Restoring the American Community

By Robert D. Putnam and Lewis Feldstein


This book is a sequel to Bowling Alone, the landmark study on the decline of community in America, but it is also very different.  Whereas Bowling Alone is a scholarly academic study, complete with hundreds of charts and graphs, Better Together is a collection of 12 stories of counter-examples to the thesis of Bowling Alone.  That it is to say that it is a collection of 12 stories of the building of social capital.  The authors write:


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….All these stories involve making connections among people, establishing trust and understanding, building community, creating social capital, developing networks of relationships that weave individuals into groups and communities.”


The examples are very diverse, coming from New England and the Northeast, the South, the Southwest, the Midwest, Southern California and the Pacific Northwest.  The authors applied two principles in choosing stories: 


a)      They looked for substantial cases of social-capital creation that demonstrated longevity, scope, impact and established reputation.

b)      They sought to include as much variety as possible. 


“We believed that 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 of more of the stories.”


The 12 stores include:


a)      Valley Interfaith brought together various faith communities to improve the desperate living conditions in the Rio Grande Valley.

b)      The Chicago Branch Library system built or renovated libraries to bring together people from diverse neighborhoods, such as the Cold Coast along Lake Michigan and the Cabrini-Green housing projects.

c)      The Shipyard Project in Portsmouth, New Hampshire brought together two mutually hostile groups through modern dance: blue collar defense workers at the Portsmouth Naval shipyard and liberal “green” professionals.

d)      The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative reversed the decay and deterioration of an urban Boston neighborhood by bringing together African-American, Latino, Cape Verdean and white residents.

e)      The Tupelo model was launched in 1940, when the average income in the surrounding county was $750/year (well below the national average, even back then) when the editor of the local newspaper managed to convince residents that it was in their best interests to work together.

f)        Saddleback Community Church builds community by organizing its 45,000 adherents into small group cells.

g)      Do Something lets young people lead.  For example, 30 6th graders in Waupun (WI) Middle School successfully lobbied local authorities and the railroad to install better railroad warning signs.

h)      The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers based their organizing effort on personal face-to-face interactions rather than the more traditional union-organizing methods of leaflets and mass meetings.

i)        Experience Corps brings together older citizens to tutor children in urban Philadelphia schools.

j)        UPS went from being a company dominated by white, male ex-military to being one of the most ethnically and gender-diverse companies in America.

k) was able to use the internet to build community by bringing people together in the San Francisco area, as well as half a dozen other cities.

l)        Portland, Oregon is included as a positive epidemic of civic engagement.


Virtually no one sets out to build social capital as an end in itself, but social capital is often an indispensable ingredient in accomplishing other objectives.  The people in these stories saw that achieving their substantive objectives would be difficult, if not impossible, without developing, strengthening and exploiting social networks. 


Community builders need to start with what the participants really care about, not some external agenda.  The collective agenda grows out of enveloping personal stories. Story-telling is therefore an important part of building community.  “Personal narratives are a uniquely powerful medium for expressing needs and building bonds.” 


These stories of the successful creation of social capital involved both private initiatives and “key enabling structures” (usually governmental) in the broader environment.  Governmental support of participatory strategies was crucial to the projects’ success.  In other words, government can help facilitate the building of social capital, but it takes private citizens taking initiative to truly create it.  The authors write: “So the argument sometimes heard that civil society alone can solve public issues if only the state would get out of the way is simply silly.” 


Smaller is better, in some ways, for social capital creation, because it requires relationships of empathy, trust and understanding.  These are possible only through face-to-face interaction among individuals or small groups.  On the other hand, bigger is better for developing “critical mass” and for extending the power and reach of social networks.  Participants want to feel that they are part of something significant.   In addition, size enables movements to economize on leadership, which is always a scarce resource. 


An effective way to combine the advantages of both bigger and smaller is to develop networks of smaller communities, which combines the intimacy of small groups with the power and diversity of larger groups.



As elucidated in Bowling Alone, there are two kinds of social capital:


a)      Bridging Social Capital, which is inclusive.  It is valuable for linkage to external assets and information diffusion.  It constitutes a kind of sociological WD-40.

b)      Bonding Social Capital, which is exclusive.  It is valuable for under girding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity.  It provides sociological superglue  


Bridging social capital is especially important for reconciling democracy and diversity, but it is much more difficult to develop than bonding social capital.  Since “birds of a feather flock together” bonding social capital is an easy sell.  On the downside, however, it can often be parochial and exclusive and negative towards outsiders. 


One way to build both types of social capital at the same time is cross-cutting identities: i.e. finding, emphasizing or creating a new dimension of similarity across perceived diversity, within which bonding can occur.  Galatians 3:28 gives a good example of this.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  People who believe in Jesus Christ have a powerful commonality, despite major differences.


Creating robust social capital takes much time and effort, specifically extensive and time-consuming face-to-face conversations between individuals or among small groups to build trust and promote mutual understanding.  There is no way to create social capital instantaneously or en masse.  The authors use Max Weber’s expression “slow boring of hard boards” to describe the slow, laborious process of building social capital.  Building social capital and trust is cumulative and requires patiently building on existing foundations.  There are often setbacks, however, which can often lead to vicious circles, but they can also contain the seeds of virtuous circles.  “Trust is a breeder reactor” meaning that trust generates the fuel for developing further trust.


Social capital is necessarily a local phenomenon, because it is defined by connections among people who know each other.  Building social capital requires proximity and common space.  The authors write:


Common spaces for commonplace encounters are prerequisites for common conversations and common debate….Furthermore, networks that intersect and circles that overlap reinforce a sense of reciprocal obligation and extend the boundaries of empathy.


The authors looked for examples of community-building that were not totally dependent on a charismatic leader, but were more grass-roots initiatives.  One of the major challenges in creating social capital is how to sustain momentum through the inevitable periods of leadership transition.  They use Max Weber’s phrase, “the routinization of charisma” to describe the equipping of grass-roots leaders with autonomy who can produce new leaders.  In addition, part of the challenge comes from the organizational fatigue and entropy that seem to inevitably come in any volunteer undertaking.


This is a helpful, thought-provoking book for anyone that is seeking to build community.  The stories are sufficiently diverse that almost everyone will be able to find a story with which they can identify and find inspiration for their own community-building endeavors.


                                                                                                John Ed Robertson

                                                                                                August 10, 2006


Putnam, Robert D. & Feldstein, Lewis M.; Better Together: Restoring the American Community;  Simon & Shuster, New York; 2003; ISBN 0-7432-3546-0