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Social Capital: Historical Perspective from the Progressive Era

Social Capital: Historical Perspective from the Progressive Era

The thesis of Bowling Alone is that a variety of technological, social, and economic changes over the last three decades have “rendered obsolete” a stock of social capital. Shorthand for saying that things like television, two-career family, generational changes have made fewer of us go on picnics, join the Rotary or hang out at the bar.

Approximately one century ago, Americans faced a similar pattern. Rapid industrialization, immigration, and urbanization brought waves of populations from a farm in Appleton Wisconsin to Chicago or from a shetl to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In the process millions of Americans left friends, families and social institutions behind.

What’s amazing about the Progressive Era is that from this civic nadir, Americans were hugely inventive about creating the social institutions to reconnect Americans in their changes circumstances. And the founding dates of most of the civic pillars that endure to this date were founded in a brief several decade period beginning in the late 1800s: from Hasassah to the Boy Scouts to the League of Women Voters to the Rotary to the NAACP. In the process, Americans founded reading groups and playgrounds and kindergardens and settlement houses and so much more.

Chapter 23 of Bowling Alone describes the amazing parallels between the Progressive Era and our current civic predicament and the moving story of civic invention in that period. Putnam focuses on the shortcomings of this period in the hopes that Americans sparking a similar civic resurgence can do so in a way that better fosters a stronger civic America.