February 1997

Root Page of Article: Balancing the Global Through the Local, by Leslie Regan Shade

Whither Traditional Communities?

The contemporary notion of community has engendered a complex debate amongst academics, social philosophers, community activists, urban planners/architects, and political parties of all stripes. All would agree, though, that there is an ostensible perception that, at least in North America, communities are under siege, beset by drugs, violence, and crime; and that the `traditional' values that comprise community, such as orderliness, conceptions of sharing and neighborliness, safety, and family cohesion, are being eroded.

"Americans sense that something is wrong with the places where we live and work and go about our daily business. We hear the unhappiness expressed in phrases like `no sense of place' and `the loss of community'. We drive up and down the gruesome, tragic suburban boulevards of commerce, and we're overwhelmed at the fantastic, awesome, stupefying ugliness of absolutely everything in site-the fry pits, the big-box stores, the office units, the lube joints, the carpet warehouses, the parking lagoons, the jive plastic townhouse clusters, the uproar of signs, the highway itself clogged with cars-as though the whole thing had been designed by some diabolical force bent on making human beings miserable. And naturally, this experience can make us feel glum about the nature and future of our civilization" (James Howard Kunstler in "Home from Nowhere" in the September 1996 Atlantic Magazine).
Traditional communities have been changing. Internationally, several post-Cold War trends have contributed to this sense of change. These include -- broadly speaking - geopolitical balkanization, nationalistic fissures, diminished government powers, dispersion of authority and responsibility, downsizing of government and the private sector, decrease in welfare state responsibilities, the increase in the service sector, and the growth of small enterprises.

Contemporary debates about community have hinged on the ideals of the Communitarians and the notion of `civil society'. Popularly associated with the work of Amitai Etzioni and colleagues, Communitarianism has received international support - particularly in the U.K. - as key principles have been picked up by Labour Party leader Tony Blair (See Greg Smith "Community - arianism": Community and Communitarianism- Concepts and Contexts and in U.S. political circles, notably by the policies and rhetoric of President Bill Clinton and the Democrats (although the idea of family and community renewal was the focus of the 1996 Republican party convention).

In a controversial article, Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital, Robert Putnam argued that, given empirical data, America is suffering from a decline of social capital, and therefore, less civic engagement. Putnam looked at patterns in political participation (voter registration, attendance at public meetings); organizational membership (religious, labour, civic or fraternal organizations), citing an overall decline in membership. But, for Putnam,

"The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so."
He does consider the increase in new forms of civic associations-non-profit groups, the social (or third) sector, grass-roots organizations in feminist, environmental, or peace activities, but concludes, based on empirical evidence from the General Social Survey, that "American social capital in the form of civic associations has significantly eroded over the last generation" (Ibid).

Following up in his 1996 article The Strange Disappearance of Civic America, Putnam sought to discover the mystery of the declining social capital. Looking at `the usual suspects' for this decline, Putnam zeroed in on one main culprit: television, and the privatization of leisure. The many `suspects', however, point to a rapidly changing demographic lifestyle.

These include:

  • the fast-paced nature of (post)modern life, expedited by networked communication technologies
  • the changing role of women as they have entered the workplace in substantial numbers
  • the increase in divorce and blended families
  • changing demographics: a multicultural society
  • downsizing in industry and government
  • suburbanization, edge cities, and rural living (facilitated by networked communications)
  • the `malling' of North America, aided and abetted by mega-chain stores
  • the growth of the welfare state
  • the civil rights movement of the 1960's and 1970's
  • globalization of the economy
  • the growing disparity between the rich and the poor
  • an increasingly insecure middle-class
  • the digitization of technology: television, VCR's, networked communications
Putnam dubs the group born in the 1920's the `long civic generation', because of their heightened participation in civic associations. But, for him the post-war (WWII and VietNam) generations "were exposed to some mysterious X-ray that permanently and increasingly rendered them less likely to connect with the community." The culprit, for Putnam, "is television." Echoing Neil Postman, Putnam argues that television destroys social capital by displacing time, privatizing leisure time, inducing pessimism and passivity, and leading to a `loss of childhood'.

On the other hand, critics of Putnam have questioned his analysis of empirical data as overlooking civic participation that isn't easily measurable.

Whither Traditional Communities? | -Our Will to Virtuality | Public Space | Community Networking

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