Writing in the early years of the twentieth century, sociologist Emil Durkheim described traditional culture in terms of “mechanical solidarity.” Like pieces of machine, the parts were interchangeable. Everyone did similar work, shared similar values, and lived in stable relatively isolated communities. Bill Bishop draws on the image of the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Each member is part of a collective that is cybernetically connected to all the others.
In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop writes:
Durkheim predicted that this transition to organic solidarity would result in a general sense of emptiness and disorientation. He called this “anomie.” People would seek out new ways to orient their lives. Some later sociologists, like Daniel Bell, expected that corporations would become the focal point of integrating life but with collapse of trust in institutions in the late 1960s that idea was abandoned. Instead, what we have seen with the advent of greater freedom and greater resources is that people are sorting themselves into like-minded communities to create the mechanical solidarity they have lost. Bishop observes, “Americans still depend on organic solidarity in their economic lives in their mixed and mixed-up workplaces. But in their social, religious, and political lives, they are seeking ways to rejoin the horde.” (217)
Bishop spends Chapter 9 highlighting a number of ways in which this impetus to find like-minded communities has evidenced itself. He offers an analysis of how Oregon politics has moved from being a state where there was widespread identification with environmental issues to being a state of heavily Democratic, more educated, and environmentally conscious cities, with a heavily Republican, less educated, environmentalism unfriendly rural population.
Bishop writes about population density and party affiliation. Places that vote heavily Republican tend to be the least densely populated areas and those that vote Democrat are the most densely populated. Thirty years ago the spatial arrangement was more balanced.
Then there is George Lakoff’s notion that parenting models divide by party affiliation. Republicans tend toward the “strict father” model (valuing respect, obedience, good manners, good behavior) and Democrats toward the “nurturing parent” (valuing independence, self-reliance, curiosity, being considerate). As recently as 1992, Bishop says there was little difference between parties on this issue. By 2004, how one answered on these issues was a better indicator of party than was income.
A study by Belgian demographer Ron Lesthaeghe is also mentioned. Lesthaeghe noted a trend in western European nations, where post-materialism arrived first, of women to have fewer (if any children) and to have them later in life than in previous generations. Reproduction fell below replacement levels, more people lived as singles, and marriage became optional. Bishop writes:
While Bishop doesn’t go into it in his book, this pattern is repeating itself all over the world where widespread prosperity emerges. Bishop notes that in the U. S., the more a location resembles western European nations in family formation the more Democratic they vote.
One observation I would add concerns the topic of globalization. The world is clearly becoming economically integrated. The fear by many is that this will result in the destruction of indigenous cultures, resulting in one bland homogenous world culture. In fact, the opposite appears to be happening. With greater economic strength, people seem to become more intensely connected to their culture and sub-cultures. They begin to assert themselves often leading to new cultural conflicts. Sorting may be on its way to becoming a global phenomenon.