Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart by Bill Bishop








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Bill Bishop’s new book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, explores the author’s premise that the myriad ways in which we join with like-minded folks leads to a breakdown in tolerance and national consensus. Packed with the evidence of vast research, The Big Sort leads even the most skeptical readers toward an agreement with the perils that the author raises. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 9, “Lifestyle,” pp. 215-217:


Back to the Horde

One of the fundamental questions of sociology asks how societies are held together. Emile Durkheim, a founder of modern sociology, wrote near the end of the nineteenth century about a change in the way socie­ties were glued together. Preindustrial peoples were united in "mechani­cal solidarity," according to Durkheim. Everyone did the same work and had the same beliefs. They were interchangeable. Durkheim described the members of these traditional societies as "repetitions ... rather like the rings of an earthworm," and called this grouping a "horde."23 In tele­vision parlance, these societies were somewhat like the Borg, the race flying about in cube-shaped spacecraft in the series Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg's power is that every individual member contains all the knowledge, skills, and morality of the whole. New members are "assimilated" into the Borg collective with brutal and total efficacy. (As the Borg say, "Resistance is futile.")

Mechanical solidarity is complete with the Borg in a way that could 'never be found outside television. But recall that Americans lived on Borg-like "islands" in the nineteenth century, the isolated towns circum­scribed by shared work, a common church, and traditional families. In­dustrial society flooded these islands, and the division of labor in modern mass production systems separated people. They no longer lived according to tradition or lineage, but by their place in the labor market. According to Durkheim, industrial society was held together through "organic solidarity," the interdependence of people through an economic system based on the division of labor. The glue that would bond society, he predicted, would be an industrial economy built on workplace specialization that demanded connection and cooperation among occupations.24  

The new system uprooted a way of life that had existed for centuries. Industrial society stripped away old boundaries and gave people unprec­edented freedom from tradition. The problem with this new mode of life, Durkheim wrote, was that "unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity."" Durkheim called the sense of emptiness and disorientation brought on by industrial life "anomie" and he traced its effects in rising rates of sui­cide. Durkheim believed that anomie would be quelled as modern work­place structures took the place of the Borg-like village. The corporation would be the institutional structure that would provide people with a common purpose, what Daniel Bell described as a "sense of kindred­ness" through work." The interdependence required in the modern workplace would replace the sense of place and belonging found in the totality of the village.

The past half century tells a different story. As we've lost trust in tra­ditional institutions, the tenuous bonds of the workplace have proved insufficient to satisfy people's need for belonging. In response, we have found ways to re-create Durkheim's "mechanical solidarity" in increas­ingly like-minded neighborhoods, churches, social clubs, and voluntary organizations. "People want to associate or form communities with oth­ers who share the same values," J. Walker Smith, president of the market research firm Yankelovich Partners, told me. "The reassurance that people find in more homogeneous, like-minded communities may be one sort of psychological response to the anxiety of living in a broader social and political environment that is increasingly riven with scandals and betrayals of faith." Americans lost their sense of a nation by acci­dent in the sweeping economic and cultural shifts that took place after the mid-1960s. And by instinct they have sought out modern-day re­creations of the nineteenth-century "island communities" in where and how they live. "Do people fundamentally end up going to live where peo­ple who look like them live?" asked G. Evans Witt, CEO of Princeton Survey Research Associates. "Yes, pretty much. But it's not look, it's act like them, think like them."

Americans still depend on organic solidarity in their economic lives, in their mixed and mixed-up workplaces. But in their social, religious, and political lives, they are seeking ways to rejoin the horde.


If you’re looking to read a thoughtful book about polarization and its consequences, The Big Sort is the right choice for you.


Steve Hopkins, October 20, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2008 issue of Executive Times


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