Moreover, it seems less than completely effective to urge people to make connections to each other because being self-centered really leads to a healthier community. Yes, keeping up our networks does help each one of us. But this does not seem to be the kind of inspirational call to a wider world that will transform the current problems in the nation.
Relational, Not Instrumental Connections
Lawler, Thye, & Yoon argue that it is not simply sufficient to create the shell of the kinds of institutions that can encourage and support community. Rather, we must consider the ways in which we can shift the connections between people and institutions and between institutions and institutions from being essentially instrumental to being more deeply relational.
This volume argues that there are fundamental social conditions under which transactional, purely instrumental ties to a group tend to become relational and expressive. We reframe the transactional-relational issue as a problems of social commitment and conceive this problem as bearing on the classic Hobbesian question: how is social order possible?
Social commitments are construed here as distinct from purely instrumental or transactional ones in that they are non-instrumental and infused with emotion or affect. They entail person-to-group ties with an emotional or affective component and have the capacity to generate group-oriented cooperation and collaboration more effectively and efficiently than transactional ties alone. (p. 5)
The authors posit a growing porousness in the relationships that Americans are engaged in as we become related to each other in less and less traditional ways. For example, they cite the fact that few of us live in the kind of traditional, nuclear family that was the default family pattern that was common several generations ago.
Fragments? Or Freedom?
And yes, this is certainly true. But it is important to take a step back and examine the assumptions that the authors are making. Yes, social structures are different than they were fifty years ago. But this loosening of our social connections, our turning inward and away from certain established social institutions, has been accompanied by a loosening of conventions that were in many ways suffocating. (Let us just imagine, for a moment, the difference in life for a gay teenager today and in 1950.) One of the troubling things about Putnam and Lawler, Thye & Yoon is that they seem to be insufficiently aware of the costs of the social institutions that they are championing.
We have not, as Americans, changed the ways in which we organize ourselves simply because we have forgotten how to do so, or because we have become emotional more friable, or more selfish or less compassionate. Or -- if any or all of these things are true -- we have not changed solely because of such measures. We have also changed the ways in which we participate in groups because those groups and our means of interacting with them have lost a great deal of their usefulness to us.
It is important to note -- as all of the authors make clear -- that these changes have been entirely voluntary on the part of Americans. Certainly, many women have entered the workforce because they wanted the chance to engage in the professional work world and gain the kind of recognition that had been denied to them for generations. But many other women -- and many of the first category as well -- entered the workforce because the economy shifted underneath them and their families required two incomes. Shifts in the way in which we act culturally, socially, and economically are never entirely accomplished through free will.
What Putnam along with Lawler, Chye, & Yoon seem to underplay is that what they call isolation and fragmentation have been at least some of the time by some of the people as freedom. This is a point that Wuthnow takes up, although he does not frame it in quite this way. But when he writes that Americans are still "joiners" but rather that they are simply joining in different ways he is acknowledging that the old forms of alliance and affiliation are no longer workable.
Wuthnow argues that Americans of each generation are served by their own institutions, and if the current generation makes virtual rather than actual connections then that is what this generation needs to do. National character studies tend to cast a very rosy glow on the past and the generations of the ancestors. But they might be far more valid and useful if -- like Wuthnow -- they tried harder to look into the future.
Lawler, E., Thye, S., & Yoon, J. (2009). Social commitments in a depersonalized world. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications.
Putnam, R. (2001). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American communities.