Better Together: Restoring the American CommunityBetter Together: Restoring the American Community
Robert D. Putnam, Lewis M. Feldstein
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In Better Together, Putnam and longtime civic activist Lewis Feldstein describe some of the diverse locations and most compelling ways in which civic renewal is taking place today. In response to civic crises and local problems, they say, hardworking, committed people are reweaving the social fabric all across America, often in innovative ways that may turn out to be appropriate for the twenty-first century.
Better Together is a book of stories about people who are building communities to solve specific problems. The examples Putnam and Feldstein describe span the country from big cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago to the Los Angeles suburbs, small Mississippi and Wisconsin towns, and quiet rural areas. The projects range from the strictly local to that of the men and women of UPS, who cover the nation. This book takes us into Catherine Flannery's Roxbury, Massachusetts, living room, a UPS loading dock in Greensboro, North Carolina, a Philadelphia classroom, the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, naval shipyard, and a Bay Area Website.
     

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Introduction

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 Wisconsion 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 that 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 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 satisfaction 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. 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 bond 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 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 the social capital precisely because it can empower disadvantaged groups (like Mexican Americans in the Rio Grande Valley or clerical works 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.