Thursday, April 2, 2009


Sociologists have referred in passing to the transitory nature of human ties in urban societies. But they have made no systematic effort to relate the shorter duration of human ties to shorter duration in other kinds of relationships. Nor they have attempted to document the progressive decline in these duration. Until we analyse the temporal character of human bonds, we will completely misunderstand the move to-wards super-industrialism. For one thing, the decline in the average duration of human relationships is a likely corollary of the increase in the number of such relationships. The average urban individual today probably comes into contact with more people in a week than the feudal villager did in a year, perhaps even a lifetime. The villager's ties with other people no doubt included some transient relationships, but the most people he knew were the same throughout their life. The urban may have a core group of people with whom his interactions are sustained over long periods of time, but he also interacts with hundreds, perhaps thousands of people whom he may see only once or twice and who then vanish into anonymity. All of us approach human relationships, as we approach other kinds of relationships, with a set of built-in durational expectancies. We expect that certain kind of relationships will endure longer than others. It is, in fact, possible to classify relationships with other people in terms of their expected duration. These vary, of course, from culture to culture and from person to person. Nevertheless, throughout wide sectors of the population of the advanced technological societies something like the following order is typical:
  • Long-duration relationships. We expect ties with our immediate family, and to a lesser extent with other kin, to extend throughout the lifetimes of the people involved. This expectation is by no means always fulfilled, as rising divorce rates and family break-ups indicate. Nevertheless, we still theoretically marry 'until death do us part' and the social ideal is a lifetie relationship. Whether this is a proper or realistic expectation in a society high power transcience is debatable. The fact remains however, that family links are expected to be long-term, if not lifelong, and considerable guilt attackes to the person who breaks off such relationship.
  • Medium duration relationships. Four classes of relationships fall within this category. Roughly in order of descending durational expectancies, these are relationships with friends, neighbours, job associates, and co-members of churches, clubs and other voluntary orginanizations.
  1. Friendships are traditionally supposed to survive almost, if not quite, as long as family ties. The culture places high value on 'old friends' and a certain amount of blame attaches to dropping a friendship. One type of friendship relationship, however, acquaintanceship, is recognized as less durable.
  2. Neighbout relationships are no longer regarded as long-term commitments - the rate of geographical turn-pver is too high. They are expected to last as long as the individual remains in a single location, and interval that is growing shorter and shorter on average. Breaking off with a neighbout might involve other difficulties, but it carries no great burden of guilt.
  3. On-the-job relationships frequently overlap friendsips, and less often, neighbour relationships. Traditionally, particularly among white-collar, professional and technical people, job relationships were supposed to last a relatively long time. This expectation, however, is also changing rapidly, as we shall see.
  4. Co-membership relationships - links with people in church or civic organizations, political parties and the like - sometimes flowers into friendship but until that happens such individual associations are regarded as more perishable than either friendships, ties with neighbours or fellow members.
  • Short duration relationships. Most, though not all, service relationships fall into this category. These involve sales clerks, delivery people, gas-station attendents, milkmen, barbers, hair-dressers etc. The turn-over among these is relatively rapid and little or no shame attaches to the person who terminates such a relationship. Exceptions to the service pattern are professionals such as physicians, lawyers and accountants, with whom relationships are expected to be somewhat more en-during. This categorization is hardly airtight. Most of us can cite some 'service' relationship that has lasted longer than some friendship, job or neighbour relationship. Moreover, most of us can cite a number of quite long-lasting relationships in our own lives - perhaps we have been going to the same doctor for years or have maintained exteremely close ties with a college friend. Such cases are hardly unusual, but they are relatively few in number in our lives. they are like long-stemmed flowers towering above a field of grass in which each blade represents a short-term relationship, a transient contact. It is the very durability of these ties that makes them noticable. Such expectations do not invalidate the rule. They do not change the key fact that, across the board, the average interpersonal relationship in our life is shorter and shorter in duration.

No comments: