Word for the day


I’m not going to really pretend I’m writing and defining a word a day – get a calendar if that’s what you want.  But from time to time, I find that right word – that mot juste that simply must enter my mental if not my casual vocabulary.  Today, that word is

homophily

Which is the conscious or unconscious tendency to associate with people who resemble us (the word means, literally ‘love of being alike’).

Before I moved to Ann Arbor, I did some basic demographic research – basic, because what was available 40 years ago hardly counts today.  I looked forward to living in a community with more book stores per capita than any other city in the US; a community with a strong, regular influx of people from all over the world who would bring their politics, religion and food preferences with them; a community that was tolerant of difference.

When my spouse and I actually discussed our pasts, we learned that his political family was similar to – but more radical than – my political family.  That his mother was a descendant-but-not-regularly-practicing-member of the same christian variant as my father – also not-regularly-practicing.  That his father shared a religious background with my mother.  That, since we grew up 7 years and 30 miles apart, we shared many of the same responses to events from our childhoods.  He wasn’t family, but he was familiar.

And when we picked a neighborhood to settle in, we chose based on demographics: income, political leanings, political activity.  Actually, we chose neighborhoods before we chose the house – many folks do that – but we weren’t interested in the quality of schools or how close the neighborhood was to either of our jobs; we wanted to live near folks like us.

Sadly, I’ve learned that this trend – wanting to associate with people who share your values, history, ethnic makeup, income level, etc. – is leading to an increased divide in our nation.  (See The Big Sort or Patchwork Nation to learn more about this.)

I love Ann Arbor because it’s filled with people like me.  I go visit the real world (read that as anywhere in Indiana, but pick your own version); I live here.  But just this week I spoke with an old friend who has settled in Boulder, Colorado – and who doesn’t want to live in Ann Arbor anymore, because she felt at home as soon as she got there.  (300 sunny days a year, lots of physical activity, many bike lanes and hiking trails – some separated from traffic, so they work well – and folks who leave work and go to events or shopping in their workout clothes.  She loves it – although there are few concerts of great music, and not enough book events or other things that Ann Arbor has.  She rarely took advantage of these when she lived here.)

So my friend, who could move back or move to some other place, is staying in Boulder because it’s filled with people like her.  But now, now I’m worrying about whether we as a country should NOT be sorting ourselves into different enclaves of liberal and conservative, white and hispanic, college educated and blue-collar.

Maybe 30 years ago I learned to use ‘cluster analysis’ to look at likely political trends by neighborhoods.  Each type of neighborhood was given a catchy name (I remember ‘furs and station wagons’ which probably would not be any good today . . .) But if you want to think about how political candidates use micro-targeting to figure out how to appeal to our natures – good or bad — you might want to go to Esri Data and check out the information available there.  I checked out my zip code – wouldn’t you?

My neighborhood falls into two segments: ‘Upscale Avenues’ and ‘Patriots and Scholars.’  The book from Esri Data about their demographic sorting system states, in part:

Prosperity is the overriding attribute shared by the seven segments in Upscale Avenues. Residents have earned their success from years of hard work. Similar to the High Society segments, many in this group are also well educated with above-average earnings. However, their housing choices reveal their distinct preferences. Urban markets such as Urban Chic and Pacific Heights favor townhouses and high-rises, Pleasant-Ville residents prefer single-family homes in suburban neighborhoods, and Green Acres residents opt for open spaces. Some have not settled on a home yet, such as the renters among Enterprising Professionals; others, such as Cozy and Comfortable residents, have been settled for years. The median household income for the group is $65,912. Prosperous domesticity also characterizes the lifestyle in Upscale Avenues. They invest in their homes; the owners work on landscaping and home remodeling projects, and the renters buy new furnishings and appliances. They play golf, lift weights, go bicycling, and take domestic vacations. Although they are partial to new cars, they also save and invest their earnings.

[Scholars and Patriots] is unique in the Tapestry Segmentation system. Their shared traits include youth, with the attendant lower incomes, and atypical environments such as college life or military service. Because of their transient lifestyle and lifestage, their home ownership rate is low. Most live in townhouses or apartments, although one-quarter reside in single-family homes. One segment, Military Proximity, is dominated by military life; the other two, College Towns and Dorms and Diplomas, are predominantly students who are pursuing college degrees. Although most of the residents in the military segment are either on active duty or employed in civilian jobs on military bases, the students tend to work part-time at low-paying jobs to support themselves while attending school. However, low personal income does not inhibit their lifestyles. Scholars and Patriots residents’ eclectic tastes in sports range from yoga to football. Electronically savvy, they have wireless Internet connections, notebook computers, iPods, and digital cameras.

I’ve been thinking about how simple it is to sort us into distinct socio-economic groups, and to predict the group behavior as a result.  And frankly, I’ve also been thinking about how this shortchanges our individuality, and encourages us to only ‘talk in the echo chamber’ rather than learn from a variety of viewpoints.

Maybe it’s time to take a longer trip to the real world.  And whether you belong in Dorms and Diplomas or Urban Chic, I hope you’ll join me in trying to be a bit less segmented.

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2 Responses to Word for the day

  1. John Floyd says:

    Sabra, are you saying that you wish you lived among people who were less like yourself?

    • sbriere says:

      Nope. I’m saying that hearing only voices that say the same things I do keeps me from having an effective world view. Even if I disagree with what others say, my failure would be to never listen.

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