In a place that values weirdness — or at least claims to — it may seem odd to be urged to assimilate into a well-defined social group. But that's what Join or Die, a documentary with a world premiere at South by Southwest (SXSW) on March 12, prescribes.
It is a matter of health: In 1995, political science researcher Robert D. Putnam asserted that, statistically, joining and participating in just one group cuts a person's likelihood of dying in the next year in half. It's also a matter of democracy.
Putnam started his research in Italy when the government was regionalized (i.e. split into the 20 regions we now recognize as Lombardy, Tuscany, and others), realizing a unique opportunity to start gathering data from the very beginning of a government system. He compared success in those regional governments by measuring data like how often they achieved their own publicly set goals, and the overall satisfaction of constituents.
Wealth was a factor that set apart most successful regions from unsuccessful ones, but within the successful range more money did not necessarily mean more success. One can assume a certain amount of money helps until a certain point. This set Putnam on a path of searching for greater correlation (as close to a straight line as possible) between practice and success, which eventually led him to civic engagement.
After the film lays out Putnam's initial experiments and findings in his landmark book from 2000, Bowling Alone, it settles into its apparent true purpose: distilling the written theory for more casual consumption over 99 minutes, and setting up case studies and testimonials (including an emotional look into the bonds of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, in Waxahachie, Texas) from two decades deeper into America's plunge into individualism.
"Social capital" is the center of the theory: When people make and strengthen connections, their networks build value. Greater reciprocity — the idea that people will help and punish each other for mutual benefit — eventually leads to greater trust in the social system. The film also identifies a type of person who is predisposed to getting involved (a "joiner") and discusses what makes events appeal to those people (a clearly defined and communicated purpose).
The film did not explicitly distinguish — although the premier audience responded strongly to it in the following Q&A with Putnam, sibling filmmakers Rebecca and Pete Davis, and other key players — the difference between healthy groups and cults or conspiracies.
"One of the things that is mentioned in the film, but actually not named in the film, is a distinction between two different kinds of social capital or two different kinds of networks: networks that link you to people just like yourself, and networks that link you to people who are unlike you," Putnam offered. "The jargon here...is 'bridging' and 'bonding.'"
He used an example that assigned bonding social capital to his relationships with other elderly, Jewish, white, male, professors like him, but assigned bridging social capital to those relationships with people of different generations, races, professions, and political ideologies.
"And I'm not saying bridging, good; bonding bad," Putnam continues," because if you if you get sick, the people bringing chicken soup are likely to be your bonding social capital. But I am saying that a modern diverse country like ours needs a lot of bridging social capital.... My grandmother ... said, 'Birds of a feather flock together.' And what she meant was, 'Bridging social capital is harder to build than bonding social capital. She didn't think I'd understand that, which is why she used the avian metaphor."
This sense of humor, bolstered by a plucky voiceover, cute animations, and clever editing quick with a punch line, is all over Join or Die. Although there is a focus on the continuing decline of social capital and in-person infrastructure since midcentury America, the tone is overall inviting. Putnam is explicitly categorized as an optimist, and he emphasizes that he doesn't think we need to revert to the '50s; we should just examine what led to the culture full of joiners.
Other actionable theories asserted by the film include that social capital is best built face-to-face as opposed to digitally; that groups are strongest when they exist out of a natural desire to participate rather than a feeling of obligation; and that building meaningful connections is hard, which is part of what drives their eventual value.
Austinites interested in not dying might want to explore some of the following clubs, group activities, and volunteer opportunities previously covered by CultureMap: