Best-selling author takes a new look at civic renewal
When Robert Putnam wrote his book Bowling Alone, the bestseller served to make a nation aware of its declining social capital—the lack of connection between neighbors and within communities. With Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Putnam and his co-author, Lewis Feldstein, present the flip side of the coin—the civic renewal that can happen when people work together for the greater good.
Where Bowling Alone looked at numbers to measure America’s disconnectedness, Better Together looks at people and how they are bringing change to their social environments. “We focus on these social-capital success stories, hoping and believing that they may in fact be harbingers of a broader revival of social capital in the country,” the authors say in the introduction.
What exactly is social capital? In its simplest form, this form of capital describes social networks. Social capital comes in many forms, the authors say, from a neighborhood coffee klatch to a full-fledged civic organization. They further identify two kinds of social capital. Networks linking people who are similar are called bonding social capital. The second type, much more difficult to create, is called bridging social capital—networks that encompass different types of people. With society’s increasing diversity, bridging social capital is essential for healthy public life.
Traveled the country
How can social capital of any sort restore the American community? The authors traveled the country to answer that question, and one of their trips brought them to Oregon.
“Portland: A Positive Epidemic of Civic Engagement,” takes a close look at Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Associations, established in 1974, in the midst of a swell of neighborhood activism across the country.
The difference was that, as the rest of the country slumped into passivity, Portland experienced what the authors called an “extraordinary civic renaissance.” When public meetings in the rest of America saw a 50 percent decrease in involvement, Portland saw an increase of 30 percent to 35 percent.
The authors devote almost 30 pages to Portland’s story of civic engagement, from its roots in the neighborhood associations, to its movement against the national trend of disengagement, to an analysis of why, in a few instances, the approach just does not work.
It’s just one of the 11 comprehensive, colorfully written case studies that make up the bulk of the book. It’s a great read—stories range from the youth-driven “Do Something” framework, to a new kind of labor union at Harvard University, to the extraordinary diversity practices implemented by UPS in a time of social upheaval.
One chapter explores the question of whether the virtual community of Craigslist can be said to build real social networks.
Better Together offers a rich look at the success enjoyed by a wide variety of groups as they seek to better their communities.