Campus & Community

Beyond ‘Bowling Alone’:

6 min read

Robert Putnam finds togetherness better

Robert Putnam (above) and Lewis M. Feldstein’s ‘Better Together’ tells stories of a dozen apparent successes around the country where people banded together. (Staff photo Justin Ide/Harvard News Office)

In a national landscape of increasingly sparse clubs, leagues, and societies, Americans are still coming together, fighting for a cause, a job, or an education through hands-on, face-to-face organizations that are hopeful exmples that, if followed, could help reweave the fabric of American society.

Years after touching a national nerve with his book “Bowling Alone,” which detailed the decline in the sorts of voluntary activities and associations that used to tie people to their neighbors and their community, Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy Robert Putnam, former dean of the Kennedy School of Government, has documented what may be the stirrings of a new national get-together.

His latest book, “Better Together,” written with co-author social activist Lewis M. Feldstein, takes a different tack from the detailed analysis of “Bowling Alone.” “Better Together” tells stories of a dozen apparent successes around the country where people banded together to save their neighborhood, to move packages, and even to get government’s attention focused on a dangerous railroad crossing.

These examples, Putnam said, show that despite a decline, social interaction and volunteerism aren’t dead. In fact, Putnam said, new forms of such activities, more appropriate to the changing times, may be taking root before our eyes.

Social capital

Both “Better Together” and “Bowling Alone” deal with what social scientists call “social capital.” Social capital is a term for the ties that bind individuals into communities, resulting in increased trust, caring for one another, and mutual assistance.

Social capital is seen as essential to the proper functioning of society because high levels of social capital result in schools supported by engaged parents, neighbors who know each other, and neighborhoods that resist blight and crime. On a larger scale, social capital can help create involved communities that work for the common good and, by extension, an active and interested public that forms strong roots for democratic government.

As detailed in “Bowling Alone,” Putnam believes there was a rapid increase in social capital during the early years of the 20th century. That was when many of the national organizations familiar to us today – from the Boy Scouts to the Red Cross, to the Rotary to the League of Women Voters – took root. Putnam believes that there were high levels of social capital until the late 1960s or early 1970s. At that point, membership in social organizations began a precipitous decline.

“There was less joining of all sorts, PTAs, churches, fraternal groups, less time with families, less time with friends, knowing neighbors less well, giving less, and trusting less,” Putnam said.

Putnam said during a recent interview that he believes the rapid increase in social capital in the early 1900s stemmed from a radical change in society during the late 1800s. With the industrial revolution roiling traditional American farm life and attracting people to the cities, the institutions, organizations, and activities that worked in rural communities were no longer adequate. The growing urban populations, boosted by rapid influx of immigrants, responded by creating a wealth of new ways to interact with their neighbors, friends, and associates.

Putnam sees a parallel between the shift caused by urbanization and industrialization in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the technological, communication, and lifestyle revolutions of the late 20th century.

With more women entering the workforce, family caregivers found they had less time on their hands, television brought easy entertainment into people’s living rooms, and urban sprawl meant people spent more time driving in their cars and less walking on their neighborhood streets.

“In both cases, a variety of technological, economic, and social changes rendered obsolete ways of relating to each other,” Putnam said. “In both cases, Americans felt materially better off than their parents had been, but they also felt disconnected – and then they fixed the problem.”

More ‘Better Together’

While Putnam said the decline hasn’t yet reversed itself, the stories in “Better Together” illustrate how it can be reversed. People still reach out to neighbors and others who share their values and goals. In fact, Putnam said, the stories in “Better Together” are just the tip of the iceberg. For every case presented in the book, he said, dozens of others were considered for inclusion.

“‘Bowling Alone’ is a description of what went wrong; this [“Better Together”] is a prescriptive effort to draw out stories that can inspire and instruct us about how to fix what went wrong,” Putnam said.

The stories in “Better Together” contradict some of the common myths about modern society. In the age of online chat rooms, blogs, and instant messaging, a common thread through Putnam’s disparate examples is the importance of face-to-face personal communication. The groups in “Better Together” don’t just exchange information in personal meetings, they build relationships. It’s these relationships, Putnam says, that form the foundation of their organizations and provide the strength to achieve their goals.

Two organizations may be familiar to local readers, as Putnam includes chapters on the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which engaged in face-to-face recruiting against the advice of traditional union organizers during organizing battles in the 1980s; and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, in which different ethnic groups banded together for the good of their blighted Boston neighborhood, also in the 1980s.

Putnam and his co-author also tell the story of UPS, whose corporate culture strives to maintain social capital despite its high-pressure, far-flung business. They also tell of a modern dance project that brought together community members distrustful of each other in Portsmouth, N.H., and other stories from across the nation focusing on churches, youth groups, and libraries among others.

The common thread, Putnam said, was that members of each organization realized they had to build relationships first in order to reach their goals.

“All found that a crucial step in resolving their problem was, in fact, building social capital,” Putnam said.

In selecting the subjects of their different chapters, Putnam said he and Feldstein examined hundreds of candidates. They looked for successful organizations and purposely chose diverse stories, hoping that by doing so readers could find a familiar example and, hopefully, inspiration.

Putnam leaves his crystal ball at home when asked which of the groups outlined in “Better Together” will find success in the new century. They’ve all achieved some measure of success already, and some, he pointed out, are already national in scope. Picking out which will be as familiar as the Rotary Club 100 years from now isn’t easy, but every successful organization starts somewhere, he said.

“There was a first Rotary Club in some place,” Putnam said.