Better Together: Restoring the American Community

Better Together: Restoring the American Community

by Robert D. Putnam

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In his acclaimed Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes the United States as a nation in which we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and in which our social structures have disintegrated. But in the final chapter of that book he detects hopeful signs of civic renewal. In Better Together Putnam and coauthor Lewis Feldstein tell the

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In his acclaimed Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes the United States as a nation in which we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and in which our social structures have disintegrated. But in the final chapter of that book he detects hopeful signs of civic renewal. In Better Together Putnam and coauthor Lewis Feldstein tell the inspiring stories of people who are reweaving the social fabric by bringing their own communities together or building bridges to others.
Better Together examines how people across the country are inventing new forms of social activism and community renewal. An arts program in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, brings together shipyard workers and their gentrified neighbors; a deteriorating, crime-ridden neighborhood in Boston is transformed by a determined group of civic organizers; an online "virtual" community in San Francisco allows its members to connect with each other as well as the larger group; in Wisconsin schoolchildren learn how to participate in the political process to benefit their town. As our society grows increasingly diverse, say Putnam and Feldstein, it's more important than ever to grow "social capital," whether by traditional or more innovative means. The people profiled in Better Together are doing just that, and their stories illustrate the extraordinary power of social networks for enabling people to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Hartford Courant If Bowling Alone made readers think, perhaps Better Together will make them act.
The Washington Post
Better Together vividly demonstrates how local projects organized around the immediate needs of people of shared backgrounds can lay an infrastructure for broader civic engagement. As modest and fragile as many of these experiments are, they offer participants an alternative to the pseudo-populism of media spectacle and celebrity politics. Those who finished Bowling Alone in a spirit of gloom will want to turn to this book for consolation and even hope. — Casey Nelson Blake
Publishers Weekly
Putnam's much praised Bowling Alone put the concept of social capital (social networking) into broad currency by remarking on its growing absence. Now the Harvard prof and fellow public policy expert Feldstein approach the issue from the opposite direction: without suggesting communitarianism is sweeping the nation, they offer a dozen case studies of what groups of varying size have accomplished by cultivating networks of mutual assistance. Examples range from a neighborhood subdivision in Boston to an entire Mississippi county as well as the "virtual community" of Craigslist, an online bulletin board that has become the prime "go-to" source for job and apartment listings in San Francisco and elsewhere. The authors stress the importance of participatory involvement, championing networks that create opportunities for people to find their own public voice rather than relying on organizers to speak for them. Thus, one chapter recounts a New Hampshire public arts project in which townspeople's stories created the structure of an interpretive dance about a local shipyard's history; another chapter has schoolchildren in Wisconsin writing to local and state leaders to propose public improvements. Though each group is, as one person puts it, "recreating our neighborhood into the kind of village we want it to be," the book emphasizes no particular approach, juxtaposing the work of local governments with neighborhood associations and churchgoers with union organizers. The overarching argument, supported anecdotally rather than statistically, is tentative-something's going on but it's too early to tell how big it might become-but Putnam's reputation will guarantee the book a hearing. Agent, Rafe Sagalyn. (Sept. 10) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The Hartford Courant

If Bowling Alone made readers think, perhaps Better Together will make them act.

Library Journal
Putnam first caught our attention by documenting a crisis in American society-we're all Bowling Alone. Now he offers examples of some communities that are trying to bowl together again. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Simon & Schuster
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In Better Together, we invite you to join us on a journey around the United States. You will visit big cities, suburbs, and small towns and meet people engaged in a wide variety of activities. You will see bustling branch libraries in Chicago and an evangelical church in southern California that attracts more than 45,000 members, a middle school in a small town in Wisconsin where sixth-graders develop and carry out local improvement projects and a neighborhood of Boston that has rescued itself from catastrophic decline, an arts project that expresses through dance the history and work of a naval shipyard in New Hampshire and an activist organization that represents 60,000 families in the Rio Grande Valley. What these and the other undertakings described in this book have in common is that they all involve making connections among people, establishing bonds of trust and understanding, building community. In other words, they all involve creating social capital: developing networks of relationships that weave individuals into groups and communities.

Interest in social capital and research on the subject have grown dramatically in recent years — from a handful of esoteric research articles in the early 1990s to hundreds of new publications each year a decade later. Scholars, government officials, leaders of nongovernmental organizations including the World Bank, the United Nations, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and business practitioners have increasingly recognized the essential contribution of social capital to the economic and social health of countries, regions, cities, and towns, to the success of organizations, and to individual accomplishment and well-being. Many of the stories in this book show the positive effects of social capital, the ways that people in relationship can reach goals that would have been far beyond the grasp of individuals in isolation. At the same time, these people enjoy the intrinsic satisfactions of association, of being part of a community.

As used by social scientists, social capital refers to social networks, norms of reciprocity, mutual assistance, and trustworthiness. The central insight of this approach is that social networks have real value both for the people in those networks — hence, networking as a career strategy, for example — as well as for bystanders. Criminologists, for instance, have shown that the crime rate in a neighborhood is lowered when neighbors know one another well, benefiting even residents who are not themselves involved in neighborhood activities.

Just like physical capital (tools) and human capital (education), social capital comes in many different forms — a coffee klatch, a civic organization, a bowling league, a labor union, the Ku Klux Klan. As that last example illustrates, social capital can be put to morally repugnant purposes as well as admirable ones, just as biochemical training can be used to concoct a bioterror weapon or a life-saving drug. Social capital is a powerful tool, as our stories will illustrate, but whether it is put to good use or ill is a different issue.

Among the many different forms of social capital one distinction will be especially important for our purposes in this book. Some networks link people who are similar in crucial respects and tend to be inward-looking — bonding social capital. Others encompass different types of people and tend to be outward-looking — bridging social capital. Both bonding and bridging social networks have their uses. Bonding social capital is a kind of sociological Super Glue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40. If you get sick, the people who bring you chicken soup are likely to represent your bonding social capital. On the other hand, a society that has only bonding social capital will look like Belfast or Bosnia — segregated into mutually hostile camps. So a pluralist democracy requires lots of bridging social capital, not just the bonding variety.

The problem is that bridging social capital is harder to create than bonding social capital — after all, birds of a feather flock together. So the kind of social capital that is most essential for healthy public life in an increasingly diverse society like ours is precisely the kind that is hardest to build. For this reason, in our case studies we have paid special attention to the challenges of fostering social networks that bridge the various splits in contemporary American communities.

Community building sometimes has a warm and fuzzy feeling, a kind of "kumbaya" cuddliness about it. Some of our stories fit that image, but others allow us to see that building social capital is not free of conflict and controversy.

• First, some of our protagonists are building social capital precisely because it can empower disadvantaged groups (like Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley or clerical workers at Harvard) in their struggle for greater influence. Social capital represents not a comfortable alternative to social conflict but a way of making controversy productive.

• Second, by organizing some people in and others out, social capital can sometimes have negative effects on "outsiders." We'll see evidence of this in the role of part-time workers at UPS and in the forced annexation of East Portland. (This is one reason why bridging social capital is especially important.)

• Third, even when the effects of community ties are wholly admirable, the means by which they work can be unsettling. Social capital relies on informal sanctions and gossip and even ostracism, not just on fellowship and emulation and altruism. The solidarity that enabled Boston's Dudley Street neighborhood to rebound rests in part on camaraderie and shared aspirations, but in part on fear of what the neighbors would say about those who did not do their part.

In short, the concept of social capital is not treacly sweet but has a certain tartness. Nevertheless, each of our stories illustrates the extraordinary power and subtlety of social networks to enable people to improve their lives.

Even as the value of social capital has been more and more widely acknowledged, evidence has mounted of a diminution of social capital in the United States. In Bowling Alone, one of us (Putnam) has shown that whereas during the first two thirds of the twentieth century Americans were becoming more and more connected with one another and with community affairs, the last third of the century witnessed a startling and dismaying reversal of that trend. Beginning, roughly speaking, in the late 1960s, Americans in massive numbers began to join less, trust less, give less, vote less, and schmooze less. At first people hardly noticed what was happening, but over the last three decades involvement in civic associations, participation in public affairs, membership in churches and social clubs and unions, time spent with family and friends and neighbors, philanthropic giving, even simple trust in other people — as well as participation in the eponymous bowling leagues — all have fallen by 25 to 50 percent. A variety of technological and economic and social changes — television, two-career families, urban sprawl, and so on — has rendered obsolete a good share of America's stock of social capital.

Bowling Alone presented a sweeping statistical overview of several decades of decline in sociability and civic participation across the United States, but it closed with the optimistic hope that social reformers might invent new forms of social capital to replace the dying forms. Better Together does not suggest that the downward trend has suddenly reversed itself. We do not yet see evidence of a general resurgence of social connection or involvement in the public life of the community. But hidden within that broad statistical truth of the erosion of social ties is a tremendous variety of particular experiences. A general decline does not mean decline everywhere, in every situation. We began this project on the assumption — based in part on the evidence of particular cases that came to our attention as we traveled the country, speaking about social connectedness with Americans from all walks of life — that new social capital was being created in interesting ways in many places and situations, even as overall levels of association and participation continued to fall.

To write this book we descended from the statistical heights of Bowling Alone to ground level, entering the living room of Catherine Flannery, a longtime resident of Roxbury, Massachusetts, who has seen her neighborhood unravel and then knit itself together; a classroom in North Philadelphia where an Experience Corps volunteer was helping a second-grader learn to read; a meeting room in a United Parcel Service hub in Greensboro, North Carolina, where package handlers discussed how to help new employees adjust to the job. We sat in the pews of a Los Angeles church that had undergone explosive growth and in the office of a coordinator of neighborhood associations in Portland, Oregon.

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 this country. We hope and believe that they may perhaps guide and inspire others who are seeking ways to build social capital and to accomplish goals or solve problems that are as challenging as those faced by the groups described in Better Together.

Many readers of Bowling Alone and others who have understood the value of social capital have asked what can be done to build or rebuild community and social relationships. Indeed, as we have traveled the country in the past few years, speaking with tens of thousands of our fellow citizens, the toughest challenges have come not from scholarly critics but from ordinary Americans who have asked, "So, if you're right, what can I do? What are people out there doing to address this problem? Are there exceptions to the general collapse of community in America?" Despite the flood of recent academic research on social capital, these practical questions remain largely unexplored. We hope that the examples in this book can supply some answers to those important questions.

We want to emphasize that this is a book of stories about social capital, not a textbook of social-capital creation or a casebook designed to elucidate or test a particular theory of social-capital development. We mention this partly to caution readers not to look for the strict definitions, quantitative measures, or rigorous theoretical frameworks that might belong to a different kind of study but that we have not tried to develop here or impose on this material. Bowling Alone presented and tested a wide variety of hypotheses about the causes and consequences of social capital against evidence as rigorous as could be discovered. Better Together aims instead to illustrate some of the ways in which Americans in many diverse corners of our society are making progress on the perennial challenge of re-creating new forms of community, adapted to the conditions and needs of our time.

Our aim in telling these stories as stories is not to excuse ourselves from the rigor of social science, but to gain the positive advantages of storytelling. We believe that stories, with their specificity and ability to express the complex realities of particular people and places and their possibly unique ability to express thought and feeling simultaneously, are the appropriate medium for capturing a sense of how social-capital creation works in real life. It is no coincidence that the chapters that follow include numerous examples of people building social capital by sharing stories about their experiences. The rich mixture of events, values, feelings, and ideas that stories communicate has long made storytelling an important mechanism of social connection. Stories help us relate to one another. The U.S. Army uses the term "ground truth" to describe the real experience of soldiers in the field — the moment-by-moment truth of being in combat, as opposed to generalizations about combat or theories about how it should occur. In these stories, we have tried to capture some of the ground truth of social-capital creation — the ways it really happens rather than theories or frameworks describing how it might or should happen.

We should say a few words here about how we chose these particular twelve stories. We do not claim that they are the dozen best contemporary examples of social-capital building in the country (whatever "best" might mean in this context), nor do we claim that any of them is an unalloyed success. Indeed, we have sought in each case to explore some of the shortcomings and remaining challenges that are inevitable in practical efforts to build community. Nevertheless, we believe that all the cases make valuable and interesting contributions to the social-capital discussion.

We applied two main principles in choosing our cases. One, as we have already suggested, was to focus as much as possible on substantial cases of social-capital success. In our preliminary investigations of candidates for inclusion, we looked for evidence of longevity, scope, impact, and established reputation that would give us reasonable confidence that we had found genuine stories of social-capital development. (We also favored cases that exhibited some particularly creative or innovative approach.) Overall, we sought examples that are robust and successful enough to serve as convincing and potentially instructive models of social-capital creation. In about half of the cases, we were able to draw on the valuable work of other researchers to help confirm that the activities and organizations we had chosen had enough substance to stand up to scrutiny and to reward attention.

Our second basic principle in selection was to include as much variety as possible. The social-capital development described in this book takes place in the Northwest, the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, and southern California. It happens in big cities and small cities, in suburban communities, and in small towns. Some of these efforts are strictly local; others have ties to national or regional organizations. One is mainly youth led, one brings together children and senior citizens, and others focus on adults or a wide range of age groups. The organizations and examples we examine include a labor union, a pair of churches, an arts program, a community development corporation, a large business, a city library system, and the history of citizen participation in an entire metropolitan area. When faced with a choice between a story that differed from the others (in region, setting, participants, or purpose) and a story that might be "stronger" in terms of scope or success but resembled one we had already settled on, we opted for greater variety.

Why this emphasis on variety? For one thing, we sought to illustrate the point that social capital can be created by different people in different situations for different purposes to avoid any implication that successful efforts belonged only to certain kinds of groups with certain aims in certain settings. We believed variety would make it more likely that readers interested in working to build social capital in their many situations would find inspiration and guidance in one or more of the stories. We also hoped that we might find some underlying similarities among the diverse cases and that — because the cases were diverse — those similarities might suggest useful general principles or techniques of social-capital development. We selected these twelve stories from a pool of more than one hundred examples that have come to our attention over years of traveling, speaking, and meeting people and groups interested in the subject of social capital and convinced of its importance.

Our aim has been to learn from these varied experiences rather than impose themes on them or use them to illustrate pre-existing pet ideas. In fact, when we began we did not know what, if anything, we would discover in the way of common themes or general lessons in these diverse settings and activities. We did bring some basic questions to our exploration of these stories, however. One is whether the success of the endeavor depended on the involvement of a charismatic leader or had a structure or some form of shared or distributed leadership that would enable it to survive leadership changes and especially the departure of a visionary founder. In other words, we asked whether these groups or programs were self-sustaining. A related question is whether the social capital-building techniques and structures we saw could be replicated in other settings (related because reliance on an individual charismatic leader argued against a program or group succeeding elsewhere without that unique leadership). We also asked what kind of social-capital creation was going on in these cases: whether it was primarily bonding or bridging social capital. And we tried to discover the mechanisms of social-capital creation in these different situations, looking not only for evidence of new and strengthened relationships but for insight into how these bonds were formed.

In the interest of telling these stories as stories, we do not ask and answer these questions directly in every case, but they shaped our investigations, and the answers are usually evident, if not always explicit. In our reflective concluding chapter, we deal more explicitly with those questions as part of our effort to draw some general themes and lessons from these dozen cases.

In fact, several themes have emerged from the stories. In our last chapter, we draw out those themes in some detail in an effort to derive some usable lessons about how and why social capital is created. One lesson is that creating robust social capital takes time and effort. For the most part, it develops through extensive and time-consuming face-to-face conversation between two individuals or among small groups of people. (See especially the chapters on Valley Interfaith, HUCTW, and Tupelo for examples, but other cases also demonstrate the point.) It takes person-to-person contact over time to build the trust and mutual understanding that characterize the relationships that are the basis of social capital. So we see no way that social capital can be created instantaneously or en masse.

A second conclusion, related to the first, is that social capital is necessarily a local phenomenon because it is defined by connections among people who know one another. Even when we talk about social capital in national or regional organizations (United Parcel Service or the Texas Industrial Area Foundations, for example), we are really talking about a network or accumulation of mainly local connections. The Internet and the World Wide Web, though much in the news as technology that would transform community and relationship, play a surprisingly small role in most of our stories. We do devote one chapter to craigslist, an online bulletin board/community, to try to understand some of the limitations and promises of this developing phenomenon, but our investigations strongly suggest (as we have indicated) that trust relationships and resilient communities generally form through local personal contact.

The concluding chapter also summarizes some of the dilemmas that face would-be social capitalists. Many of the cases illustrate, for example, that for creating bonds of trust and reciprocity smaller is often better, but for extending the power and reach of social networks bigger is often better. We believe that some of the cases also illustrate how this dilemma can be resolved, at least in part, by creating networks of networks, that is, by nesting smaller groups within larger, more encompassing ones. The cases also allow us to explore the challenge of reconciling cohesion (bonding) and heterogeneity (bridging), for many of the protagonists of our cases have discovered an impressive array of strategies for finding unifying themes in the presence of diversity. Storytelling itself turns out to be an unusually effective technique in this regard, as does the creation of common spaces, both physical and virtual.

The endeavors we have studied also suggest that social capital is usually developed in pursuit of a particular goal or set of goals and not for its own sake. For the most part, the people and groups we describe here seek better schools, neighborhood improvement, better contracts with their employers, economic advantage, or some other particular good, with social capital a means to those ends and an important fringe benefit but not in itself their main aim.

After its extensive marshaling of evidence of decades of deterioration of social capital in the United States, Bowling Alone found reason for optimism amid the doom and gloom by looking back a century to another era when a decades-long decline in social capital gave way to (and in some sense stimulated) a renaissance of social connection that, among other things, saw the creation of now familiar fraternal and social-service organizations. That book expressed a hope that the downward trend of the last three decades of the twentieth century might also end in a new era of social-capital growth, possibly with the creation, again, of new kinds of institutions and forms of association. If Better Together provides insight, unlocks new ways of thinking, and sparks enthusiasm that contributes in even the smallest way to such a revival, it will have more than justified our hopes and efforts.

Copyright © 2003 by Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein

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Meet the Author

Robert D. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. Nationally honored as a leading humanist and a renowned scientist, he has written fourteen books and has consulted for the last four US Presidents. His research program, the Saguaro Seminar, is dedicated to fostering civic engagement in America. Visit

Lewis M. Feldstein is president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Feldstein cochaired the Saguaro Seminar, worked with the civil rights movement in Mississippi, was a senior staff member for former New York City mayor John V. Lindsay, and was formerly provost of the Antioch/New England Graduate School. He lives in Hancock, New Hampshire.

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