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Alone in the City? An Intellectual History of Social Isolation (WP-02-15)

Eric Klinenberg

During the last one hundred years, “social isolation” has been one of the key concepts and core problems in American sociology, but an intellectual history of its curious life reveals strong conflict over its status. There are three specific purposes for this effort at conceptual clarification. First, to show how distinct generations of urban scholars have developed, deployed, and debunked the idea of social isolation and to chart its return to prominence in recent years. Second, to consider the methodological and theoretical sources of the term’s longevity, and to raise questions about the status of an urban poverty paradigm based on the isolation thesis. Third, to consider the social and sociological consequences of research focusing on the social isolation problem. This paper documents how conventional uses of the category have muddled important social scientific debates about inequality and the city, and calls for a new vocabulary for the study of urban social processes.

Eric Klinenberg, Department of Sociology and Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

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