Salsa Scoop> tag: ”blog:social capital“

Organizing Alone vs/for One Big Movement

Many of us will probably remember, however vaguely, Robert Putnam and his famous "bowling alone" thesis about the decline of social capital in the US. Some of us remember thinking that it was more about transformation and reallocation of social capital, but to make that case right now would be kind of pointless and a distraction from the work Putnam is doing now (even if it's right, which it may not be). Putnam has just published the results of five years of research on the effects of diversity on social capital within communities (which here means neighborhoods or something similar). The conclusion: diversity reduces social capital within the community. Most striking, and most distressing, it turns out too that members of a diverse community not only trust persons of other ethnic groups less, they also mistrust others of the same ethnic background. Putnam's research also shows that diversity within communities does positively affect innovation, for reasons that should be obvious and which are sure to be high on the list of progressives' objections to Putnam's basic research. Of course, Putnam, himself a good liberal, believes that the "hunkering" phenomenon he finds in diverse neighborhoods can be overcome, primarily by forging new, broader, more encompassing identities, building a bigger "we." There are a number of obvious questions to ask in response to such a thesis, and I plan a more in-depth analysis of the paper and its implications at a later time, but it is worth getting one aspect of the problem in front of us right now. Mass movements are, of course, precisely about building a bigger "we." But the trend in nonprofits looks, at least on its face, to be moving in the direction of lots and lots of smaller we-s. A quick look at the Urban Institute's latest statistics on nonprofit organizations shows a staggering--at least to my mind--36% increase in the number of 501(c)3 public charities between 1996 and 2006. The number of private operating foundations almost exactly doubled (these remain a minute fraction of all (c)3 organizations). Interestingly, the number of other (registered) 501(c) nonprofit organizations actually declined slightly. The Wobblies had, in the day, a romantic dream of One Big Union. The US today seems to be a problem case of, to riff on Putnam, "organizing alone." I'm not arguing that the IWW did everything right, or that NPOs today are doing everything wrong. Rather, I'm suggesting that if we want to build a mass movement--and maybe not everyone does--we need to take seriously this challenge of forging a new, common identity, one that doesn't let us cling to safe, old selves, but that also doesn't ask us to renounce who we are. Putnam likes the idea of merging the model of megachurches (see also the SEIU) with online social networking (like Facebook or MySpace or, most recently, Plaxo's Pulse). In posts over the next week or so, I'll take a closer look at Putnam's research, its implications, and the suggestions he makes. Maybe we'll be able to think it through to the point of being able to specify some practical organizing points. Or maybe it will just be an interesting exercise.