February 2, 2024
You may not think that joining a bowling league has much influence on the world. As it happens, being part of a club may just be the thing that saves democracy.
On Tuesday Jan. 23, students and faculty gathered to watch the film “Join or Die,” which documented research from acclaimed social scientist at Harvard, Robert Putnam. Since the 1970s, he has explored relationships between civic involvement and government health.
The documentary explained that participation in clubs, organizations, and other levels of social interaction has decreased significantly since the 1970s and continuing through today, coinciding with elevated levels of dissatisfaction with the government and increasing political polarization.
BYU professor of psychology Julianne Holt-Lunstad appeared in the film to add her perspective on how less community interactions affect individual health. “Over the past 20 years, the amount of time spent alone has increased, time spent with friends has decreased, time spent with your family—both household and non-household — has decreased, time spent in community has decreased, time spent in companionship has decreased. So not only are we reducing our time spent in groups, we are reducing our contact with others more broadly.”
The film shows that it does not have to be this way.
Putnam suggests that any act of getting involved is a step forward. Look for something that stands out and try it. Go to a city council meeting, join a book club, get involved in recreational sports, or play games with a group of friends. If there is nothing that you feel connected to, do not be afraid to start something new.
After the film, Holt-Lunstad moderated a panel of five faculty members from the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences who answered questions about applying principles of civic engagement.
The panel members included history professors Aaron Skabelund and Laura Redford, sociology professor Ben Gibbs, psychology professor Chelsea Romney, and political science professor Lisa Argyle.
Skabelund spoke of his experiences being involved in the Provo community, noting that he would change the tagline to say, “Join and live.”
“From my own experience, joining and getting involved in the community has made me live a fuller life — it has enriched my life,“ said Skabelund. “All of us should have a fire in our stomach, be passionate about something, and take Putnam’s work to heart. We can change history on a local level, and I encourage you to get involved.”
One question directed to Gibbs was, “What do we know about types of groups that are more beneficial than others, thinking about organizations such as the KKK?”
He responded, “I view these organizations like the KKK or other sinister groupings as a counterfeit version of what we really, genuinely long for, which is service.”
“The communities that we participate in that are not building democracy are counterfeit communities. The heartbeat of that is consumerism and it’s the monetization of our longing for connection,” explained Gibbs. “Whenever I see these kinds of hate groups or groups that are distrusting of democracy or open public discourse, I view that as symptomatic of individuals that long for community, but don't know how to do it.”
Redford was asked how these topics relate to marginalization:. “How can people respond when they don’t feel that there is a space for them?”
She responded that she, “likes the idea in the film that when there wasn’t a space for people to affect political change, they created their own groups to do so. She identified the Montgomery bus boycotts as an example and pointed out how that involved a year of planning and collaboration to make a change.
“There's a great opportunity for people who feel like they're on the margins to use this kind of engagement to push for acknowledgement, to push for space,” explained Redford.
Romney addressed a question about how to involve more civic engagement in a classroom or education setting. In her social psychology class, Romney created a civic engagement assignment where students observed the Provo City Justice Court and then they ended up researching how the court was running. Many students had never set foot in a court room before and had no idea that it was available to them to get insights into how the court works and makes a difference.
“Feeling connected to our community ended up making us feel really connected to each other,” Romney shared.
Argyle, who researches polarization and public discourse, was asked how individuals can bridge divides and remain hopeful.
She reminded listeners that “the answer to a lot of these questions about why we are so polarized comes back to things that can be gained by joining organizations. We have fewer stereotypes about people of other parties when we better understand them, when we have more relationships and connections with people who are not like us.
“The other point of hope is that change can happen in organizations,” Argyle continued. “The history of marginalized groups shows that change can happen and there is power in that, but we have to actually do the work in the real world.”
No matter what your passions are, there is a way for everyone to improve the communities they are part of. Don’t be afraid to start somewhere, anywhere. The fate of democracy might just depend on it.
You can get involved in the BYU community by joining a club or an academic association, participating in service, attending events (you can even earn XP points and prizes by attending many events), and more. The possibilities are endless!