Friday, June 08, 2007

James Coleman on Mobility

This is rather abstract, but it's very thought-provoking if you dig down and think about what's being said. It's from pages 19-21 of sociologist James Coleman's book Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities:
The destruction of the functional communities within which families live and children grow up is a destruction in which the prime mover is technological change, but in which the intermediate actors have played an important part as well. One of these actors is the family itself. Families make decisions which, taken individually, benefit the family, but at a small cost to others. When enough families make such a decision the combined costs are hamrful to all. For example, a family decides to leave a community because of a better job offer elsewhere or becuase of a promotion and transfer. Each of the other members of the community experiences a small loss, because the cycles of intergenerational closure involving that family are broken and because the family's contribution to community activities and community norms are withdrawn. These ruptures will be repaired after the family is replaced by a new one, but repairs take a period of time.

All this does not create a problem, up to a point. But when the rate of such mobility is high, . . . then there comes a point when this high rate imposes costs on each member of the community that exceed the benefits of moving, even for the movers. The high rate means that the cycles of intergenerational closure are in a continual state of disrepair, and the norms and community activities remain in a continually weakened or disrupted state. Thus at the extreme, we may find each family with higher income, yet worse off than before, because of the loss of community resources resulting from the decisions of each. Yet it would be unwise for a family not to move as long as that move is beneficial to the family. . . . [T]hese moves, each beneficial to the mover, make everyone worse off.

There is a second point in the rate of movement, one in which each family's chance of imminent movement is sufficiently great that the investment in connections in the new community is unprofitable to the family,. "Putting down roots is not worth it," is the common expression . . . . When the community consists of such highly mobile families, then it is weakened on two counts: by its own high rate of turnover and by the high proportion of these mobile families whose prospective moves keep them detached from the community.

We have used this example of moving decisions as an illustration of the more general process. The decision need not be a moving decision. It may be a decision of the father to take a job outside the local neighborhood, or a decision by the mother to leave the household and her community activities and go to work. These are decisions driven by technological change and by the desire for economic gain, and the specific decision may be a correct one from the point of view of the individual or the family making the decision. But each individual and each family is a resource to the community, and decisions which withdraw these resources from the community are decisions which make the community a less valuable resource for its members. . . .

It is in this way that family decisions often destroy the value of a community for socializing children.
This is a collective action problem, and the usual solution would be governmental regulation. So how about it? Should there be governmental restrictions on whether you can move to another city?

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4 Comments:

Blogger PatHMV said...

Well of course there shouldn't be government regulation of our freedom of movement. The cure would be worse than the disease, if the disease even is one.

The argument appears to overlook the benefits of such displacements, damaging the old and creating the new. Insular, isolated communities can trap people into nasty, recurring cycles and unhealthy patterns. The Hatfields and the McCoys might not have developed their feud if a few of them had moved away from time to time, and if more new people had moved in, bringing in new ideas, new ways of looking at things, new energy for solving old problems.

You can't declare such mobility bad without examining its positive effects. I think, on the whole, that the history of the United States has proved the immense benefits brought about by the widespread social integration brought about by such mobility.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Richard H said...

I'm not sure what to do with this. As one who has been mobile since birth (raised as a Navy kid, now a UM preacher), I'm used to living in a place for only a short time. Once I live some place for a couple of years there's something in me that seems to shout, "Move!"

But this mobility isn't completely new. I do genealogy as a hobby, so I see people moving generation after generation. While some people stay put, others seem to be on the move continually. (This may be another factor for me - my uncle used to say our family had "itchy feet.")

There seems to be biblical precedent for moving: Abraham, Jacob & Moses stand out. Jesus described himself as "having no place to lay his head." Of course, there is also plenty of biblical precedent for heroes of the faith not having "healthfully" socialized children: David, Hezekiah, Josiah.

So I guess I'm not convinced that mobility is the make or break factor in good socializing. A factor, most likely. But not THE factor.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Richard H said...

I'm not sure what to do with this. As one who has been mobile since birth (raised as a Navy kid, now a UM preacher), I'm used to living in a place for only a short time. Once I live some place for a couple of years there's something in me that seems to shout, "Move!"

But this mobility isn't completely new. I do genealogy as a hobby, so I see people moving generation after generation. While some people stay put, others seem to be on the move continually. (This may be another factor for me - my uncle used to say our family had "itchy feet.")

There seems to be biblical precedent for moving: Abraham, Jacob & Moses stand out. Jesus described himself as "having no place to lay his head." Of course, there is also plenty of biblical precedent for heroes of the faith not having "healthfully" socialized children: David, Hezekiah, Josiah.

So I guess I'm not convinced that mobility is the make or break factor in good socializing. A factor, most likely. But not THE factor.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Jim Kalb said...

It's hard to tell people they can't move from one place to another, although they used to do that in Russia. This is part of a bigger issue though, the need for stability in local human connections (family, friends, local community etc.). Since that's so whatever helps on the larger problem would help on the issues that bother Coleman.

With that in mind here are some things that might help:

1. Smaller political units with lots of border controls and rights of local economic regulation.

2. A weaker and less centralized welfare state, so that strong and stable local connections become more of a practical necessity for getting through life.

3. Weakening anti-discrimination laws, so informal nonmarket connections and boundaries play more of a legitimate role.

5:48 AM  

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