Different Types of community involvement

I’m reading Robert D. Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which seems to be the most detailed study of community involvement in the US in the 20th Century. He charts many areas of civic life where engagement is on the wane. I haven’t got to his conclusions about what to do about it yet, as it is quite a long and dense book.

In the US, from church involvement to involvement in community groups, national societies and associations, politics, work based unions and in workplace connectedness, there was a rise in the rate of participation until the early 1970s followed by a dramatic decrease since then.  However, Putnam makes the distinction between two different types of social engagement and he uses Hebrew words to distinguish. Machers get involved in society in official ways, through clubs, societies and associations. Schmoozing is used to describe informal social gatherings that may occur, such as having friends over for dinner, meeting at the pub, playing sport etc. People can be both machers and schmoozers. Some people do neither. Many prefer one to the other.

In the book, he investigates whether this informal schmoozing has offset the decline in social connectedness that is seen in official clubs and organizations (which he has described  in detail). He concludes that it hasn’t. People don’t know their neighbours as well as they did, they are less likely to go out for dinner with friends or have them over,they are less likely to spend time playing sports with others or even to playing cards with friends regularly. The decrease in team sport participation has been offset by the increase in recreational walking and gym attendance, but in practice these tend to be solo activities. Many even have gym equipment in their home.  Employment pressures have led to more transient but less strong friendships in the workplace. They are however more likely to watch sport, concerts and visit museums which, when done with friends, adds to the informal social schmoozing that Putnam is talking about, but this increase in observing and the decline in doing has led to a less socially connected America.

“Our evidence suggests that across a very wide range of activities, the last several decades have witnessed a striking diminution of regular contacts with our friends and neighbours.”

I guess much of this is stuff we intuitively know, as Putnam’s book has been widely read and quoted in the ten years since it has been published. But I think he is onto something in the distinction between machers and schmoozers. It shows that formal and informal gatherings should be planned in order to engage people – not just central church-organized events and socials, but a much more informal network of social connectedness exists and should be seen as important to leaders of the church. If members of a congregation aren’t coming to things or bringing others, this is ok if they are spending time living alongside people in their workplaces, homes and wherever else they forge acquaintances.

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