Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 4, The Big Sort

In the first three posts of this series we discussed declines in American social engagement, focusing on the word "alone." We now move to the second adjective describing trends in American society:


In their book The Big Sort Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing discuss a trend they discovered in American migration patterns, a trend that they call "The Big Sort."

Bishop and Cushing stumbled upon The Big Sort after having examined national election trends at both the national and county levels. The striking trend they uncovered was this (p. 6):

"In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide. By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties."

Think about that. At the national level presidential races are as tight as ever. Yet half of the American population experiences landslides at the local level. Over thirty years ago less than one out of four Americans experienced landslides at the local level. (To see this shift you can look at the election maps at The Big Sort website.)

The explanation for this trend is that over the last 30 years Americans have been sorting themselves into communities of sameness. Four to five percent of the American population moves each year. That is 100 million over the last ten years. And as Americans have migrated across the country they have located themselves among the like-minded. Choosing neighbors that look and think like they do. The consequence has been that, rather than Democrats and Republicans living among each other, they have been moving away from each other. Creating local pockets of partisanship and ideology at the neighborhood level which are offset at the national level. As Bishop and Cushing summarize (p. 11), "Americans were engaged in a thirty year movement toward more homogeneous ways of living."

And The Big Sort isn't only about political affiliation. "[T]he Big Sort isn't primarily a political phenomenon. It is the way Americans have chosen to live, an unconscious decision to cluster in communities of likemindedness. " (p. 15) Bishop and Cushing go on to describe how The Big Sort is affecting all facets of American life (p. 6):

"[U]noticed, people had been reshaping the way they lived. Americans were forming tribes, not only in their neighborhoods but also in churches and volunteer groups. That's not the way people would describe what they were doing, but in every corner of society, people were creating new, more homogeneous relations. Churches were filled with people who looked alike and, more important, thought alike. So were clubs, civic organizations, and volunteer groups...What had happened over three decades wasn't a simple increase in political partisanship, but a more fundamental kind of self-perpetuating, self-reinforcing social division. The like-minded neighborhood supported the like-minded church and both confirmed the image and beliefs of the tribe that lived and worshiped there. Americans were busy creating social resonators, and the hum that filled the air was the reverberated and amplified sound of their own voices and beliefs."

Next Post: Sameness and Shouting

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

8 thoughts on “Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 4, The Big Sort”

  1. Richard,

    Clearly, I haven't read the book but it seems to me that at least some who have chosen to live in my neighborhood haven't done so because of like-mindedness and hence belie "sorting" theory. Sameness compared to what. Birds of a feather?

    Unless Bishop and Cushing mean that those folk (multicultural but middle class affluent) were likeminded regards the neighborhood only. Motives are, it seems to me, very much mixed when examined at the microlevel. My wife and I chose to live where we are for two reasons: (1)proximity to children and grandchildren, and (2) the availability of a downsized, one-story empty-nester (we could afford a larger and more expensive house but chose to forego it.)

    We are also members of a church far more theologically conservative than we. We are what you might call kindly porcupines--the church doesn't know what to do with us theologically, given our talk of gender equality and social justice. We are dipolomatic and pleasant enough but speak our minds. Now we may be exceptions that prove the sorting rule.

    But here is my problem: historically, America has always had tribalistic mentalities but has, per Tocqueville, chosen to associate beyond the tribe for survival and for creativity's sake. The demographic deck is being shuffled. But despite the statistics of Chushing and Bishop, I don't see underlying significant associational dynamic differences between the 1950s and the 2000s. I see greater affluence and greater distraction which may affect the margins but not the center.


  2. I think George points out something very important. Although he did not specifically say that he is living in a metropolitan area, I would bet that he is. Diversity is a given in these contexts.

    Homogenous groups are not "unhealthy", nor or they necessarily unproductive. In fact, a unified focus on goal and purpose is "fodder" that brings about productivity, as it inspires.

    So, what is the point in suggesting that diversity (bridging) is important? as an educational endeavor?

  3. I think that it is also important to just as much leave some groups "alone", such as the Amish. Why should anyone think that "dissolving" their "world" makes their life better? Compared to what? Do we think that "our way of life" is "better"? If they are not bothering anyone, then why does anyone think that they need "help" (education)? I think that education "happens" as a result of "living". An open mind is important for a lesson to be learned "well". And an open mind is a matter of an individual's "will". Not all homogenous groups are open-minded.

  4. "not all homogenous groups are open-minded" is an understatement, usually. As homogenity only affirms one's "world", as everyone "thinks or believes" that way...there is no challenge to the "world".

    The danger is when "god" sanctions a "homogenous "world" at another's expense. Then one's will is engaged to be "closed minded" toward another's difference. Such is the case with fundamentally inclined faith traditions.

    Just recently, I watched a documentary, Obsession, on radical Islam. Radicals which suppose that the Transcendent is the "only reality" are not reasonably based. Therefore, reason doesn't hold any influence in thier understanding of "life".

    Obama's recent video to Iran was in one expert's opinion, going to be interpreted by the radicals as a "submission" of our nation's resolve or stand "for" democracy. The stakes will be higher for us, as we send this message, because the radicals will view us as weak (a disrepected position). I don't know the motivation that Obama had in sending this message, or his appeal to Russia for solidarity, at the expense of Poland's protection or his refusal of a Winston Churchill bust sent to us from Great Britian, but it seems that he is bent on re-orienting us in our "way of life". This is not diplomacy, but subservience.

  5. George,

    I think your experience offers a valid critique of sorting theory and I have great respect for your involvement in a church and community with ideas differing from your own. What I wonder after reading your response is if this sorting theory is a generational phenomenon. After college I moved to Boston. I chose a neighborhood with an apartment appropriate for my income level and made no effort to meet my neighbors. I hunted for a church that I felt comfortable in, and found it to be mostly a homogenous group, but not completely. Having moved several times since I still find myself connecting with groups with which I have some kind of base relationship, such as work friends or my church. Meeting neighbors is an awkward experience, and I'm a relatively extroverted person. I know very few people my age (I'm 25, by the way) who feel comfortable interacting with neighbors to build bridging relationships. We're more and more secluded and I feel like I and others I know are suspicious of anyone striking up a conversation in a public context.

  6. Dan,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    I think I might make a case either way for a generational "sorting," where "bridging" is more difficult. Because workers since the early 1970s has been radically rationalized and monetized, all of us, but especially the young who are trying to establish themselves, have less time outside of work and church for leisured social activity among strangers which is needed for "bridging." In addition, marketing and advertizing have created generational and subgenerational niches and pushed those niches down into even todlerdom. To put it another way, it may be harder for the younger generations to bridge because of time constraints and vocation. Consequently, the art of conversation with strangers suffers.


  7. George,

    That is a great point. I am experiencing that first hand. Between getting ready for work, commuting, and working, 12 hours of my day are committed to my job. It is currently one I'm not too fond of so at the end of the day I'm drained. The last thing I want to do is build briding relationships.

    Having grown up in the 80s and 90s with parents that worked all the time, I want to create a better work-life balance for myself and my family. I think my generation is adamant about that balance across the board. Check out this article from the Wall Street Journal


  8. Dan, I read the article and it is very biased. While I don't deny that for the most part this millienial generation had more than most generations in the past, to say that all of them are demanding is an over generalized statement.

    Of course, personal experience is also limited, I am offended by such statements, as they do not represent "my reality" and those that I know personally.

    All of my children were born during this stated period. And although from the outside, they would have seemed "spoiled", they were not, at least by American standards. My husband and I raised them with priviledge, yes, but also demanded responsibilty. All of our children had jobs in high school and at least paid part of their "special" requests, such as clothing that went above what we felt was appropriate. Should we have limited their choices in spending thier own money the way they wanted? No, I believe that teens learn from choices that sometimes are not very wise.

    Even though we had certain ways of teaching our children certain responsibilities, our children's internalization played out differently within thier own perceptions. Our youngest is probabley the most "entitled", but we have seen him mature out of that attitude, at least partially.

    Our daughter internalized our "demands" as criticisms of her "person" and so, has an overactive conscience, while our middle son has incorporated responsible attitudes about life.

    How much of these "entitled" children are developed by innate character, parenting, position in the family unit, and other environmental factors? That is a hard one to gauge.

    What we do know is that America has more than anyone else, in opportunity and material goods, so what have we done with it? I'm not sure, and I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing, as it underlines the freedom of the individual to choose. But, at the same time, it has hindered our responsible behavior to the "whole". This is why I think many youngsters "grow up" in the military, as it demands honor, duty, and country.

Leave a Reply