Sunday, December 10, 2006


Do you have any bowling shirts in your closet? Are they from a league that you participated in? At one time, I had four or five that were classics. I haven’t been in a league since the late 80s so it’s anyone’s guess where those shirts are now. After all, we moved more than a few times so they probably ended up in a give-away bag. It’s an interesting thought to imagine whom if anyone is wearing my “Crusaders” team shirt with “Fred” in a fancy script over the pocket.

The reason that I mention this is because on Monday, November 27th I was in a follow-up meeting for the Madison trip participants and others. Thinking aloud, I said, “"We don't take a lot of time to discuss, what is it that makes us a community? People would answer that question so differently. What unites us?"

The bowling comes in because Robert D. Putnam wrote a book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). Professor Putnam is at Harvard where he serves as the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy. I first met him when he was chair of Harvard's Department of Government, and later as dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

The thesis of his book is this: he argues that we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures. He also offers ideas on how we may reconnect. His “evidence” comes from years of research and the bowling analogy is used because, even though more people may be bowling, they’re not doing it in leagues like they once did.

He deals with something called our stock of social capital. This is the idea that social networks have value. Social capital refers to the collective value of all "social networks" [who people know] and “the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [‘norms of reciprocity’]”. From his nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century, he concludes that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. As for the cause, Putnam offers that changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women's roles, and other factors have contributed to this decline of our social fabric.

I presume that you would not be surprised to learn that many scholars in a variety of disciplines strongly disagree with the Putnam thesis, and strongly. What about in our community? Can we see some support for his thesis here? We know that we have had pitiful voting turnouts, but the other aspects of his thesis may vary vastly within our community.

One aspect of interest to me is wondering if we have a good number of local organizations where the membership numbers might be up but few members are willing to serve in key leadership positions. My experience in the last few years is that when you ask someone to take a “key position,” they tell you how busy they are and they just don’t have the time to take on any more responsibilities. Do we avoid a higher level of commitment?

I guess that where I come down on this is believing that our community is more than just a geographical location. I see us as interconnected and interdependent while sharing a set of values and goals with others. Therefore, a community is not just the sum of the individuals who make it up, but something much more.

What then unites us as community? I presume that our personal experiences tell us that having something to unite us in no way means that we are united. Just ask people about the drama at their Thanksgiving or other holiday get-togethers. Family and friendship may unite them, but they are nowhere close to being unified. I could make a good case for planting yourself at the “kid’s table” and dealing with the more manageable drama there!

How many communities do we feel a part? How connected do we feel to others in those communities? Do we have a “community spirit,” positive attitudes, optimism, and a sense of loyalty? I personally am still struggling to get my arms around all of this.

I have concluded one thing however. The things that we rally around say a lot about who we are as residents of Orange County, Chatham County and their municipalities. Winning the Women’s Soccer National Championship may not actually unite us as a community, but I suspect that there is still great pride in what that “local” team accomplished. Let’s hope that our two great “roundball” teams can do it too — that will also lift our spirits and it will be another good thing for our community.

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