Public Release: 

Chatting over backyard fence is most effective form of communication, USC researchers say

University of Southern California

Los Angelenos feel they belong to a community in direct proportion to the amount of time they spend talking to their neighbors, a University of Southern California study shows.

And the Internet - despite its ability to connect people around the globe - is most often a tool of communication between family and friends on a local and regional level.

"Metamorphosis: Transforming the Ties that Bind" examines the communication behavior and communication environment of 1,800 residents of the city of Los Angeles. The first results of the ongoing study - released in the form of a series of white papers - will be presented Monday, May 1, at the annual conference of the Council on Foundations at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

The study, a project of USC's Annenberg Center for Communication, has yielded data that can help policymakers, journalists, business leaders and grass-roots community activists to communicate more effectively with their constituencies and audiences, according to principal investigator Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach.

"Our findings show that good old-fashioned interpersonal connections - the chat over the backyard fence or on the apartment stoop - are the fastest and strongest path to a sense of belonging to a community," said Ball-Rokeach, a USC expert on the sociology of communication. "People talking to people about their neighborhoods, media telling stories about residential places, and community organizations stimulating neighborhood discussions are the major players that affect a sense and reality of belonging."

"This study is the first of its kind to approach the question of community and a sense of belonging to a community from a communications perspective," said Elizabeth Daley, dean of the USC School of Cinema-Television and executive director of the Annenberg Center for Communication. "It was inspired by the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Prof. Ball-Rokeach and other researchers wanted to know what role communication plays in building a sense of community in a city like Los Angeles."

The first of 13 planned white papers, "Belonging in the 21st Century: The Case of Los Angeles," reports wide variations in residents' sense of belonging to seven residential areas of the city - ranging from the greatest sense of belonging, among African-American residents of Greater Crenshaw, to the least sense of belonging, among Chinese-American residents of Greater Monterey Park/Alhambra.

The second white paper, "The Globalization of Everyday Life: Vision and Reality," examines how the global era - including access to home computers, home Internet connections and other electronic gadgets - is affecting the way people lead their everyday lives.

The Metamorphosis Project, now in its third year, answers the pervasive question: Can large urban areas sustain communities? "We find that the revitalization of urban residential areas is not folly," Ball-Rokeach said. "We demonstrate that neighborhoods remain central in people's everyday lives. Moreover, we conclude that communication infrastructures play a greater role in community building than economic or physical infrastructures."

The project is named for the social transformation, or metamorphosis, currently underway in urban centers around the world. Another 11 white papers, to be released over the next couple of years, will cover such topics as cohesiveness and communication in immigrant communities both old and new; uses of the Internet vs. interpersonal communication; community media in immigrant communities; the strength of community organizations; and new and changing means of communicating within urban populations.

Ball-Rokeach and her team of researchers used a variety of tools - telephone surveys, focus groups, one-on-one interviews and geospatial mapping - to examine the city's communication patterns. The neighborhoods and ethnic groups studied were East Los Angeles, Mexican origin; Greater Crenshaw, African American; Greater Koreatown, Korean origin; Greater Monterey Park/Alhambra, Chinese origin; Pico-Union, Central American origin; South Pasadena, Caucasian/Protestant; and Westside, Caucasian/Jewish.

The findings include:

-- The most important contribution of community organizations lies in their strategic roles as "conversation starters." Foundations and community-building agencies should invest in grass-roots organizations first, because these are the groups most effective in building community.

-- Journalists, whether working for traditional, community, ethnic or Internet media, need to consider how their stories make a difference in people's willingness to invest in community.

-- As many have suspected, exposure to mainstream television programming hurts people's sense of community - at least among Caucasians of South Pasadena and the Westside, Central Americans of Pico-Union, and African-Americans of Greater Crenshaw. Mexican-origin residents of East L.A. had a different experience, though: the more they watched mainstream television, the greater sense of "belonging" they had to their community.

-- Whether accurate or not, news stories that typify certain neighborhoods as crime ridden or unsafe work against efforts to improve the area.

-- The Internet literally extends parts of Los Angeles to Korea, El Salvador, the Middle East and other locales around the world. Most of the newest immigrants use the technology to keep up on events in their homelands, while most others use the Internet locally and regionally.

-- People who take pride in Los Angeles are more likely to have a sense of belonging to their own residential neighborhoods.

The Metamorphosis Project has received $700,000 in funding from the Annenberg Center for Communication, $50,000 from the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania, and $50,000 plus faculty release time, office space and equipment from USC's Annenberg School for Communication.

Ball-Rokeach is a professor of communication in USC's Annenberg School for Communication and a professor of sociology in USC's College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The Annenberg Center for Communication advances communication and information technologies through interdisciplinary research and outreach. The center assists in the development of new communication applications on local, national and global levels, and it explores the impact on society of changing technologies. The center can be accessed online at


EDITOR: For more information about the study, call the Metamorphosis Project at (213) 740-1260 or media representative Sharon Stewart at (213) 740-7895.

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