Putnam’s book is a detailed and systematic study of the rise and fall of social capital and civic engagement throughout the 20th century, and the possibly reasons and factors behind this fall. His basic premise is this: since the 1960’s in the USA, people are involved in civic life less in politics, sports teams, social groups, religious groups, unions, and local associations. They are involved with co-workers less, and are less likely to know their neighbours or have people round for dinner. In both formal and informal ways, social capital ha been eroded. Bowling Alone, now eleven years old, is the definitive volume on social interconnectedness in the 20th century. In over 500 pages, he interrogates his subject from almost every angle and answers criticisms he received on his earlier essay of the same name
In the middle section of the book he attempts to sketch out some of the reasons for such a decline which include working hours, time and money, technological changes such as TV and internet and urban sprawl. I have commented on some of these elsewhere in two posts.
His final section offers some brief thoughts about how to move forward and increase the invisible social ties that bind communities together. In doing so, he offers some challenges to various areas of our society including politics and government, technology and mass media, education, urban planning and religion, that by 2010 certain things may have happened. Now, eleven years after publication of the book, some of these challenges have evidently not been taken up, and others have only just got going. What springs to mind is the massive use of technology and small mobilising teams that Barack Obama used in his 2008 election campaign.
He has a number of interesting things to say about the place of religion in society and its place in rebuilding social capital. It is undergirded by a belief in tolerance (not surprising that he converted from Methodism to the religion of his wife, Judaism) which he also asserts will create bridging social capital between different groups as well as the bonding social capital that religion is so good at creating. Nevertheless, he says:
it is hard to see how we could redress the erosion of the last several decades without a major religious contribution. (p408-9)
it is undeniable that religion has played a role in almost every civic revival in American history. (p409)
His challenge is this:
Let us spur a new, pluralistic, socially responsible “great awakening”, so that by 2010 Americans will be more deeply engages that we are today in one or another spiritual community of meaning, whilst at the same time becoming more tolerant of the faiths and practices of others. (p409)
Although he doesn’t care which faiths, he cannot see any other way of increasing social capital and civic engagement (which are the glue in communities) than by having churches take the lead. Even megachurches, he says, which can have a modernist consumerist style to them – people come from miles around to find a church that suits their tastes – recognise that this glue is found in small groups which enhance personal networks and friendships. I would say churches shouldn’t just be developing these for their members, but should be actively involved developing community in their neighbourhoods too. Very few others seem to be doing it.
This fits in with what I think a church should be in the first place – a blessing to the community for the community. As I’ve said before, social capital and neighbourliness is what many communities have been missing over the last few years. Even in places where there seem to be very few social problems on the surface (like here), community is often lacking. This aspect of the gospel can the demonstrated in order build up the kingdom. I sense that people want to get out and get to know others, they just aren’t sure how to do it any more.