A bank vice-president and a Hari Krisha person, a former twirler, a lesbian couple that raised Nubian goats, a mortician, a real estate agent, a neon bender, the home-ec teacher, a cancer-research scientist, an electrician, the town librarian, a cowboy, a Methodist minister, two impressionist painters, and a full-time can collector. This was a mere 90 degrees of our social circle in the mid-1980s, as residents of Smithville, Texas (pop. 3500).
Moving there from a city, I’d assumed that small-town residents would be look-alikes and that my husband and I would have a hard time finding friends. But in the thirty years before moving there and the now-nearly-thirty more since we moved away, I’ve never known such a diversity of close acquaintances.
What made that happen?
A new study by a professor at Wellesley College and two scholars from University of Kansas offers clues. It’s not that I was more amiable during those years or that the people of Smithville, nice as they were, are so much friendlier than people in Louisville or Chicago, Chapel Hill or Austin. According to researchers Angela J. Bahns, Kate M. Pickett and Christian S. Crandall, it’s a matter of “social ecology.” The size of the town altered the scope of our friendships.
The scholars write, “When opportunity abounds, people are free to pursue more narrow selection criteria [in forming friendships], but when fewer choices are available, they must find satisfaction using broader criteria.”
And that’s just what we did. There were no people with backgrounds, interests, histories very much like ours in Smithville, and as a consequence we grew close to people of many different ages, occupations, and beliefs.
Bahns and her colleagues compared friendships among college students at the University of Kansas (with an enrollment over 25,000) with friendships at four smaller colleges (average enrollment of 1372 students) in eastern and central Kansas. The researchers handed out questionnaires to pairs of students they found in public places – like the cafeteria or student union – asking them about their attitudes concerning a variety of social issues (like contraception and the death penalty), their behaviors (frequency of smoking and drinking, for example), their prejudices, and other matters.
Then they looked at the degree of similarity among the pairs of big-school friends and small-school friends.
“One might imagine that a small homogeneous community will lead people to form relationships
with others much like themselves, compared to a larger eclectic mix of people,” the scholars wrote. They discovered similarity to be an important criterion for friendship in both campus settings, but they also found an “irony”: in smaller social universes, where the total population is less diverse, people tended to form friendships with others less like themselves.
“Because people from the larger university will be able to choose among greater variety, they will also be able to match their interests and activities to partners more closely than individuals in the smaller colleges. This leads to a straightforward but ironic hypothesis," they wrote. "Greater human diversity within an environment will lead to less personal diversity within dyads” (human pairs).
“Social ecology” and its power to shape human relationships strikes us an exciting field of research, of special interest to those of us trying to understand what, for good and ill, characterizes life in rural places.
We toss to these scholars another observation from our years in Smithville. In this small community many people assumed diverse roles and dual occupations, and both roles were given credence by local residents. The high school principal was also a bar owner. The grocer was a rancher and, in fact, sold beef from his own cattle herd at the butcher counter. A career heating and air-conditioning tradesman also had a gospel radio show in its third decade. The Presbyterian minister taught a course in parapsychology in the church basement and ran a health food store. And the leader of the county women’s shelter also operated a nursery for aquatic plants.
These people weren’t seen as dilettantes; rather, both halves of their complex working lives were accepted as legitimate. (Some folks did roll their eyes at the Presbyterian parapsychology course, but the six-week class was repeated several times always with strong attendance.)
We wonder if the social ecology of smaller scale communities not only leads to greater diversity among friends but provides an impetus for inner “diversity” as well. With many roles to fill and fewer people to assume them, small towns may tolerate or actually encourage dual working identities, even when such identities clash.
We lived in Smithville for five years in the 1980s. Having been in the big city west of that town since 1999 (more than twice as long), I have gratefully befriended an electrician, two librarians, and many lesbians (though none who raise goats) among others, but not one minister, mortician, bank vice-president, schoolteacher or can collector. Without any conscious intention to do so, I have, as the scholars write, “fine-tuned” my relationships here in Austin.
The music here is undeniably sweet, but it lacks the crazy and exciting range of instruments that played in Smithville’s social orchestra.