Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone by Eric Klinenberg
Come Fall semester I predict that Going Solo will be on the syllabi of sociology courses across the land. I know that if I were still teaching intro to sociology, or some family sociology or demography course, that I'd be assigning Going Solo. But don't wait to enroll in an undergrad sociology course to read Going Solo. All of you fans of popular academic nonfiction, you behavioral economic, experimental psychology, evolutionary biology, economic history, etc. etc. reading people should grab your own copy of Going Solo.
So why is Going Solo destined to be a classic in the field of sociology?
1. Runs Counter to the Conventional Wisdom: The best sociology books, actually the best popular academic nonfiction books, are antidotes to the current conventional wisdom. In the case of Going Solo, the conventional wisdom is that living alone represents a negative individual and social outcome. Klinenberg's methodology (more on which below) enables him to systematically deconstruct the myths around single person households. Far from being socially isolated or lacking strong social connections, most solo dwellers are actually more intertwined with social networks than their married peers. Single dwellers go out more to concerts, restaurants, theaters, museums and other social events than comparable (in age, income, education) married folks. In urban areas networks of single people who live in their own apartments have joined clubs and leagues (such as kickball leagues) that bring them together for recreation and socializing. If given the choice between either roommates or re-marriage, most people will choose to live alone. As education levels rise (and time spent investing in schooling lengthens), norms around cohabitation and marriage are changing to accommodate desires for independence, choice and flexibility. While some solo individuals vow to never share their space (a trend increasingly common in previously married or widowed women, as well as a growing number of urban professionals), other singletons report little social or economic pressure to pair up and share an address. Going solo, particularly in urban areas with large concentrations of educated young professionals, is a new marker of status.
2. Methodological Rigor: The rise of single living has not gone unnoticed by commentators, politicians or academics. Most of the press has been decidedly pessimistic. Sociologists like Linda Waite write books such as The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially. Journalists such as Lori Gottlieb write books like Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. And perhaps the most well know sociology book of the past 10 years, the one that got everyone talking about social capital, was Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Klinenberg is able to dispel so many of the myths about single living because he invest in a rigorous research methodology. This methodology contains both qualitative research, in which Klinenberg and his team engaged in in-depth interviews with over 270 respondents, and quantitative research that involves the analysis of survey and census data. It is the qualitative research that really sets Going Solo apart, as in engaging in so many rigorous in-person interviews (in both the U.S. and internationally) that a more nuanced and surprising story of single living emerges. While this research is not representative of rural dwellers or those outside of wealthy nations, the research is robust enough to provide a much fuller exposition of the trend towards single living than has previously been attempted. Even if you are not interested in changes in household formation and residential composition, Going Solo is a great primer on how to do social science research.
3. Embedded in the Larger Trends: Understanding the growth of solo living is important because all of us will either share this experience at some point in our life, or will have a close family member or friend that does. If we happen to live with a partner and/or kids, many of our co-workers and friends will be living by themselves. Kids who grow up today not sharing a room with a sibling are much more likely to prefer a single dorm when they go to college (and college's are rapidly building new dorms to meet this demand), and will work hard to escape from roommates post-college as soon as finances allow. While most people will still cohabitate at some point, many will not (a proportion that is growing). People who choose to live alone at every portion of the life course report both joys and challenges, just like everyone else. Living alone can be more costly (as expenses like the mortgage, rent, and utilities are are not shared), and at older ages many people worry about not having in-house support networks. Men seem more prone to social isolation outside of cohabitation than women. But for many, the advantages of independence and choice outweigh the disadvantages of going solo, and all indications are that the U.S. will follow the model of Scandinavian countries toward greater and greater proportions of single person households.
What recent books by sociologists would you include in your popular nonfiction academic reading list?