I saw this bit of news last week and, of course, didn’t like it too much. KLM, the airline, is discussing plans for passengers to be enabled to select their seatmates, rather than let randomness prevail. I never thought about that possibility, although clearly entrepreneurial souls out there think about such things all the time. While I get it, I don’t think it’s a good idea. But it’ll definitely happen, and it’ll likely spread to other airlines soon. Why? Because people are homophilous; that is, they tend to prefer associating and bonding with others who are similar to them. The inclination to associate with others like you is deeply rooted. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s not inherently wrong. It’s simply human. But the urge shouldn’t always be obeyed, of course. (Like lots of urges…).
It does make me wonder what sort of person I’d select to sit next to me. (Answer: quiet, studious type.) On the other hand, who would select to sit next to us? That part is, after all, outside of your control. (My luck: “Wow, a sociology professor—do I have some questions for him!) What I suspect it’ll lead to—instead of selecting a seat based on whether it’s an aisle or window—is obsessive rechecking of your seat selection to make sure those around you are the sort of people you’d prefer to be with for a few hours. Just like our obsessive rechecking of all sorts of electronic communications. And then, capitalizing on that impulse, advertisements will be easy to sell, since “page looks” on the seat-assignment website will soar. Imagine it: even though you may not care who you sit by, your seatmate may have thoroughly studied you and come expecting you to communicate with them in ways they expect. Who knows what they’ll know about you already? (This whole social networking thing may be starting to turn sour.)
Back to the basic idea about homophily. There are people in my wider social network who I like and people I tolerate. (I’m very confident they’d say the same about me). But it’s good for me to have regular interaction with people who are distinctive from me. Indeed, Jesus advised us (in Matthew 5) to seek such opportunities out, not for blunt-force evangelism, but because it helps fashion the right stuff in us—that you may become the kind of people God intends. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” “If you’re only good to your own kind, how distinctive is that?”
I commend to you a book entitled The Big Sort, which I won’t review here but will say provides a compelling look at how Americans are acting on their homophilous urges in all sorts of ways, including where they live. Of course, the wealthy have long lived near each other, by choice, and the poor have always lived among other poor, by necessity. But The Big Sort documents that homophily has bridged the political: today’s communities and neighborhoods are turning bluer and redder.
Basically, we’re becoming more polarized—surrounding ourselves with people like us—by active choice as well as by passive allowance. The next frontier—our trips on airplanes. “Interpretative understanding,” the task of the sociologist, is to try to get in the shoes of others and understand their life. All of us have done that, to some extent and with some frequency. But it’s becoming rarer as our intersecting social worlds may be turning less diverse, rather than more. Is it possible that today we’re more apt to read about people we find strange than live next to them?