Monday, October 19, 2009

O Brave New World

Social Capital

The hot wars we’ve fought and continue to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending so much American treasure and considerable blood, have been and continue to be justified as essential components of a larger war against international terrorism specifically, in the name of freedom and democracy generally. We seem to be winding down the war in Iraq, while expanding the war in Afghanistan.

Will Iraq soon emerge as a somewhat democratic nation, where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds live together in shared freedom? Will the disparate components of a feudal-like Afghanistan converge someday in a similarly inclined democratic nation?

Friday morning, while listening to CNN commentary about the Afghanistan situation regarding the Taliban, al Qaeda, tribal warlords, and the recently contested election I once again mused about the prospects of planting our Western version of American freedom and democracy on that far away terrain. Is it alien soil for such Enlightenment values?

This begs a question: What are the links between democracy and a civil society?

The classic analysis of this question with a timeless answer was offered early in the Republic’s history by a French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville who toured the United States in the 1830s and wrote “Democracy in America.”

Tocqueville found that Americans’ propensity to form civic (or voluntary) associations a key to America’s working democracy. He wrote, “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute…. Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”

Recently, social scientist,--call them neo-Tocquevilleans,--have offered empirical evidence that concludes that civically engaged communities result in a more functional society. Education, urban poverty, unemployment, crime and drug abuse, health and health care have better outcomes when civic associations actively engage and build social bonds among people.

It also appears that “the norms and networks of civic engagement powerfully affect the performance of representative government.” Researchers even suggest that these norms and networks of civic engagement, while predictors, are even more, preconditions for an effective representative government.

I project such a Tocquevillean vision on Iraq and Afghanistan and question whether it would be victory to merely prevail over terrorists and insurgents and even to win the hearts and minds of the populations. Without a social infrastructure—the norms and networks of civic engagement—democracy arguably has no fertile soil in which to flourish and freedom has no practical meaning.

Bowling Alone

As a society, we’ve been thinking about civic (or voluntary) associations) for at least a decade and half thanks to the provocative metaphor of Bowling Alone—the phrase Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam used to describe the decline of social capital in late 20th century America.

In an influential 1995 essay, "Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Capital," Putnam wrote: “[S]ocial capital refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.

“For a variety of reasons, life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital. In the first place, networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved.”

In 1995 Putnam chronicled changes that indicated diminished civic engagement. In the area of government there had been steadily declining voter turnout, decreased involvement in public meetings relating to local, state, and federal government, and psychological disengagement from politics and government (evidenced by a lack of trust in politicians and politics, even a disdain, if not disgust with government). Of the traditional civic organizations, such as churches, school-service groups, sports groups, unions, fraternal group, veterans’ groups, and service groups, most were in decline at the end of twentieth century.

Putnam cited evidence that volunteering, generally, was in decline. One study indicated that in the fifteen years before 1989, volunteering had declined by a sixth.

Most famously Putnam wrote, “ The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. … The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume here times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo.”

In addition to the formal settings of social capital just mentioned, informal settings also seemed to be in decline, including the family (the most fundamental of all settings) and neighborliness, including socializing with neighbors.

Across all groups, Putnam reported a decline in trust. He declared there was a close correlation between social trust and associational membership.

He speculated on causes for the decline of social capital: the movement of women into the labor force, mobility or the “re-potting” hypothesis, and a host of demographic changes, including more divorces, fewer children, and lower real wages, and the technological transformation of leisure, particularly television.

At the end of his famous article, Putnam calls for more inquiry, wryly saying, “The last refuge of a social-scientific scoundrel is call for more research,” to try to understand the problem. He clearly stands on the side of the “social capital” offered by civic (or voluntary) associations. To the extent community flourishes among us we succeed—within and without.

Among the several lines of inquiry he asked, “What will be the impact, for example, of electronic networks on social capital? My hunch is that meeting in an electronic forum is not the equivalent of meeting in a bowling alley—or even in a saloon .…”

I’m shifting now to the question Putnam asked regarding electronic networks for building social capital.


But before going there I want to justify this relatively long-winded introduction using Robert Putnam’s metaphor and analysis of Bowling Alone. We speak a lot about community and the virtues of community. On the macro level we recognize the truth offered by the neo-Tocquevilleans: “civically engaged communities result in a more functional society.” On a personal level we all seek community—that satisfying sense of belonging and engagement, a transcendent mutuality among individuals.

Time and again, when new comers and seekers are asked what they want in a church, the number one response is community. Churches are, as Putnam pointed out, the most common associational membership among Americans. America is an “astonishingly ‘churched’ society.”

And at the summer Board of Trustee’s retreats, your UCH leadership decided that “building community” is a priority. So community is important for UCH; but as a community UCH is also important in the scheme of a functional democratic American society.

Thinking about civic engagement, voluntary associations, democracy, and community are no trivial things.

The New Electronic Social Networks

In 1995, when Robert Putnam mused about “electronic networks” the World Wide Web was just a few years old. He couldn’t have envisioned what’s become ordinary: email, cell phones, web pages and blogs, text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook.

And what’s become ordinary is already being replaced, if we give countenance to a Wall Street Journal Article, from Monday, “The End of Email.” WSJ declared, “Email has had a good run as king of communications. But its reign is over.”

What are replacing email are the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

“In its place, a new generation of services is starting to take hold—services like Twitter and Facebook and countless others vying for a piece of the new world. And just as email did more than a decade ago, this shift promises to profoundly rewrite the way we communicate—in ways we can only begin to imagine,” WSJ proclaimed.

For the unfamiliar, and we can’t forget that there are those who haven’t accepted email yet and it’s already becoming defunct, Twitter is an instant message of 140 characters sent and received by phone, IM, or web site. The message answers the question: “What are you doing.” According to the Twitter website: You “…stay connected with friends, relative, and coworkers. …[Y]ou have a sense of what folks are up to but you are not expected to respond … unless you want to. …You can step in and out of information as it suits you. … Simply put, Twitter is what you make of it—receive a lot of information about your friends, or just a tiny bit, it’s up to them.” In practice Twitter, lends itself to many, short bursts of information called “tweets.” It’s been around since 2006.

Facebook, another free service like Twitter, has been around since 2004. It began as a college phenomenon, was extended to high school youth, and then it was opened to all. Worldwide there are some 300 million users. A user creates a profile with name and provides as much or as little basic and personal information one wants to reveal, with or without a photo or other image. Then one acquires friends and becomes a friend by a simple request and assent process. (You might have a few friends or literally thousands of friends. I have 66 friends and counting.) You receive the posts of your friends and your friends receive your posts.) You send a message to your friends and have the option of attaching photos, videos, or links to other web sites. In addition you may, if you wish, comment on the posts of your friends, as they can comment on your posts, so a post my have a chain of responses (or no response at all).

I don’t tweet, though I have a Twitter account. I’ve been a Facebook user since the summer. My friends span from coast to coast and they check in as the time moves west with the time zones. (It’s interesting to monitor when friends post—what does a 2 a.m. check-in indicate. I had a surprise request to be a friend from a high school acquaintance. My daughter is a friend, as are 2 nieces and a nephew. I have a number of UCH members as friends. I like Facebook. I’ve quickly come to see that Facebook is a very useful/valuable tool—a key component of the newly emerged electronic social network.

Oh yes, there are friends who for my taste post too frequently and trivially—perhaps more suited to Twitter than Facebook. But even their life minutia is revealing. (If I really didn’t want to deal with these friends, I could screen them out or even drop them as friends.)

It seems to me that most of my Facebook friends are respectful of the electronic community, and that the community creates it own sense of decorum. Much like face to face groups politics and religion are “thin ice” areas in my face book community. Mostly, posters reveal significant everyday details. I’m often touched by the ordinary poignancy—a snapshot of a young child feeding a morsel to a grandmother in a nursing home or a mothers rhapsodic account of a young daughter baby babbling. These and such intimacies would otherwise remain unknown. Over time the posts accumulate in the intimacies of familiarity, too.

Facebook isn’t conversation over beer and pizza at the local bowling alley, but it offers a give and take among a virtually unlimited number of communities.

Of course there are downsides (especially privacy) and it is a virtual rather than actual experience (and there is much to be said about face to face relationships) but I maintain Facebook is a very important, still emerging resource for the creation of contemporary community. I recommend it.

I also recommend the world of blogging. For the initiated, a blog is a World Wide Web document on which a blogger (usually an individual) post entries. The entry, which can include images as well as the written word, is listed by date. So a blog is a chronological series of entries, usually on a particular theme.

There are a number of free blog sites, where anyone with minimal expertise and effort, can enter the blogosphere, creating a unique and personal presence. There are hundreds of millions of blogs worldwide.

I use Google’s blogger to set up my blogs. I have several active blogs: one for personal commentary on religion and the American experience and another for ethics in our postmodern world. I regularly post to an ongoing memoirish blog of personal exploration titled “An Examined Life.” I’ve created a blog for extended family about my 92 year old mother’s long life. One blog is a file for my UCH sermons. And I have a blog that promotes my anthology “In Praise of Animals” through a reader’s guide.

One of my favorite diversions is to navigate from Google blog to blog discovering little slices of individual lives. There are plenty of family blogs featuring marriages, babies, and children. I’ve discovered the realm of homeschoolers, often Christians, who use blogs to connect with other home schoolers. I’ve enjoyed aspiring and struggling artists across the country, a few who have beguiled me to follow or subscribe to their blogs. I really enjoy chatty extended family blogs from small town America.

In my experience, these randomly accessed blogs provide wonderful windows into real American lives—a mosaic of meaning and understanding that accumulates to the reflective mind. And maintaining a blog, unconsciously, causes the blogger to think beyond the self to a larger—make that social—audience.

Since I “believe” in blogs, for personal and social reasons, I am offering an introduction to blogging as one of my offering for this year’s Harvest Holiday fundraising. Everyone can have a blog—or two or three or more.

Fifteen years ago Robert Putnam speculated on the social capital of the then nascent possibilities of electronic networks. I think the possibilities, still unrealized but burgeoning, are significant and positive. For me, Facebook and and the blogosphere have opened up humanity, through unexpected intimacies. I remember, without any irony, lines exclaimed by Miranda in the Tempest.

O, Wonder
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t.

Such people: ordinary people doing everyday things, living their lives.

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