- Elusive Togetherness: Church Groups Trying to Bridge America's Divisions
Why are some civic groups better able to connect diverse social actors and forge connections between them than others? What kinds of resources do groups cultivate or draw upon, so that some are more successful than others to "bridge America's divisions?" Paul Lichterman's new ethnography of nine Christian volunteering and advocacy groups in the pseudonymous "Lakeburg" argues that an important piece of the answer resides in groups' social and discursive habits, traditions and customs. Elusive Togetherness is a serious, thoughtful and detailed ethnography that suggests that so many civic and volunteer groups fail to build bridges between communities not because of participants' lack of interest, desire or motives but rather because of the contexts in which they work, which reinforce taken-for-granted ways of interacting that preclude or limit reflexive understanding of social situations. Lichterman demonstrates the importance of studying daily speech acts and interactions in understanding political and civic cultures, and likewise suggests that some the most powerful resources we have for building robust civil societies (or standing in their way) reside within ways of talking, interacting and engaging each other on a daily level.
Lichterman introduces his theoretical and methodological frame in two chapters that address the limitations of recent "social capital" approaches to evaluating community groups' social impact; he offers an alternative method and theory based on interaction and socially shared norms and customs. Elusive Togetherness is thus firmly engaged in recent debates about how civil groups "bridge" or "spiral outward" to bolster and strengthen community and social ties across diverse sectors of society, but steers away from approaches that emphasize the [End Page 1850] importance of quantifiable "skills" favored in the social capital literature to focus on the less-easily quantified customs, interaction styles and discourses that might lead to greater social reflexivity.
Drawing judiciously on the political writings of Jane Addams and John Dewey, Lichterman argues throughout this volume that the way to understand how social democracy works depends on our ability to listen to how people talk to each other about things that matter. "[P]eople need to know the complexity of modern society, to talk reflexively about it, if they [are] going to organize democratically" he argues (p. 252). Lichterman's second chapter outlines this approach, articulating how he assesses the ways discursive customs, speech styles and group dynamics work to shape the spaces and contexts where bridging and social reflexivity take place.
These introductory chapters are followed by empirical chapters that find Lichterman a participant observer in nine Christian civic groups, where he trades off playing with children at a community center and carrying food for "Adopt-a-Family" parties with asking questions of leaders and group members and (above all) closely observing what is said and isn't said. These chapters demonstrate Lichterman's skill at reading social situations, and also demonstrate the value of his methodological and theoretical apparatus. Lichterman draws readers into both liberal and evangelical Christians' conversations and debates the redress of social ills and how to build stronger communities in Lakeburg, showing us time and time again (indeed, with only one exception) how groups' social customs place strong limits on their ability to make real, human connections with the people they are serving. Lichterman demonstrates how deeply embedded yet varied social customs, largely taken for granted and set in motion from the groups' beginnings, undermine or weaken the potential for social reflexivity and bridge building. Lichterman learns that very few groups cultivate the kinds of social customs and "settings that allow people to think and talk about spiraling outward [beyond their own limits] without threatening the group's own togetherness." (p. 18)
The single group that did succeed, Lichterman tells us, took on projects that broke them out of several norms of "volunteering" and "helping" and put them in a position of "partnership" with the neighborhood they wished to positively affect. Nonetheless, the relationships and ties that developed this group developed remained "fraught and tenuous." (p...