One of the best nonfiction books of 2003.
- Cox News Service (November 2003).
Somehow, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has simultaneously
become America's most worried and optimistic voice
about civic life. He managed to end his 2000 book, "Bowling
Alone," with a positive look to the future despite
warning that America's community fabric is fraying
as citizens withdraw from activities such as bowling
leagues and the PTA. He remained hopeful even after
a post-9/11 uptick in civic engagement quickly evaporated.
In his new book, "Better Together," Putnam
presents hard evidence to back up his optimism.
He and his coauthor Lewis Feldstein scoured the
country looking for places where new shoots of
connectivity are springing up. They came back convinced
that the nation isn't doomed to a life of isolation.
- Christian Science Monitor
Putnam, Harvard professor of public policy, ended his highly acclaimed Bowling Alone (2000) with hints that renewed social activism would soon counteract social alienation in America. In this follow-up, he and his coauthors examine the hopeful signs of reconnection in a variety of organizations, activities, and places demonstrating concerted efforts at reawakening ties between communities and individuals. The authors highlight case studies of building and applying social capital, defined as social networks and mutual assistance. The case studies, based on strong success, longevity, impact, scope, and established reputation, include the rejuvenation of branch libraries in Chicago; an interfaith effort to improve schools in a small Texas town; an arts project recalling the history of a New Hampshire shipyard; and an economic development project in Tupelo, Mississippi. These are not all feel-good stories--some highlight conflict and controversy--but each offers a compelling story of individuals and communities establishing bonds of trust. Readers who enjoyed Bowling Alone will appreciate this inspiring follow-up.
[Better Together]... is aimed at persuading without preaching by telling lively success stories from across the country. The strategy hits the mark....
These stories and the lessons are written, Putnam says, so people will know what to do. They should appeal to anyone involved in civic life, community activism, politics or business. The lessons are powerful and clearly stated, with examples covering a range of important community activities: libraries in Chicago; arts in Baltimore; youth leadership in rural Wisconsin; economic development in Tupelo, Mississippi; congregation building in a California church; worker organizing at Harvard; an Internet-based virtual community; school reform in the Southwest.
A recurring theme is that the activists and business people in these case studies set out to solve a practical problem - not to build social capital. "However," says Putnam, "they saw that achieving the substantial objectives would be eased (or perhaps would only be possible) if they strengthened and then exploited social networks."
With one exception, all are community-based, either private, not-for-profit organizations or government connected, such as the Chicago public libraries. The lone exception is provided by the story closest to home for Kentuckians - United Parcel Service and its hubs, like the one in Louisville.
The UPS example underscores Putnam's key point that building community and connections among people has bottom-line value. It is not some kind of "kumbayah cuddling" but hard-nosed, results-driven stuff. It is aimed at a target and breeds success - bottom-line success in the case of UPS.
The problem to be solved at UPS was how to change and prosper with the times: "Demographic change had created compound differences between UPS managers and their potential workers a generation earlier. Company leaders' proactive response was to send their managers - largely white, Irish Catholic and ex-military - to work in inner cities, to build connections in the communities on which the company's future would depend. Three decades later, minorities hold over a quarter of the managerial positions, women are one-fifth of the company's U.S. workforce, and UPS is consistently ranked among Fortune magazine's 50 best companies for minorities."
The UPS case shares the common themes of the others: Successful efforts are vastly ambitious; building effective community takes lots of time and effort; much redundant personal contact is required ; all successes begin small and local but couple with a larger movement for power, shared vision and collective action.
Whether it's a successful company like UPS or a community-based campaign for better housing, strong social capital that links individuals across distance and around a common purpose - "bridging social capital" - has practical results. Researchers know, Putnam says, "that the crime rate in a neighborhood is lowered when the neighbors know each other well, benefiting even residents who are not involved." This spillover benefit - others gaining even if they're less involved - also applies to schools. If about 25 percent of a school's parents are involved, all the school's students do better. This is one reason our volunteer organization pushes parent involvement so hard through our Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, because the benefits of many small actions expand exponentially.
Putnam's book continues to deliver his message of many years, and I'll bet lots of folks may still hear "Eat your broccoli" in what he has to say. The more discerning, however, will see the fun, value and results these case studies tell and that, as Putnam says, this isn't all broccoli - it's chocolate, too.
- The Courier-Journal Louisville, KY
"Better Together...describes a hopeful centripetal force - groups of people organizing to solve common problems. They report on branch libraries in Chicago that are thriving, and spreading literacy, by making an effort to become an active part of the community. They write about churches deeply involved with domestic and international issues, with ministries devoted to local health, education and safety issues.
They visit a middle school in a small Wisconsin town where sixth-graders convinced apathetic local officials to improve safety at a railroad crossing. And they write about two activist organizations - in Texas and Boston - that dramatically rescued their communities from becoming slums. There also are chapters on a labor union, an arts program, the United Parcel Service and the history of citizen participation in Portland, Ore.
Has Putnam contradicted himself here? Not really. "Bowling Alone" was a cautionary tale about America's troubled social fabric. Putnam and Feldstein do not contradict that. They "do not yet see evidence of a general resurgence of social connection or involvement in the public life of the community." Instead, they've found some promising success stories, pockets of civic resurgence that are models for, or could portend, a reversal of long- term decline.
The authors take aim at conservatives who claim we need to get government off our backs; "the argument sometimes heard that civil society can alone solve public issues if only the state would get out of the way is simply silly."
Nor do their stories support bureaucratic liberals who prefer centralized, expert-driven top-down services that ultimately do not empower the poor. We don't need, say the authors, bureaucrats demanding "streamlined procedures and reports." The kind of government support that was crucial in their success stories involved "participatory strategies."
The vibrant library program in Chicago would never have succeeded without Mayor Daley's commitment to local decision-making and willingness not to demand "a constant accounting of short-term results to justify the (public) investment." Other success stories in this book involved the mayors of Portland and Boston, who put aside their own priorities and deferred to the needs of local communities.
According to the authors, government activism depends on committed leaders. As the authors conclude: "If the goal you are working toward requires major investment or political access, it helps to be blessed with 'true believers' in positions of power; individuals committed to grassroots participation who will follow the social- capital root."
- New Jersey Star-Ledger
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....[S]omething'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.
- Publisher's Weekly