Growing up, I loved puzzles. I found them a stimulating challenge – knowing all the pieces were there, were supposed to fit together, I just had to make it happen. I think a correlation between puzzles and social harmony is not too far off. For example, we make up the pieces of our social puzzle, and it’s our responsibility to determine how we all fit together. To me, the social puzzle is just as beautiful as the traditional one. What we all have in common is that we’re different, yet we are still one.

This one-ness is represented by our sense of community. Improving the social bond within our communities (first locally, which will have a ripple effect on the national, and global scale), will help heal the current wounds of our society. “Community,” however, is a concept and term that is often referred to, but not usually defined. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising considering the variety of ways it’s used, and how it’s interpreted. The New Oxford American Dictionary alone, provides four definitions:

  1. A group of people living together in one place, especially one practicing common ownership.
  2. A group of people having a religion, race, profession, or other particular characteristic in common.
  3. A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.
  4. Ecology – A group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat.

Each of these definitions has an underlying theme: commonness. If community is the key to resolving society’s issues, what is it about commonality that is so important to us? The book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (published in 2000), written by Robert D. Putnam, delves into this topic, explaining what “social capital” is, and how, if used in a collaborative, rather than divisive manner, can lead to our collective liberation, and the creation of a more equal society.

So what is “social capital”?

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital. (Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 19)

A well-connected individual in a poorly connected society is not as productive as a well-connected individual in a well-connected society. And even a poorly connected individual may derive some of the spillover benefits from living in a well-connected community. If the crime rate in my neighborhood is lowered by neighbors keeping an eye on one another’s homes, I benefit even if I personally spend most of my time on the road and never even nod to another resident on the street. (Id., at 20)

Although there are differences in opinion on what exactly constitutes social capital, Putnam believes political participation, civic participation (i.e. membership in formal organizations), religious participation, connections in the workplace, informal social connections, volunteering, and philanthropy, are accurate determining factors. The data Putnam relies on comes from social surveys spanning multiple decades, and the record-keeping of organizations and institutions (all of which are available here).

Putnam’s analysis reveals that in communities where there is ample social capital, citizens expect better government and get it, children tend to do better in school and in life, neighborhoods are safer and more productive, there is more economic prosperity, and people are generally healthier and happier. Putnam reasons that we are social creatures, and:

Where people know one another, interact with one another each week at choir practice or sports matches, and trust one another to behave honorably, they have a model and a moral foundation upon which to base further cooperative enterprises. (Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 20)

If the individual, daily interactions of people all over the world create the history of our species, then I would argue creating communities rich in social capital will help create a more cooperative, and far less cruel world. So how do we go from here to there? In my opinion, history is a living textbook that provides invaluable information, allowing for a more complete understanding of the world. Putnam’s data, which stretches nearly the entire length of the 20th century reveals that:

… people born between 1910 and 1940 constitute a “long civic generation” – that is, a cohort of men and women who have been more engaged in civic affairs throughout their lives – voting more, joining more, trusting more, and so on – than either their predecessors or their successors in the sequence of generations. At the end of the century, that generation comprised virtually the entire cohort of people aged sixty and above. True to their own past, even in retirement they continue to be exceptionally good citizens. (Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 132)

The general trend Putnam illustrates is that between 1900 and the mid 1930s, civic engagement was consistently moderate, but then an explosion of activity occurred between the 1940s and the mid 1960s. This period correlates to when people born between 1910 and 1940 started coming of age. Ever since then, participation has declined. This trend is illustrated best by the rise and decline of league bowling. Believe it or not, “bowling is the most popular competitive sport in America. Bowlers outnumber joggers, golfers, or softball players more than two to one, soccer players (including kids) by more than three to one, and tennis players or skiers by four to one.” [hence, the title of the book] (Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 111)

So what was it about the people born between 1910 and 1940 that created so much civic engagement? Putnam believes one of the explanations for this is “the wartime Zeitgeist of national unity and patriotism that culminated in 1945,” that reinforced civic-mindedness. Patriotism, volunteering, donating, and community involvement are often how groups of people that perceive themselves to be in danger act. Sociologist William Graham Sumner, wrote in 1906:

A differentiation arises between ourselves, the we-group, or in-group, and everybody else, or the others-groups, out-groups … The relation of comradeship and peace in the we-group and that of hostility and war towards others-groups are correlative to each other. The exigencies of war with outsiders are what make peace inside …(Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 267)

It’s important to note that who is, and is not, considered within the “we-group”, can bring to light many prejudices that exist within the society (for example, Japanese internment camps, persecution of innocent Muslims after September 11th, etc.). Nonetheless, growing up during these times arguably shaped the reality of the then-younger generations, who then carried those ideals later into their lives.

Each generation after World War II lived in a different social context, and failed to generate significant, and widespread, civic engagement. Putnam believes there are four primary reasons for this:

  1. Pressures of time and money, including the special pressures on two-career families, contributed measurably to the diminution of our social and community involvement during these years. My best guess is that no more than 10% of the total decline is attributable to that set of factors.
  2. Suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl also played a supporting role. Again, a reasonable estimate is that these factors together might account for perhaps an additional 10% of the problem.
  3. The effect of electronic entertainment – above all, television – in privatizing our leisure time has been substantial. My rough estimate is that this factor might account for perhaps 25% of the decline.
  4. The most important, generational change – the slow, steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren – has been a very powerful factor [accounts for perhaps half of the overall decline] (Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 283)

As a result:

For better or worse, we rely increasingly – we are forced to rely increasingly – on formal institutions, and above all on the law, to accomplish what we used to accomplish through informal networks reinforced by generalized reciprocity – that is, through social capital. (Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 147)

Despite the trend, Putnam is hopeful. Citing history, Putnam believes there is no reason to think we are incapable of improving society:

No period of economic distress in American history had been as deep and traumatic as the years from 1893 to 1897. On the other hand, that depression was followed by almost two decades of nearly uninterrupted growth. The prosperity of these two decades would produce a society confident and efficient enough to contemplate large-scale innovation to address the problems of the day – crime, violence, disease, urban squalor, political corruption, even the growing inequalities of wealth and power. It also gave birth to a broad and internally diverse Progressive coalition united in the optimistic assumption that society was capable of improvement via intentional reform. (Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 370)

Throughout history, individuals and groups have attempted to utilize contemporary technological advancements for the good of humanity. Today, the technology the world creates, and the rate at which it is created, not only shows the capabilities of the human mind, but gives us greater capabilities to resolve these important issues.

How members of our society communicate with one another is a vital component of the structure of humankind, and will consequently play an important role in any transformative changes. At its root, communication is how we participate in our shared realities. Starting with language, then the alphabet, the printing press, the telegram, the telephone, television, cell phone, and now the internet. Each development fundamentally changed the way the world operated. With the proliferation of wireless internet, we can already see how it is changing society. The question then is how can the internet help us put the pieces together?

Speaking about the time period in which he lived, the late 19th century and early 20th century, philosopher Herbert Croly, argued the new contemporary communications media would allow an active citizenry to “meet” despite distance and thus would reduce or eliminate the need for representation and that “then being a member of a neighborhood group will mean at the same time being a member and a responsible member of the state.”

Here are some ideas that have been put in action in hopes of achieving this:

[A Powerpoint presentation on Bowling Alone and its data is available here.]