Sunday, June 14, 2015

Does professionalization degrade community?

Trying out something a bit new this summer - a book club conversation. Every week, myself and a friend - Lauren - will discuss our progress through political scientist Robert Putnam's defining bestseller Bowling Alone, about the collapse of social capital and community in America. Come back throughout the summer for new entries!

Will: In closing out the second section of the book, which attempts to measure the existence and degree of community decline in America, it's striking how often the idea of professionalization pops up as a contributing factor. In politics, increasing nationalization and institutional strength of parties has made participation less accessible--volunteers mostly just write checks now. In labor, unions as freewheeling sociological nodes have declined, while professional associations tightly focused on career advancement thrive. In civic engagement, community organizations have increasingly morphed into national 'astro-turf' lobby shops based in DC at the expense of more distributed structures with local chapters and amateur contributors. Individual volunteering is about resume-building now.

In all of these examples, we see a more specialized orientation of community activities towards a narrower set of goals. The irony here is that although professionalization probably makes organizations more effective at pursuing explicit objectives, their positive spillovers to social capital are degraded. I'm not well-versed in Marxist theory, but it's striking how similar this all feels to the idea of alienation.

My impression is that for whatever reason (hopefully we'll see in Section III) a more self-aware, scientific worldview regarding the purpose of community has led to an increase in disillusionment and cynicism. Putnam's discussion about specific vs. generalized reciprocity is interesting here: the economic mindset that has been on the rise forces a greater emphasis on specific, immediate, measurable reciprocity. A casualty has been the softer, more wishy-washy activities that contribute to goals in a vaguer sense (but are nonetheless crucial in sustaining high levels of social capital). This idea of commercialization forcing constantly-shifting affiliations is apparent in many realms, and I wouldn't be surprised if social capital repositories of all types have been affected to some degree.

Lauren, do you think this trend towards professionalization is related to the rise in 'spectators' (at the expense of 'doers') that you highlighted in your post? You mentioned a skepticism of online communities. While I'm less bearish than you, I do see their reliance on business logic and advertiser revenue as a big downside. The recent ban of several unsavory Reddit communities highlights this tension between the increased opportunities and risks of online social capital.

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