Somehow, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has simultaneously become America's most worried and optimistic voice about civic life. He managed to end his 2000 book, "Bowling Alone," with a positive look to the future despite warning that America's community fabric is fraying as citizens withdraw from activities such as bowling leagues and the PTA. He remained hopeful even after a post-9/11 uptick in civic engagement quickly evaporated.
In his new book, "Better Together," Putnam presents hard evidence to back up his optimism. He and his coauthor Lewis Feldstein scoured the country looking for places where new shoots of connectivity are springing up. They came back convinced that the nation isn't doomed to a life of isolation.
"Look, we can fix this," Putnam said during a phone interview with the Monitor from his New Hampshire home. "People in their own little niches are turning this trend around."
Forget about the old style outlets for connecting like Elks Clubs or bowling leagues. Putnam's research team targeted a distinctly different batch of organizations ranging from a New Hampshire dance group that bridged the gap between a town and its shipyard to the website Craigslist.com and package deliverer UPS.
Not all have grand accomplishments. A new warning light at a railroad crossing is all that students at a Wisconsin middle school aspired to when they came together as part of the "Do Something" program. But whatever their missions, Putnam says a common byproduct is "social capital" - the benefits that can arise from building relationships.
Putnam says no success story surprised him more than Saddleback, a mega-church in Orange County, Calif. On paper, Putnam says, the area - full of highly mobile two-career families, long commutes, and lots of TV watching - should be a "desert in social capital."
Yet, Saddleback draws thousands to its services. The success is partially a result of a flashy show featuring popular music and big video screens. But a bigger draw, Putnam says, is the church's web of intimate gatherings. At any given time, 8,000 congregants participate in one of the church's small groups for everyone from women diagnosed with breast cancer to families with incarcerated relatives. "Saddleback has a lot of lessons for people who are not religious about how to build communities," he says.
All of the chapter-length accounts are grounded in brief visits that provide a first-hand sense of how each group operates. The result is a sociologist's travelogue that is far more readable than typical academic writing.
But the book would have benefited from more participants' voices rather than relying so heavily on leaders' insights. And while most regions of the country are represented, a quarter of the examples are from New England. It's not clear whether that's a function of the region's civic-mindedness or the authors' roots in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Nonetheless, "Better Together" does a good job of drawing together the common themes that contribute to an organization's success and could help foster civic engagement elsewhere in the country. All these groups rely on face-to-face communication, storytelling, and using small cells of participants as anchors.
"In the same way people 100 years ago invented new ways of connecting during the Progressive era, so, too, do we have to invent new forms of connections that will work in the 21st century," Putnam says.
• Seth Stern is on the Monitor's staff.