A few weeks ago I met David Crowley, the founder and president of Social Capital, Inc. Crowley's organization aims to revitalize American civic engagement one town at a time, starting with his hometown of Woburn, MA.
For those of you with professional or academic interest in social capital, I recommend Crowley's list of links and resources. Given that you're reading my blog on the internet right now, you might be particularly interested in Keith Hampton's work on sociology and IT.
Listening to Crowley tell his story, it was clear that one book in particular had played a pivotal role in defining his career: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam.
I had heard many others talk about the significance of this book, but Crowley's story finally got me to read it. What I found was a staggering collection of statistics that bury the reader under one inescapable conclusion -- after rising for most of the 20th century, American community involvement has declined dramatically since the 1960s.
For me the most powerful message of the book was the pervasiveness of this phenomenon. You might expect that as Americans drop out of one kind of community (church, for example), they get more involved in another (professional associations, say). But Putnam shows us that this is wishful thinking. Across the board for the last forty years, Americans have been isolating from each other in just about any way you can think to measure.
As if the decline of American community weren't bad enough, Putnam goes on to show how community involvement relates directly to all kinds of measures of general well-being. For example, the average couch potato derives as much health benefit from joining one monthly club (a bridge group, for example) as he would from quitting smoking. By letting our sense of community slip away from us, we are not only losing touch with our neighbors, but we are also sacrificing our health, wealth, education, and safety, to name just a few.
In the latter sections of the book, Putnam attempts to unravel the mystery of why Americans are isolating and to suggest remedies to counter these effects. Here he is less successful but still thought-provoking. The major villian appears to be TV, with supporting roles played by suburban sprawl and increasing pressures of time and money. The first two (TV and suburbia) sound right to me, but I wonder about the last one. Haven't we battled the pressures of time and money since WAY before 1960?
Putnam also shows that enduring progress and setbacks in community involvement happen generationally. This is an important point, because most of the changes we see in our own lives are very real but not generational. Within a single generation (my own Gen-Xers, for example) community-minded behavior certainly does change as we mature, raise families, and eventually retire. But these age-related changes are very predictable and we can count on each generation to follow the inevitable rise, fall, and rise (health-permitting) of community involvement.
Real change in American community happens on a grander scale as the oldest generation dies off and the newest is born to replace it. Looking at things this way, we see that even as 30-somethings, the generation of my grandparents was significantly more civic-minded than Gen-Xers are now. And Putnam shows that these kinds of differences between generations persist through all the phases of life. This realization makes Putnam's call to community all the more urgent, because our most civically engaged generation in history is dying off right now, with no worthy heir yet in sight.
What can we do about this? Putnam offers some rather grandiose rallying cries. I recommend something simpler: one day next month, when you might have watched TV, invite some friends over for dinner.