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A 1995 article by Professor Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital", tapped into a vein of mainstream popular beliefs about our state of civic engagement.
The article illustrated how Americans are not connecting with each other and with community institutions to the degree that they could. This civic deficit has critical implications for our social well-being, not merely because it represents a "loss of community" in some warm and cuddly sense. Much hard evidence has accumulated that civic engagement and social connectedness are practical preconditions for better schools, safer streets, faster economic growth, more effective government, and even healthier lives. Without adequate supplies of "social capital" -- that is, without civic engagement, healthy community institutions, norms of mutual reciprocity, and trust -- social institutions falter and lose efficacy.
History further tells us that we have the ability to bolster our civic connectedness. One hundred years ago, in 1897, the United States faced similar circumstances. Americans were not connecting with one another to the degree that was desirable, from 30 to 40 years of dramatic technological and social change rendering obsolete a whole stock of social capital. American society displayed classic symptoms of social-capital deficiency: huge problems in the cities, concerns about political corruption, and growing class antagonism.
Then, within the next two decades, American civil society righted itself in one of the nation's greatest bursts of social innovation. Virtually all of the major civic institutions that endure to this day were created during these 20 years: the YWCA, the Boy Scouts, the American Red Cross, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Urban League, trade unions, fraternal organizations, and many others. Almost all of these institutions were created in response to the decay and irrelevance of earlier forms of social connectedness.
The Saguaro Seminar was posited on the belief that we are poised on the threshold of a similarly innovative era. Society is different and the causes of a stagnant stock of social capital are different than they were in the 1890s. Thus, the solutions will be different. We need to determine what institutions, mechanisms, incentives, and approaches will significantly increase our stock of social capital and re-engage Americans with their communities.
The original Saguaro Seminar held meetings from 1997 - 2000. A final report, BetterTogether, was published in 2001.
When a group of neighbors informally keep an eye on one another's homes, that's social capital in action. When a tightly knit community of Hassidic Jews trade diamonds without having to test each gem for purity, that's social capital in action. Barn-raising on the frontier was social capital in action, and so too are e-mail exchanges among members of a cancer support group. Social capital can be found in friendship networks, neighborhoods, churches, schools, bridge clubs, civic associations, and even bars. The motto in Cheers "where everybody knows your name" captures one important aspect of social capital.