Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 3, Broken Bridges

In this post we will start transitioning from the analyses in Bowling Alone to the trends discussed in The Big Sort.

In the last few posts we've been throwing around the term "alone" to describe the trends of American social disengagement. But before we leave Bowling Alone we need to make some clarifications. There are various forms of social isolation and the term "alone" is too messy to precisely capture what is happening in American culture.

In Chapter 1 of Bowling Alone Putnam discusses the distinction sociologists make between bonding and bridging. Bonding relationships tend to be exclusive, a family or friendship-based group of "insiders." By contrast, bridging relationships, being more casual and informal, are inclusive and broad. The sociologist Mark Granovetter characterizes bonding relationships as "strong ties" and bridging relationships as "weak ties." Bonding relationships are "deep" and bridging relationships are "wide."

With this distinction in hand we can now revisit the diagnosis of "alone." Specifically, I know of no data to suggest that America's bonding relationships are suffering. People, generally speaking, seem to maintain networks of close friends and family.

By contrast, what has been suffering in America are bridging relationships. We are alone in the sense that we are mixing less and less with people outside of our inner circle. Our life might be very full, we might not feel alone at all, but our world might be very small and homogeneous. By "bowling alone" we don't get to interact with people who look differently from us, vote differently from us, or worship differently from us. What is broken is not our bonding but our bridging.

If we have wonderful bonding relationships why care about the lack of bridging? If I'm socially fulfilled why care about meeting people outside of my small inner circle? Let me outline four problems associated with our "broken bridges":

1. Civic Decay
In Bowling Alone Putnam computes measures of "social capital" and correlates that measure with a variety of social variables. Social capital is like physical capital (a physical resource) or human capital (a college education) in that it is something a community can draw upon to affect our shared productivity and prosperity. As Putnam writes, if human capital is a property of individuals then social capital is the product of the connections between those individuals. Communities with lots of bridging relationships, filled with norms of good will, cooperation and reciprocity, have more social capital than communities fractured into small gated communities with norms of cynicism, unhelpfulness and distrust toward one's neighbors.

In the later chapters of Bowling Alone Putnam provides evidence that high social capital in American communities is associated with a variety of public goods: Better schools, happy children, lower crime and better physical health. In short, a well connected community--lots of bridges between people--is a well functioning and happy community.

2. Cynicism
Bridging relationships foster generalized reciprocity. Specific reciprocity is the classic "You scratch my back and I'll scratch your back." Generalized reciprocity is "You scratch my back and I'll scratch someone else's back." Generalized reciprocity is the "pay it forward" dynamic and is, basically, the sociological term for The Golden Rule.

Lots of bridging is necessary for generalized reciprocity to become the norm for a community. Generalized reciprocity is based upon trust and trust can only emerge through regular and repeated contact. If bridging declines people start clustering into communities of sameness. As clusters become cliques and gated communities trust declines and a general cynicism sets in.

This is, in fact, precisely what is happening in America. Take, as one measure Putnam suggests, the virtual disappearance of hitchhiking on America's highways and byways. More precisely, in the early 50s Americans were split on the question if our society was just as morally upright as in past generations. In the 90s that split decision broke in favor of three to every one Americans now thinking we are less morally upright now than in the past.

Supporting that trend, I just glanced at the "Trust" data from the GSS General Social Survey. In 1972 50% of Americans said you "Cannot Trust" people. In 2006 that number was at 62.4% with the trend going up a couple of percentage points every year.

In short, the demise of bridging in America has paralleled if not caused a growing cynicism and distrust toward our neighbors. And this cynicism affects the church. People don't trust churches or the people who approach them on behalf of churches.

3. Loss of Hospitality Skills
Bridging is a skill. To mix and mingle in informal social gatherings requires practice. When we bond with close associates we rarely practice these skills of welcome and conversation. We just slip into the comfortable grooves of talk about shared interests. Further, with close associates we rarely have to practice the skills of civic disagreement as our close associates tend to vote like us and worship like us. We see the world the same way.

With the demise of these social skills our churches begin to suffer. Finding conversation with strangers to be awkward and effortful we simply ignore them and seek out our clique. This behavior tends to hide the great damage being done. That is. although I've found fun and stimulating conversation at church I fail to notice that my church is fracturing into insular cliques. By going for bonding over bridging the church loses social capital and intra-church distrust grows.

4. Excluding Communities of Like-Mindedness
A final problem with a lack of bridging is that bonding creates excluding communities of like-mindedness. As I've heard Pat Kiefert say, a church that describes itself as a family is a church that excludes people. Translated into the language of this post a church that goes in for bonding will tend to sacrifice bridging.

Next Post: The Big Sort

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4 thoughts on “Alone, Suburban & Sorted: Part 3, Broken Bridges”

  1. I've not yet read Bowling Alone, but I am wondering whether, in Putnam's terms of bonding/bridging, what we're really calling church people to is bonding relationships, and they're struggling even with the bridging sort, for the reasons you give.

  2. I don't know. I find it easier to talk to the Wal-Mart associates with whom I've gained familiarity through my weekly grocery shopping trips, or others trapped in a waiting room with me than I do those "respectable" persons trying to impress me with how spiritual they are.

  3. Richard,

    Are you suggesting that in the wake of real and perceived fear and insecurity, North Americans are hunkering down and bonding into self-protective communities, avoiding bridging and keeping the stranger distant? Communities hindering or preventing bridging?

    But isn't that what communities have always done? Haven't they "marked" outsiders? Today, the issue among communities, it seems to me, is now one of choice and not forced paternal or traditional demands. We have to voluntarily choose hospitality and openness to the stranger instead of bying into the Hobbesian notion of the "war of all against all"--or the Darwinian capitalist notion of "dog eat dog."

    Tocqueville's study "Democracy in America" spoke of the great and ongoing influence of Jesus' humility on politics and society. He also identified open and "voluntary association" as the great North American social virtue.


  4. fizzog,
    I think that is correct, but I wouldn't want us to see bonding as a goal over bridging. Our "bonding capacity" is basically limited given how time-intensive bonding relationships (close friends and family) are. But our "bridging capacity" is enormous and has value (as I'm arguing in this post) in its own right. The true is many of us are running greatly under-capacity when it comes to bridging.

    Well, I can certainly understand your attitude about churches. But let me argue that churches are a diverse lot. The churches I love are informal and humble places. They are rare, but they do exist.

    You are correct, intentionality is the key. As I move into The Big Sort I'll be talking more about how we have been exercising our choices, socially speaking.

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