Democracy Begins at Home

A strong democracy starts with relationships among neighbors and social capital in our local communities. A recent book by Seth Kaplan, Fragile Neighborhoods, as reviewed in PM Magazine, builds on previous work by Robert Sampson and Mark Granovetter, showing the importance of social capital and collective efficacy in building connections that ultimately lead to a stronger democracy. As it turns out, all politics are hyperlocal!

Research has shown that the “weak” connections with our neighbors improves our health, safety and prosperity. The “strength of weak ties,” a phrase coined by Mark Granovetter in 1973, describes the benefits for residents of connecting with neighbors, many of whom will have different social circles and knowledge. These differences mean that weak ties with neighbors can be more useful than strong ties with close friends.

Robert Sampson, together with Stephen Raudenbush and others, have researched the effects of “collective efficacy” on public safety and other public needs, showing in 1997 that social bonds among residents of a neighborhood can lead to less crime and other problems. Gregory Plagens discussed in 2011 the ways in which social capital leads in a neighborhood can lead to better educational performance in local schools.

In his new book, Seth Kaplan, applies his many years of research on fragile states to neighborhoods, describing “fragile neighborhoods” as communities in which there are poor connections among residents and few social institutions. He stresses the importance of nearby relationships, saying:

“The neighborhoods we live in impact our lives in so many ways: they determine who we know, what resources and opportunities we have access to, the quality of schools our kids go to, our sense of security and belonging, and even how long we live.”

Kaplan argues that a better ecosystem of nonprofits and other organizations creates stronger neighborhoods, as do good connections among residents. Stronger families also lead to less fragile neighborhoods, which becomes a self-fulfilling cycle, as more people move to those areas, stay in place longer, and help maintain the local quality of life. The latter half of his book describes six communities in which institutions have helped strengthen social ties, reducing the fragility of neighborhoods and helping them address social challenges.

Certainly, many cities and counties have shown an understanding of the power of social bonds within neighborhoods, along with the “bridging capital” that Granovetter described in 1973 and Robert Putnam discusses in Bowling Alone. Countless communities promote block parties, National Night Out events, neighborhood watch, “porchfests,” “living room conversations,” and other activities aimed at helping people know their neighbors.

Nonetheless, as Kaplan and Putnam point out, interaction among neighbors has declined significantly over the past several decades. This makes it even more important for cities and counties to be proactive in encouraging interaction among neighbors. As Living Room Conversations points out, “belonging starts with a conversation,” and belonging can lead to better trust and, ultimately, a stronger democracy.

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