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  March 26, 2001

Americans Need New Ways
to Connect, Says Speaker

Americans are more socially disconnected from one another than at any time since the start of the 20th century, according to Robert D. Putnam. And that is a critical threat to our personal health, our local communities, and the civic health of the country.

"We need to have a sustained period of social invention," asserted Putnam, a Harvard University public policy professor, who spoke at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center on March 9.

Putnam is author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Through this and other writings, he has argued that during the past 30 years, Americans in all sectors of society have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and social and political institutions.

"Most of us watch 'Friends' instead of having them," said Putnam.

The extent of this social disconnection is indicated through several trends in American society, Putnam argued, such as declining church attendance and falling membership in parent-teacher associations, labor unions, the Boy Scouts, American Red Cross, and civic groups such as the Elks. Americans entertain friends at home, visit with friends, and have dinner with their families far less often than they did a generation ago.

"It's like being around the extinction of species," he said. "You may tell your kids 'Hey, I remember when families actually ate dinner together'."

Social disconnection, Putnam said, is having profound consequences for the quality of life for Americans, both individually and collectively. "One of the best predictors of crime is how many people in a neighborhood know each other by their first names," he said. Crime tends to be lower where people know one another and interact more often.

On the individual level, "our physical and mental health" depends on our level of connection with others, Putnam said. "If you join just one group, your chances of dying within one year are cut in half," he said.

Yet growing social disconnection is not a recent phenomenon in this country, he said, pointing out that the same thing was true 100 years ago. The United States of the early 1900s was undergoing unprecedented changes because of the Industrial Revolution, immigration and urbanization. Americans responded a century ago by inventing "new ways of connecting," creating new civic associations and clubs and organizing new industrial unions. The consequences of this era of social invention formed the backbone of American civic culture through the 1960s.

Putnam cautioned that while this time of social invention is sorely needed, it shouldn't be directed at engaging in "bonding" social activities - those with people like oneself - but rather in "bridging" social activities - those that take place with a diverse range of people.

Now, as a century ago, the solutions to American social disconnection won't come from academia, but from the public, Putnam said.

"This is your assignment," he told the audience. "Over the next 10 to 15 years, we in America have to find new ways of connection."

Gary Frank