May 5, 2003

Alone, together

Bradd Shore, Goodrich C. White Professor of Athropology is director of the MARIAL (Myth and Ritual in American Life) Center.

When I was a kid, we were told humanity was at the dawn of the “Atomic Age,” when nuclear power would improve our lives in manifold ways. Few of us dreamed that the real revolution would be based on the dance of ones and zeros rather than neutrons and electrons.

The global village was built by the power of modern information technology. We’re bombarded by multiple streams (or “windows”) of information and disinformation from everywhere. We’re in touch. Closer to home, pagers, cell phones, e-mail and voice mail all have made it possible for us to stay in almost constant contact with friends, colleagues and family members. AT&T long ago urged us to “reach out and touch someone” through their telephone lines; now it has become an easy matter to stay connected without any physical lines at all. We’ve gone wireless.

But being “in touch” electronically is not the same as face-to-face contact, which is what we usually mean by “being together.” Increasingly, physical space is not where we’re hanging out. Next time you’re at an airport or shopping at the mall, check out the number of people walking around with cell phones to their ears or wearing headphones. It’s hard to say exactly where these folks “are.”

Unable to imagine a placeless place, we called it “cyberspace.” Multitasking in several places at once, we’re increasingly distracted. The number of near-collisions between people as they walk around public spaces (are we headed for an epidemic of “aisle rage?”) suggests they are not exactly in the same place. At any given moment, our physical space is not necessarily the same as our social space.

To what extent is this kind of social disconnection and loss of focus entering the American home? The question of whether Americans are eating dinner together has been the subject of media debate. As we negotiate the tangle of our family lives and work obligations, we have all eaten on the run, ordered out, grabbed a quick bite from the refrigerator, and participated in serial eating at dinnertime (which may or may not be the same as cereal eating at breakfast), as different members of the family come and go on their own time.

Less obvious is the kind of “market segmentation” that has redrawn the fault lines of the dinner table as our eating habits have become more personally differentiated. Our food habits are becoming increasingly individuated, as marketers encourage us to think of our food preferences as personal “lifestyle choices” rather than family matters.

We see ourselves as vegetarians, vegans, meat-eaters or devotees of the Atkins diet. No one seems to be just eating any more. The family cook is faced not with making one meal but a variety of different meals, tailored to individual eating preferences. And, of course, food companies have been more than willing to transform the old TV dinner into a wide variety of expensive convenience foods, microwavable foods and individualized meals that have transformed the dinner table into a kind of cafeteria space.

To what extent is the experience of the “family meal” affected by not eating common foods from common bowls? It’s hard to know. But we do know there is no more basic symbolic statement of belonging than eating together. And when you add the effects of staggered dinner times and family meals in front of the television, the atomization of the meal experience for many families becomes clear. Being at the same table is no guarantee that we’re “eating together.” One senses that something important is at stake.

These trends are part of an increasing atomization of social life shaped by changes in both scheduling practices and communication technology. They have the paradoxical effect of rendering us at once more connected and less together.

“Dinnertime” and “weekends” are traditional family times for many. Setting aside such “sacred times” is the essence of family ritual, assuring us some common family time away from work and other activities. But the demands of the workplace and of extracurricular activities for kids have eaten into the times we used to set aside for family meals and other family activities. It’s not so uncommon now for meetings at work to go into the evening, or for sports practice to run late or start early in the evening. Some forms of togetherness have been enhanced by these changes, but not the family.

We seem to have more flexibility in juggling our personal schedules and a greater ability to stay in contact with people. But time to be together—in the old-fashioned, face-to-face sense—is increasingly at a premium. Bringing people together in a significant way is the age-old function of ritual, which is why we at the MARIAL Center are interested in these changing modes of scheduling.

In the current issue of our newsletter, Families That Work, we highlight the work of MARIAL postdoctoral fellow Drew Whitelegg, who is studying the lives of flight attendants and their families (see story). This research comes very close to home for me. My wife is a flight attendant. In many ways we all have benefitted from the extraordinary flexibility of her work schedule.

Her unit of work isn’t the day or the week but rather “the trip,” which is more of a negotiable module than a fixed unit of labor. With sufficient seniority, a flight attendant can bid a monthly schedule around the demands of the family, and then juggle the pieces of that schedule with exquisite dexterity by trading trips, changing trips, dropping trips and adding trips as the family situation requires.

Such “flextime” scheduling has advantages for arranging family life, but these advantages come at a price. Such a modularized schedule allows for flexibility in orchestrating complex family interactions at any one time period. But it doesn’t provide a family with any kind of predictable routine; it makes it hard for us to all find regular times to be together. From week to week it’s sometimes hard to predict when my wife will be home and when she will be working. True, as she moved up in seniority, she could bid her schedules around key holidays. But occasionally we still have to celebrate Thanksgiving on Friday.

My kids seemed to have adapted pretty well to living at the edge of flextime. It’s all they knew. But creating the routines and rituals that shape the family year have often been a major hurdle for us, which is why I became interested in studying contemporary family ritual.

The importance of social ritual, of setting aside regular times and places for being together—really together—has become, if anything, more important as we experience the dizzying fragmentation of a world in which we may find ourselves increasingly alone, together.

A version of this essay first appeared in the MARIAL Center newsletter, and it is reprinted with permission.