None of us are islands. Rugged individualism and prioritizing personal liberty might fuel libertarian wet dreams, but healthy communities require the resources that only come from the commons.
For decades, we’ve stepped back from knowing our neighbors. Gone are the days of party phone lines, nightly walks around the neighborhood, and social connectivity has too often been replaced by surrogates; the glow of television and personal electronic devices, which further alienate and balkanize us. People are social beings and face time with other humans is essential.
When sociologist, Robert Putnam, wrote his seminal book on the demise of social capital in America, there was no social media and Facebook was still a few years away. Putnam clearly recognized that something was amiss in his research that carried him back decades to the 1950s and 1960s, when bowling leagues (and town team baseball) were still central to the life and vitality of community life. Today, we’re coming to terms with the fallout of abandoning those closest to us, and a nation that produces loners capable of horrific deeds.
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community became a communitarian tour de force and is still recognized and referenced in discussions about reviving communities nearly 15 years after publication.
I’ve been interested in group dynamics for a long time and remain intrigued by organizational structures. The way people interact in different settings and interpersonal relationships fascinates me and I continue to analyze how some groups play well together in the sandbox, while others don’t.
No one would have blamed Putnam for riding Bowling Alone safely into retirement. Now in his early 70s, the eminent social scientist shows few signs of fading away, or devoting his days to playing shuffleboard in the park, or even joining a bowling league. Over the past five years, he’s been as prolific as any period in his writing and research-oriented life, as well as still teaching undergraduates at Harvard. Since Bowling Alone came out in 2000, he’s published two other important books that draw on and expand his theories of social capital and human connectivity, and co-authored a third one. He continues to be an important and influential figure in studying the dynamics of society in the 21st century.
So, must we all go through life living the acronym YOYO, which stands for You are On Your Own? Or perhaps instead, teamwork and trusting one another again is what we should be looking to get back to in our organizations, communities, and nation. Instead of enemies and adversaries, we should be cultivating colleagues, comrades, and friends.
Putnam is now considering the role of religion in American in a book he co-authored with David Campbell. In this video, he discusses the book and its premise. I haven’t read American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, but it’s on my book list for 2014.