First published as an article in 1995, Robert Putnam’s famous book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, solidified many Americans’ concern about the disappearance of community life. Nearly 20 years later, this worry has only increased, as other scholars—Charles Murray, Claude Fischer, Bill Bishop, and Theda Skocpol—have continued to document this social trend.
Marc Dunkelman’s The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community is the latest iteration of this ongoing dialogue. At the core of Dunkelman’s transformation thesis is the subtle hollowing-out of the “middle-ring” relationships that historically defined American social life. These relationships according to Dunkelman:
are defined by a familiarity that allows acquaintances to carry on conversations about personal subjects even if they aren’t entirely private. They represent, in essence, the people with whom an individual is familiar but not intimate, friendly but not close.
Dunkelman begins with that essential early reporter of American life, Tocqueville, who first noticed how relationships formed the basic structure of the American township: “municipalities were integrated units determined not by a remote central authority, but by the realities of everyday life.” People of all stripes knew one another. They shared common practices and formed civic associations unaided by the state. And they built their social and political institutions on these relationships. This “bottom up” social architecture soon became the bedrock of American society.
Even as America urbanized in the early twentieth century, middle-ring relationships still formed much of the social fabric, despite the fears of urban sociologists. As observed by Jane Jacobs in the 1950s, the daily interaction and relationships between neighbors formed the basis of thriving communities. Not surprisingly, Jacobs argued for a built environment predicated on diversity in its functions and social arrangements as a model facilitating the greatest potential for middle-ring relationships.
Despite challenges such as rapid industrialization, this social arrangement persisted in American life, but, as scholars and writers have for the past two decades noted, community cohesion is in decline. Conservatives point to the growth of the state or the erosion of religion. Liberals blame the market or rising inequality. Although Dunkelman sees legitimacy in both claims, for him, the thinning of middle-ring relationships lies mostly in the thickening of what he terms “inner-ring” relationships:
The prima facie evidence suggests first that Americans have chosen to invest more time in the inner rings. Desperate for affirmation, and equipped with new tools to keep in touch with a few prized connections, we’ve chosen to double down on the small group of people [close friends and family] we hold most dear.
At the same time, Dunkelman argues, there has been an explosion and intensification of “outer-ring” connections, or “relationships that connect individuals on nothing more than a single plane of interest.” The factors for this shift include the proliferation of mobile and communication technologies, which make it easier to stay connected with friends and family as well as to find like-minded groups online. In addition, outer-ring relationships have increased with the growth of surburbia and the sorting out of American society into distinct socio-economic enclaves. Even the way we organize social movements has changed:
In lieu of forming semiautonomous local chapters, national groups now more embraced a hub-and-spoke model, where organizers headquartered in Washington or elsewhere would reach out directly to members. The one-time supposition that members would attend a regularly scheduled tea was replaced by the request that members send donations designed to fund the work of professional staffers, who would then carry the banner.
Small Kansas town in the evening. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASmall_town_evening_(4691861030).jpg
For Dunkelman, “Because we all have a limited amount of time and attention, social capital invested in one ring generally requires divestment from another.” In other words, “What limited time and energy Americans have today is devoted to our most intimate relations and a set of much more one-dimensional connections.” The verdict then is clear: “The township, in essence, is dying.” The upshot of all these changes is that, despite an increase in diversity, Americans now seek out and spend more time with people similar to themselves. This new reality has profound consequences for our economy, politics, and society.
With the thinning out of middle-ring relations, certain rhythms of social life change. Historically, as Dunkelman shows, these rhythms facilitated advantages throughout society. In economic areas, these connections spurred creativity and innovation, as well as helping communities weather economic turmoil by “giving residents—or, at least many of them—the wherewithal to transition into a new industry and a new career.”
Politically, the dearth of middle-ring relationships hurts our democracy. For Dunkelman, the problem is not that people are more ideologically polarized. Rather, they no longer see compromise as a political good: “Those on the other side of any given issue now are not only wrong, they’re almost alien.”
Dunkelman also points out that even though certain groups may have been excluded from American social life in the past, middle-ring structures tended to bring people together. Once certain social activities and places were opened to all, people from different races, ethnicities, and classes mixed in a variety of social activities from schools to churches to public entertainment.
The temptation to nostalgia may be strong as one reads this book, but Dunkelman does not encourage this interpretation, urging instead a recognition that things have changed and that there is an urgent need to move forward. For Dunkelman, America is transitioning from a township society to networked one. There are still strong communities, but today many are now being defined by “loosely connected contacts, born from farther-out connections.” As with any sweeping social change, there are trade-offs. With more far-reaching connections, we have the freedom and ability to meet people from all over the world, and we tend to grow more tolerant and curious. “Townships weren’t just seedbeds for mutual understanding,” writes Dunkelman, “they also cultivated the prejudice and division that has plagued American history.”
Throughout, Dunkelman bases his argument on the fact that “social capital invested in one ring generally requires divestment from another.” Yet, as Robert Putnam argues:
Too often, without really thinking about it, we assume that bridging social capital and bonding social capital are inversely correlated in a kind of zero-sum relationship: if I have lots of bonding ties, I must have few bridging ties, and vice versa. As an empirical matter, I believe that assumption is often false. In other words, high bonding might well be compatible with high bridging, and low bonding with low bridging. In the United States, for example, whites who have more non-white friends also have more white friends.
Whether Putnam is right or wrong, this critique does raise important questions about the cause of these changes. Although Dunkelman chronicles several seismic factors, he largely ignores how new forms of capitalism and technocratic public policy have contributed to the weakening of traditional communities.
In addition, Dunkelman neglects the underlying beliefs and symbols—a common civil religion as well as a shared sense of the American destiny—that undergirded our middle-ring relationships at the birth of our republic. Today, the struggle over community is not simply a matter of technological or structural change, but real differences surrounding our substantive conceptions of what is good and right.
Still, Dunkelman accurately observes how the decrease of middle-ring relationships is deeply intertwined with the tensions that many feel about contemporary life:
It feels as though things are falling apart because institutions built for township society don’t work without middle rings. The networked society that’s emerged is still searching for ways to exploit the advantages of stronger inner- and outer-ring ties.
In the end, Dunkelman is cautiously optimistic. We may not be able to go back (nor, as many argue, should we), but we can go forward, harnessing the creative power of new kinds of relationships. Whether that is enough—or even the answer—remains to be seen. At the very least, Dunkelman’s book is helpful, clarifying much about the changing dynamics of American community. Presenting his expertise and familiarity with social capital scholarship in a coherent and readable narrative makes this book a worthwhile and timely read.
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