Cohousing and Televison: a Classic Clash of Values
From: Diane Simpson (
Date: Thu, 31 Jan 2002 21:11:02 -0700 (MST)
I was in the middle of a fascinating book when Lauranne's post came along
about television.  What a coincidence!  The book is called "Bowling Alone:
The Collapse and Revival of American Community."  It is written by Robert
D. Putnam, and published by  Simon & Schuster.

Here's a quote from the book jacket:  "Once we bowled in leagues, usually
after work; but no longer.  This seemingly small phenomenon symbolizes a
significant social change that Robert Putnam has identified and
describes....Drawing on vast new data from the Roper Social and Political
Trends and the DDB Needham Life Style--surveys that report in detail on
Americans' changing behavior over the past twenty-five years--Putnam shows
how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends,
neighbors, and social structures, whether the PTA, church, recreation
clubs, political parties, or bowling leagues.  Our shrinking access to
"social capital" that is the reward of communal activity and community
sharing is a serious threat to our civic and personal health."

Now let's jump ahead to the chapter I am reading.  What does Professor
Putnam have to say about television?

"People who way that TV is their 'primary form of entertainment' volunteer
and work on community projects less often, attend fewer dinner parties and
fewer club meetings, spend less time visiting friends, entertain at home
less,picnic less, are less interested in politics, give blood less often,
write friends less regularly, make fewer long-distance calls, send fewer
greeting cards and less e-mail, and express more road rage than
demographically matched people who differ in saying that TV is NOT their
primary form of entertainment.  TV dependence is associated not merely with
less involvement in community life, but with less social involvement in all
it's forms--written, oral, or electronic.  This simple question turns out
to distinguish those Americans who are most socially isolated from those
most involved in their communities, as figures 62 to 66 illustrate. [chart
shows how volunteering goes down as TV watching goes up.] Nothing--not low
education, not full-time work, not long commutes in urban agglomerations,
not poverty or financial distress--is more broadly associated with civic
disengagement and social disconnection than is dependence on television for

On average, Americans who definitely DISAGREE that 'television is my
primary form of entertainment'--let' call them TV minimalists--volunteer
nine times a year.  By contrast, TV maximalists--those who definitely AGREE
that TV provides their prime leisure activity--volunteer only four times a
year.  TV minimalists average eighteen letters a year to friends and
relatives, TV maximalists only twelve. TV minimalists attend nine club
meetings annually, compared with five for TV maximalists. TV minimalists
attend church, on average, twenty-seven times a year, compared with
nineteen for TV maximalists. In fact, reliance on televised entertainment
is a strong negative predictor of church attendance, even controlling for
religiosity. Among equally religious people, those who report that TV is
their primary form of entertainment attend church substantially less often.

The civic differences are crystallized in figure 66: [chart shows how 'road
rage' behavior goes up with television watching] TV minamalists report more
than three community projects a year and fewer than half that many
instances in which they gave the finger to another driver.  Among TV
maximalists, this civility ratio is exactly reversed--twice as many rude
gestures as community projects.  Machers, schmoozers, and those who are
simply civil are drawn disproportionately from the minority of Americans
who are TV minimalists.

One can discover niches of resistance to TV dependency, but even there one
can detect traces of its disengaging aura.  Take, for example,
well-educated financially comfortable women from the Northeast in their
thirties and early forties--the single demographic category in the nation
most likely to disavow televised entertainment.  Even in this select group,
more than one in four confess that television is their primary leisure
activity.  Sure enough, compared with their TV-free sisters, the
TV-afflicted volunteer 62 percent less often, go to 37 percent fewer club
meetings, attend 27 percent fewer church services and 21 percent fewer
dinner parties, entertain at home 20 percent less often, and report 24
percent more dissatisfaction in their lives.

This negative correlation between television watching and social
involvement also appears in time diaries and in surveys from many other
countries.  Both in this country and abroad, heavy television viewers are
(even controlling for other demographic factors) significantly less likely
to belong to voluntary associations and to trust other people.  As TV
ownership and usage spread across populations, it was linked, both in this
country and abroad, to reduced contacts with relatives, friends, neighbors.
More TV watching meant more time, not just at home, but indoors, at the
expense of time in the yard, on the street, and visiting in others' homes.

A dead-on summary of the impact of television on social capital came from a
member of the traditional and close-knit Amish community in southeastern
Pennsylvania in response to a visiting ethnographer, who had asked how the
Amish know which technological inventions to admit and which to shun:

   'We can almost always tell if a change will bring good or bad
   tidings.  Certain things we definitely do not want, like the
   television and the radio.  They would destroy our visiting
   practices.  We would stay at home with the television or radio
   rather than meet with other people.  The visiting practices are
   important because of the closeness of the people.  How can we
   care for the neighbor if we do not visit them or know what
   is going on in their lives?'

So far we have discovered that television watching and especially
dependence upon television for entertainment are closely correlated with
civic disengagement.  Correlation, however, does not prove causation.  An
alternative interpretation is this: People who are social isolates to begin
with gravitate toward the tube as the line of leisurely least resistance.
Without true experimental evidence--in which randomly selected individuals
are exposed (or not exposed) to television over long periods of time--we
cannot be sure that television itself is the CAUSE of disengagement.
(Since the putative effects of TV presumably build up over years, a few
minutes' viewing in a university lab is unlikely to replicate the deeper
effects that we're talking about here.

Truly conclusive evidence on this crucial point is not at hand, and given
ethical restrictions on human experimentation, it is not likely to be
available any time soon.  (It is hard to know whether the louder public
outcry against such an experiment would come on behalf of the subjects
forced to watch TV or those forced NOT to watch.)  On the other hand,
several sorts of evidence make the attribution of guilt in this case more
plausible.  First, the epidemic of civic disengagement began little more
than a decade after the widespread availability of television.  Moreover,
as we shall see in more detail in chapter 14, the greater the youthful
exposure of any cohort of individuals to television, the greater their
degree of disengagement today.  We have already noted that younger
generations, exposed to television throughout their lives, are more
habitual in their television usage and that habitual usage in turn is
associated with lesser civic engagement.

Strikingly direct evidence about the causal direction comes from a range of
intriguing studies of communities conducted just before and just after
television was introduced.  The most remarkable of these studies emerged
from three isolated communities in northern Canada in the 1970's.  Owing
only to poor reception, residents of once (given the pseudonym Notel by the
researchers) were without television as the study began.  The 'treatment'
whose effects were observed was the introduction of a single channel to
Notel residents--the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Life in Notel
was compared with that of two other communities, Unitel and Multitel.
Though it was very similar to Notel in other respects, during the two years
of the study TV reception in Unitel went from CBC only to CBC plus three
American commercial networks.  Multitel was similar in all relevant
respects to the other two towns, although removed somewhat geographically.
Residents of Multitel could receive all four channels throughout the span
of the research.

Canadian researchers Tannis MacBeth Williams explained why this triad of
town constituted a true experiment:

   'Except for anachronistically lacking television reception in 1073,
   [Notel] was typical.  It was accessible by road, had daily bus service
   in two directions, and its ethnic mix was not unusual.  The town just
   happened to be located in a valley in such a way that the transmitter
   meant to serve the area did not provide television reception for
   most residents.'

Significant also is the fact that this study was conducted before the
widespread availability of VCRs and satellite dishes.  In other words,
there will likely never be another example like this of an essentially
TV-free community in any industrialized nation.  The results clearly showed
that the introduction of television deflated Notel residents' participation
in community activities.  As the researchers reported succinctly:

   'Before Notel had television, residents in the longitudinal sample
   attended a greater variety of club and other meetings than did
   residents of Multitel and Unitel, who did not differ.  There was a
   significant decline in Notel following the introduction of television,
   but no change in either Unitel or Multitel.'

The researchers also asked whether television affected only those who were
peripherally involved in community activities or also the active leaders:

   'Television apparently affects participation in community activities
   for individuals who are central to those activities, not just those
   who are more peripherally involved.  residents are more likely to be
   centrally involved in their community's activities in the absence than
   in the presence of television."

This study strongly suggests that television is not merely a concomitant of
lower community involvement, but actually the cause of it.  A major effect
of television's arrival was the reduction in participation in social,
recreational, and community activities among people of all ages.
Television privatizes leisure time.

Comparable though less conclusive evidence comes from studies of the
introduction of television in England, South Africa, Scotland, Australia,
and the united States.  The effects of television on childhood
socialization have been hotly debated for more than three decades.  The
most reasonable conclusion from a welter of sometimes conflicting results
appears to be that heavy television watching probably increases
aggressiveness (although perhaps not actual violence), that it probably
reduced school achievement, and that it is statistically associated with
"psychosocial malfunctioning," although how much of this effect is
self-selection and how much is causal remains controversial.  heavy
television watching by young people is associated with civic ignorance,
cynicism, and lessened political involvement in later years, along with
reduced academic achievement and lower earnings later in life.  In an
exhaustive review of this interdisciplinary literature on television's
effects on American social life, George Comstock and Haejung Paek conclude
that the introduction of television has dampened the degree to which people
engage in social activities outside the home.  None of these studies
provides entirely unassailable support for the theses that television
viewing causes social disengagement, but taken together, the evidence
certainly points in that direction."

--Pages 231-237, "Bowling Alone."

Our former fearless leader Don Lindemann once said "Cohousing is
schmoozing-- that's what it's all about."  If indeed, the purpose of
cohousing is to INCREASE social engagement, and television tends to
DECREASE social engagement, then it seems that these are two entities that
are on a collision course with one another.  It's not about smugness, it's
not about superiority--it's about two institutions that are working at
cross-purposes with one another.  Although bringing television into the
common house may tend to bring people together to watch it, this must be
evaluated very carefully viv-a-vis the potential it has to drive other
people away, its potential effect on children, and the values the community
wishes to promote.

--Diane Simpson
   Jamaica Plain Cohousing, Boston Massachusetts

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
= = = = = = = =

>Lauranne Oliveau wrote:

>One more point. As someone who is still navigating her way into cohousing and
>questioning all the associated values and visions, I am a bit turned off by
>the whiff of superiority I get from the movement. This TV thing highlights
>that it is sooo easy to condemn, which is way out of line with the consensus
>root value of acceptance and inclusion.

    @@              DSIMPSON [at] JPCOHOUSING.ORG                  @@
   @@@@       Diane Simpson          @@@@
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