People are getting back to groups—from niche hobby clubs to mass political protests—changing lives and communities in the process
Serena Renner | October/November 2011 Issue
It’s a sunny Saturday in Long Beach, California, and Ty Teissere is hosting a workshop to design and build a clay pizza oven in his backyard. Until now, most of the attendees have been strangers, but you’d never know it watching each of them lend a hand, talking and laughing. Ofelia brings a delicious casserole for lunch; Roberta supplies fresh honey from her own beehives; and Ryan brings his steadfast determination to see the project through. Teissere offers the materials and building skills to lead the group. Just another day in the life of the Long Beach Permaculture Meetup, a loose association of local residents with a passion for environmental design.
In only four meetings, the oven was complete, and Teissere has been throwing pizza parties in his backyard ever since. Group members and like-minded neighbors regularly gather there now, armed with handmade pizza dough, fresh toppings and occasionally, an environmental documentary to project onto the fence. “I wouldn’t have come close to having the energy to build the oven on my own if there wasn’t a group to help,” Teissere says. “I could do it physically, but I just wouldn’t have been as inspired. The new energy that comes from others makes the work less mundane.”
Since the publication of Bowling Alone by Harvard University public policy professor Robert Putnam in 2000, the received wisdom has been that we are experiencing a decline in civic engagement, social connections and the trust and reciprocity that go along with them. Societal shifts—delayed marriages, higher divorce rates, the shrinkage of extended families—and the rise of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are all thought to have further accelerated this disconnectedness.
But people around the world are finding rejuvenation in groups, from book clubs that meet in living rooms to the mass street protests that have swept the Arab world. This coming together may well be a response to the breakdown of social networks caused by everything from the changing nature of the family to the ongoing economic squeeze. And in some cases, these face-to-face meetings are facilitated by the same digital technologies thought to be supplanting them. What they have in common, though, according to Henry Hemming, author of the book Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, is the power of giving—a collective effort that harnesses the gifts of individuals to achieve something greater than the sum of its parts.
“The frequency of meetings, the shared wisdom of others and the insights achieved through group discussion allow your interest to flourish,” Hemming writes. “Not only has it been moved to a hothouse, but your enthusiasm has been re-potted, placed in a large container of premium compost and is now being watered daily.”
But groups not only hurl members toward their goals but make happier, healthier people who are better connected to themselves and their communities, according to the evidence. And the best news of all? Groups seem to be on the rise.
While statistics on in formal gatherings are hard to come by, the numbers support this idea. A study by the Pew Research Center found that 74 percent of Americans belong to some kind of group, compared with 65 percent who said the same in 2008. The report, “The Social Side of the Internet,” covers 2,303 adults and 27 kinds of associations, from religious organizations to fan clubs. Pew found that the average American is involved in 3.5 groups. The most popular are church gatherings, sports leagues and consumer groups.
Volunteering is up, too, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.
The number of Americans volunteering jumped by 1.6 million from 2008 to 2009, the largest increase in six years.
While figures are fuzzier for Europe, a 2008 report published in the journal Social Information Studies noted that the percentage of the population that participated in or volunteered for an organization grew in a majority of European countries between 2004 and 2006. Germany and Italy showed the largest hikes, 17 and 11 percent respectively. So while we may no longer meet in bingo halls or Kiwanis Clubs, there are countless examples of people getting together across the globe.
After hearing reports of increasing “loneliness” in the U.K.—defined by rising numbers of unmarried adults, people living alone and families relocating—Hemming decided to investigate the social landscape. While he did discover displacement, he also found to his surprise that there had been a surge in group affiliations during the last decade. He tracked associations with interests ranging from books and paganism to battle re-enactments and beekeeping, and he analyzed what made the groups work. Groups that last longer consist of members who make an equal contribution, creating fellowship, camaraderie and value.
“You’re less likely in Britain today to get to know your neighbors than you would have been 50 years ago,” Hemming says. “This is not because we’re becoming a nation of curmudgeons; we just don’t get the same opportunities. If you look historically at other occasions when a social network becomes eroded, generally we look to find another. And I think over the last 10 years, there’s been a shift toward trying to find these networks in small voluntary groups.”
His book cites a wealth of evidence pointing to the same message: If you look beyond the traditional forms of social organization, there is a clear pattern: Associations are growing in number. This surge may be partially fueled by the Internet, and Teissere’s clay oven conclave is a case in point. This group got together via meetup.com, a site that helps users join and create regional groups around their interests. Unlike many online communities, meetup.com aims to fill some of the void left by disappearing Elks Clubs and bowling leagues; it encourages people to “use the Internet to get off the Internet.” Since the site launched in 2002, 90,000 groups have formed in 118 countries, uniting outdoor enthusiasts, singles, dog lovers and crafters alike.