Have you ever found yourself yearning for the way that things used to be? Back when people knew and trusted each other? There seemed to be a sense of pride in the community, people helped one another when they were in need and everyone seemed happier and better off.
I just finished reading an extraordinary book by Robert Putnam, a political scientist, sociologist and author of several books about American community and civic engagement. Bowling Alone investigates the question of why civic engagement in American communities has been on the decline since its peak in the mid-1960s. In the first section of the book, Putnam presents statistics on community civic engagement: political participation, civic participation, religious participation, connections in the workplace, informal social connections, volunteering, and how community connections are built. In accordance, Putnam builds a strong case that civic engagement has indeed been on the decline since the mid-1960s according to numerous statistics from various sources. Furthermore, Putnam explores the concepts of mutual aid and reciprocity as well as the role of these concepts in creating interpersonal bonds and social cohesion. Mutual aid is simply people helping each other when help is needed and reciprocity is the common understanding that you will help me when I am in need and I will help you when you are in need, a mutualistic relationship between members of a community. These attitudes toward helping others and care for others are the backbone of community. When people in a neighborhood know each other, they are much more likely to trust one another since they have knowledge of the values, morals, and habits of those people, this builds a foundation of trust. In contrast, it is more difficult to trust your neighbors if you don't know them, and the more interaction neighbors have with one another, the greater the opportunity for building trust. Ultimately, when many people in a community project an attitude of reciprocity this is accompanied by trust. Since you can rely on other people to help you when you are in need, this usually extends trust to people in the community and allows people to feel happy, secure and supported where they live.
Why have we chosen to be less civically engaged?
In the next section of Bowling Alone, Putnam investigates several of the commonly offered reasons for declining civic engagement: financial pressures, less free time and greater mobility. Although each of these variables does play a role in shrinking social capital, Putnam finds that these variables have been tested in the past. Upon closer examination, Putnam finds that people are far less mobile today than at various periods in the past when civic engagement was much higher, so this causative relationship between greater mobility and declining social capital does not really pan out. Next, Putnam looks at the variable of leisure time and finds that Americans have far more leisure time today than had in the past when participation in community affairs was much higher. Additionally, Putnam finds that American society is by no means under greater financial stress than we have been in the past (i.e. The Great Depression, the Panic of 1896, the Panic of 1893 etc.) and that during these more acute periods of financial stress, social capital did not decline quite so precipitously as it has from the mid-1960s to the present day. Therefore, Putnam concludes that although financial pressures, less free time, and greater mobility are variables that play a role in civic disengagement, these variables are not the driving forces between the recent free fall we have seen in levels of civic participation.
Putnam looks at two more variables: mass media and generational succession. These two variables show a strong correlation with a decline in civic engagement. Putnam describes television viewership in particular as an important variable in declining social capital. As the number of cable television stations and options for televised entertainment have increased, people have chosen to spend their evenings watching television rather than attending community meetings, joining clubs and visiting with friends. The other main variable has been generational succession, which is simply the turn over of one generation with a particular attitude toward community involvement by another generation with a different view of and a lower tenacity for community involvement. Interestingly, Putnam cites evidence that the generation of Americans born prior to World War Two has a greater propensity for civic engagement than the generations of Americans born after World War Two. Moreover, Putnam affirms that Americans born prior to World War Two were imbued with civic virtue, having grown up in the cultural experience of the Great Depression, World War Two, the early labor movement and all the movements of the progressive era. In contrast, those Americans born after World War Two have grown up in a world where World War Two and the Great Depression are merely stories of their parents and grandparents and historical events studied in school with no direct experience living through these periods of tribulation and without the civic virtue instilling side effects which had a such a powerful impact on the cultural evolution of their parents and grandparents. Clearly, television, technology and mass media and generational succession have played strong roles in the recent decline in community involvement that we have seen since the mid-1960s in America. Without a doubt, if we are to recreate a society of trust, peace, and community, we are going to have to rebuild social capital first.
The Importance of Social Capital and Community Involvement
So why exactly are social capital and community involvement so important? Countless statistics are referenced in Putnam's book that show a strong correlation between favorable statistics and a high level of civic participation. In communities where people are connected and engaged children are better educated and have higher high school graduation rates, crime rates are lower, rates of drug use are lower, rates of teen pregnancy are lower, economic prosperity is higher, unemployment is lower, people are generally healthier and happier, democracy is more effective, and tolerance of people who are different than the majority is higher. The correlation between social capital and community involvement and a healthy prosperous neighborhood is undeniable when one examines the statistics and the implications are mind-blowing.As a result, Putnam comes to the conclusion that the first step in solving all of our social problems needs to be the expansion of social capital and community involvement.
Lessons of History from the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era
In Bowling Alone, Putnam goes back to the "Gilded Age" in America (1870-1896), followed by the "Progressive Era" (1896-1916) in American history to take a look at how our nation went about solving the widespread social problems that had begun to proliferate in the wake of the industrial revolution. American industrial cities had become dirty, crowded, chaotic, dangerous places. Political corruption, corporate monopolies, and unprecedented disparities in income and living conditions between the rich and the poor characterize the temper of the times during the Gilded Age. Thankfully, the Gilded Age was followed by the Progressive Era, a period of unprecedented regulation and reform that beat back the monstrous industrial oppression and squalor of the gilded age. Eventually, corrupt politicians were held accountable by the people, women fought for the right to vote, people banded together to form political action groups, community centers, fraternal organizations, recreational organizations, labor unions and together, they changed American Society for the better. However, none of this progress would have been possible without social capital and community involvement, as these are preconditions for effecting positive change in our world. In fact many of the organizations and social capital that helped to propel the progressive era forward had been put in place well in advance of the reforms that took place and the progressive era offers us a powerful history lession about just how democratic change comes about in our society.
What should we do about it?
Since social capital and community involvement have played such large roles in enabling democratic change in the past, the recent decline in social capital is all that more alarming and the need to reverse this trend all that more urgent. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam presents a deep analysis of the decline in social capital that has taken place in American society since the mid-1960s. Furthermore, Putnam peers into the apparent causes behind this decline and finds that there seems to be more to the story. Putnam elucidates the diffuse societal benefits of well connected communities and social capital in terms of prosperity, health and happiness and cements the role of social capital in helping us all to achieve our highest potential. Conclusively, Putnam determines that social capital has been one of the strongest and most effective tools for bringing about change in a democratic society and that without building social capital, we are unlikely to create the kind of world that we would most prefer to live in.
I strongly recommend reading Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam to anyone that is interested in building community or living a happier, more fulfilling life. In sum, Bowling Alone has had a huge impact on me and as a result of reading this book, I have joined Shorewood Kiwanis of Saint Clair Shores and have agreed to serve on the board of Lakeshore Family YMCA in addition to directing the community education and development endeavors of Transition Saint Clair Shores and serving on the Saint Clair Shores Waterfront Environmental Committee. I cannot stress enough the importance of community involvement, it is the most effective way to create a better community and it is so personally fulfilling and beneficial.
If you are not currently a member of a church, fraternal organization, parent-teacher association, city committee, union or other civic organization, I urge you to join one. You owe it to your community to be involved. If you are already a member of a church, or civic organization, I urge you to actively attend, get involved and engaged, and consider a committee or leadership position in your organization. Encourage your children and young people to volunteer, and get involved in their communities as they are the future of social capital. On a personal and neighborhood level, get to know your neighbors better, you will feel more secure in your neighborhood and will likely find friends as well as people who need your talents and people whose talents you need. Visit friends more often, go to local coffee shops, local restaurants, local businesses, get to know the owners and build a relationship with them. This is how we can build a stronger community, this is the power of social capital.
Thank you for reading,
Feel free to contact me to discuss this or any topic.
Founder of Transition Saint Clair Shores
I would be more than happy to come speak to any group of people about this topic. I encourage you to attend a Transition Saint Clair Shores meeting and help us build community in Saint Clair Shores. Transition Saint Clair Shores will be meeting on February 28th, March 14th, and April 4th, 2013 @ 6:30pm at Lakeshore Family YMCA. Further details are posted under events on patch.com and on the Transition Saint Clair Shores Website: transitionscs.weebly.com