Other organisations could learn from churches in rebuilding social capital

Robert PutnamThe Guardian has a feature on American social scientist Robert Putnam his first paper “on his five-year study of social capital in the US – the biggest survey of its kind – which concludes that ethnic diversity does reduce social capital. He found that the higher the diversity in a neighbourhood, the lower the levels of trust, political participation and happiness between and within the ethnic groups, and he called it “hunkering”. But what has prompted criticism is not his analysis of hunkering, which the right has seized upon with delight, but his optimistic assertion that this is a short-term problem that, with “intelligence and creativity”, can be overcome. …[His] Harvard/Manchester research programme has identified four initial areas of social change on which to focus: immigration; the changing workplace and the consequences of women moving into the paid workforce; the changing role of religion in society; and inequality, particularly the mounting evidence of the inheritance of class and how it restricts social mobility.

…What fascinates him is tracking where the new forms of social capital are developing and why they are successful. One of his key areas of interest is religion – religious affiliations account for half of all US social capital. He cites US megachurches which, typically, attract tens of thousands of members, as “the most interesting social invention of late 20th century.”

He identifies the secret of their success: “They have very low barriers to entry – the doors are open, there are folding chairs out on the patio – they make it very easy to surf by. You can leave easily. But then they ramp people up to a huge commitment – at some megachurches, half of all members are tithing [giving a tenth of their income]. How do they get from the low to the high commitment? By a honeycomb structure of thousands of small groups: they have the mountain bikers for God group, the volleyball players for God, the breast cancer survivors for God, the spouses of the breast cancer survivors for God, and so on.

“The intense tie is not to the theology but in the emotional commitment to others in their small group. Most of these people are seeking meaning in their lives but they are also seeking friends. The small groups spend two hours a week together – doing the volleyball or the mountain biking and praying; they become your closest friends,” he says.

“These churches form in places of high mobility – people live there for six weeks and the church provides the community connection. When you lose your job, they’ll tide you over, when your wife gets ill, they’ll bring the chicken soup.”

Putnam believes that this low entry/ honeycomb structure could be successfully copied to reinvigorate many other organisations, from trade unions to scouts’ clubs and rotary clubs. He points out that the leader of the US’s biggest trade union, the Service Employees Union International, is intrigued by the potential of the megachurch model.

The other fast developing area of social capital is on the internet. Putnam has been studiedly cautious about the impact of the internet and insists its too early to be definitive: “We’ve got to get beyond the [notion that] the internet is good or bad for social capital. What is interesting is how it can be used to encourage ‘alloyed networks’ – which are both cyber and face to face – like email.

“I think strong social capital has to have a physical reality – a purely virtual tie is a pretty thin reed on which to build anything; it’s highly vulnerable to anonymity and spoofing and very difficult to build trust. But I’m a member of Facebook, the social networking site, and it enables me to keep up with old students; it has the potential to be both positive and meaningless – I get notices from people all over the world asking me to be my friend on Facebook but what does that mean?’

What could be really interesting, says Putnam, is what would happen if you put the model of megachurches together with social networking – that could produce new and powerful forms of organisation. He introduced the leader of one of the biggest megachurches to the founder of the meetup.com, which connects people with others in their neighbourhood with similar interests. It is a very successful website but not “sticky” in internet terms, people do not keep up with the site, whereas megachurches are extremely successful at sticky so he is curious whether the two types of social organisation might be able to complement each other.

Force for good

The project that is most pressing on Putnam’s time is a book he is writing on religion, American Grace. He credits religion with a vital role in spurring on progressive change in the US over the past 150 years – contrary to popular European wisdom, religion has predominantly been a force for good in America and its current use by the political right is an aberration from its history, he argues.

“Religious revival has been an essential ingredient of every progressive movement: the abolition of slavery came out of the second great awakening; the progressive era of 1900-15 when the US first passed labour and environment legislation came out of the social gospel movement,” says Putnam, who is a convert to Judaism.

Much of his book will be devoted to analysing how that progressive potential in religion was lured to the Republican right. It is easy to see how his interest in social capital and religion fit together, but he is quick to acknowledge that religion can also have detrimental consequences, and it is possible to have social capital that has no religious underpinning.

He strikes a warning on the secularisation of Europe, which he describes as the first large-scale effort to see whether secular progressive countries can reproduce themselves and successfully pass on the values on which they were built. “I believe they can,” he says, “but the evidence is not yet in. Europe is still living off its religious heritage.”

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