Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bowling Alone and other fulfilling activities

Recently I've been revisiting a book that I leaned heavily on during the writing of my undergraduate thesis called "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." While writing my thesis I used this as a springboard to dictate that the use of social capital for gains (both personally and for the community) was faulty, and capitulated my distaste for the wishy washy idea that reciprocal love, trust, and relations could save the world. My harsh cynicisms about human nature and our inherent desire to question or feel intimidated by difference still stands; only now it is complicated by the fact that tasks are getting accomplished, despite these teetering forms of community they function under.

Let me preface this with my experiences with community: I've worked within communities before. I've always been an advocate for the queer/GLBT community, but this is a pieced together community with a distasteful history and present of infighting; I've never felt "part" of it (meaning my social capital reciprocity has not been met). I've supported strike workers at the U of M when I could not strike with them. Currently I work as a literacy tutor in not just any SPPS school, but in a school that promotes social capital and reciprocity as school values. I teach English to adults in a small community on the West Side, in which students help each other out daily. The best intentions come with all of these communities; to promote knowledge and understanding, a feeling of family, or the improvement of a whole school and learning system.

After WWII and before the advent of television as the main form of entertainment at home, families and individuals participated in (almost across the board) about 30% more volunteer activities, as well as societies and associations than the average person does today (today being the late 1990s, when the book was written). Putnam asserts that several factors have caused this decline, and that interestingly enough, none of them are more important than the other. He leaves it up to the reader in many examples to decide whether the individualized entertainment afforded by televisions in the home, or less carpooling due to the burgeoning auto industry (merely two examples among hundreds of factors) is more detrimental to people's desire and inclination to devote time on things other than themselves.
Not only does Putnam assert that this decline is frightening, but he says that a revival of social circles and other networking is essential to more than just the social capital of communities, but also to the physical and mental health of community members. Many studies show that in places with higher volunteer participation (and therefore higher reciprocal trust), physical health (few doctor visits, less infections, etc.) of individuals fares better. His thesis is that volunteering and being part of communities should be more a part of American life than it currently is.
It is very easy for people from all walks of life to claim they are too busy, too rushed, too swamped to partake in civic engagement or social capital building activities. The important thing for me to remember after my service is that there is no such thing as too busy for maintaining and reinforcing trust and community health for personal, professional, and interpersonal relations. This book has inspired many conversations between me and my friends about staying civically engaged, and how to begin a dialog with someone who is currently not civically engaged.

So, has my cynicism waned? I suppose it doesn't matter as long as I keep doing that thing I do--caring anyway.

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