, a professor of history at Hillsdale College.

“We used to think of the community good as a local thing, and now we tend to think of it as the whole country. So, we've definitely nationalized, to a certain extent, in our thinking, and the way that we govern ourselves. Everything is moved much more towards Washington, D.C.”

Marc Dunkelman wrote a book called “The Vanishing Neighbor.” In it, he examines the transformation of American communities.

Dunkelman says most Americans have three levels of relationships.

The inner ring includes family and close friends. The middle ring consists of more casual relationships with neighbors, the barber, or people from the PTA (Parent Teacher Association), rotary club or bowling league. The outer ring might include people who are far away but share a common interest and can be easily connected to via social media or other forms of technology. 

FILE -- A neighborhood block party in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user dani0010 via Creative Commons license)

Dunkelman’s assessment is that people focus most of their time and attention on the inner and outer rings, while relinquishing those middle-ring connections that are fundamental to strengthening local communities, encouraging debate and cultivating compromise.

“The reason that people used to have middle-ring relationships, I think for the most part, was that they couldn't avoid it,” says Dunkelman, a fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs. “It was sort of an obligation to join a local community organization, go to the church, go to synagogue ... your office had a bowling league and that was sort of an important thing.”

He points to globalization, education, the rise of two-income families and increased overall efficiency in everyday life that has resulted in fewer middle-ring interactions, leading to increased polarization.

“It's in the absence of having human-to-human relationships through the middle range with someone who voted for the other candidate in 2016 that you begin to really be alienated from people who voted for the other side,” Dunkelman says.

Fewer middle-ring connections could also have an impact on innovation.

“People were saying that the millennials were slated to be the least entrepreneurial generation in a long time and my explanation for that was that people are, in the happenstance of their everyday lives, being exposed to fewer new interesting ideas,” he says.

There are some gains associated with fewer middle-ring interactions, including impediments for hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan to organize at the local level. Meanwhile, the rise of the outer ring heightens the ability, for example, of epidemiologists all over the world to connect more closely to combat a virus like COVID-19.

However, overall, some nuances could be lost when it comes to learning what it means to be a good neighbor.

“Even things as extreme as homelessness, which would have been taken care of [locally] for the most part in the 19th century, are now kind of relegated to higher powers, and so they're institutionalized problems rather than community problems,” Birzer says. “There's a sense in which doing good for our neighbor is really healthy, not just for our neighbor, but for ourselves as well, and we lose, in many ways, the training ground of how to be good citizens when we lose that or when we defer the problem to somebody else.”