Social Innovation and Social Renewal

Seth D. Kaplan

Winter 2022

President Joe Biden has repeatedly declared a commitment to improving the lives of those who fall into "the bottom and the middle" of American society. Yet so far, his legislative initiatives suggest that he sees our society's challenges mainly through the lenses of economics (requiring increased employment opportunities and income) and education (requiring solutions like universal preschool and greater investment in post-secondary education). There is little if anything in his administration's three big plans — the American Rescue Plan, the American Families Plan, and the American Jobs Plan — that shows an appreciation for the relational aspect of the complicated social crisis our society confronts today.

This crisis involves a unique set of pathologies, perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the troubling rise in what Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call "deaths of despair" — fatalities due to alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, and suicide. No other developed country is experiencing such mortality at so great a scale. Biden's top-down approach to these pathologies emphasizes the role of a centralized national government serving isolated individuals. This strategy neglects the fact that, to a great extent, society works horizontally — across relationships between individuals and locales — with varied activities occurring place by place. The fraying of these horizontal ties is what drives the social crisis afflicting contemporary America. By ignoring this fact, the Biden administration risks replicating past mistakes.

Indeed, for the past half-century, we as a society have tended to overemphasize government policy and national campaigns for change, often to the detriment of the kind of hard, bottom-up work required to build strongly rooted, place-based, socially embedded institutions that can bolster American lives on a day-to-day basis. In contrast to periods like the Frontier Era and the Industrial Revolution, ours is "singularly weak" in social inventiveness, as Robert Nisbet put it. And yet, such innovation is the only kind likely to address the relational problems that lie at the heart of today's most pressing social ills.

Our constrained thinking on the institutional front helps explain why many public and private initiatives aiming to address various aspects of social breakdown often achieve something quite different. With few exceptions, these are targeted at individuals and implemented in a piecemeal fashion. By seeking to address specific problems — or even particular aspects of specific problems — at the level of the individual, we ignore the role that social structures play in human flourishing. Thus, instead of alleviating anomie, family breakdown, and the unraveling of social-support networks, our solutions ignore or even perpetuate such problems.

To properly address the great disruption that American society has experienced over the last 50 years, we need to rebuild our decaying social structures. This renewal will hinge on a particular kind of strategy. Some of our structures and institutions — most notably the family — are rooted in biological imperatives and thus cannot be altered without overwhelmingly negative consequences, though certain innovations may be required to reinforce them. Other structures may need to evolve in order to adapt to changed circumstances. Some may need to be replaced entirely. Any efforts on this front must be rooted in a proper understanding of the kinds of institutional arrangements humans thrive in.

Today, our institutional deficiencies are driving problems ranging from loneliness and social breakdown to polarization and death. To address these deficiencies, we need to develop initiatives that can make our communities more robust. Any call for change must catalyze practical action. And for any such action to have an enduring impact, it must forge social mechanisms that bring people together to work on common problems in particular places.


Talcott Parsons, a mid-20th-century sociologist, made an exceptionally useful and comprehensive effort to describe the structures that enable society to function. Though his work eventually became too elaborate, in essence he argued that there are four distinct subsystems at work in all societies: the economy, which interacts with the environment; the political system, which includes the government and the policies established thereunder; the culture, which consists of the ideas and values that undergird the social order; and social institutions, which make up the structures working within society itself. Each subsystem is distinct but also interwoven with the others — change one, and the others will change as well.

Parsons's model has its limitations, but it does help us diagnose how our response to America's contemporary social crisis fails to consider all four of these subsystems. Most debates about what ails our country focus on economic outcomes and culture, with an attempt to address deficiencies in these realms through politics. We debate how much welfare households need and whether tax policies create the right behavioral incentives. We fight for our favorite political party and candidate, and rally around the cultural causes — such as combatting racism and sexism — that matter most to us. In contrast to our heavy engagement with the economy, the culture, and the political system, there is little discussion of the role of social structures, despite their central importance to organizing human activity.

Social institutions have been crucial at every stage of human history. The most ancient structures, such as the family, met our most basic needs and were necessary for survival. Small bands of closely related individuals developed elaborate social mechanisms — such as marriage and other kinship rituals — to bond members of the group together and maintain interdependent ties among neighboring groups.

As people settled on farms, built villages, and gathered in larger, denser towns and cities, social structures evolved to meet changed conditions. Diverse institutions — including the church, the guild, the monastery, the university, the mutual-aid society, and, the largest of them all, the nation-state — appeared over time. As waves of political and economic change continued, they disrupted pre-existing social patterns, destabilizing some dominant social structures while leaving others untouched. Many institutions that once dominated the social realm — like the guild, the monastery, and the mutual-aid society — no longer exist or are significantly limited in their influence, while institutions like the labor union and the university remain intact.

These waves of disruption also encouraged — or forced, depending on the situation — societies to adapt existing institutions to changed circumstances, or to create entirely new ones to take their place. The greater the disruption, the more urgent and widespread the resulting experimentation and mutation. Areas that were more peripheral or dependent on trade — such as coastal areas, city-states, and the outskirts of empires — were more likely to nurture the invention of new structures than central or isolated areas like capitals, rural regions, and heartlands, due to both greater necessity and greater freedom from elite control. Similarly, regions with many small political units that competed with one another — like the city-states of ancient Greece and the fledgling nation-states of Enlightenment Europe — were likely to be more socially inventive than massive regions dominated by large, centralized regimes, such as China during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

The historical record shows that balance is essential — just as too little social inventiveness can have a deadening effect on institutions over time, too much innovation, or innovations that disregard fundamental human needs, can lead to social disintegration and chaos. Moreover, not all innovations are beneficial to society. New ways of organizing people may fail, or at least produce less-than-ideal outcomes, though such outcomes may take generations to become evident.

For innovations to be constructive, they must follow a certain underlying logic — a kind of social natural law. In his 2019 book Blueprint, Nicholas Christakis attempted to catalogue the fundamental tenets that make up this law. While he did not explore the underlying social structures that determine whether such tenets are realized, he did point out that our "tendency to cooperate is a property not only of individuals but also of groups." Such cooperation, according to Christakis, "depends on the rules governing...the structure of the network in which they are embedded."

These networks and their corresponding rules can have a great impact on both intra-local and inter-local social dynamics — how people relate to each other, what norms they hold, and how broader political, economic, and cultural subsystems interact with a particular place. Two waves of social change in the modern era help us see how these innovations occur, as well as what happens when they do not.


There have been two great waves of social disruption in recent centuries. The first catalyzed an attendant wave of social innovation; so far, the second has failed to do so, yielding social disintegration instead. The result has been an epidemic of social problems, with many concentrated in particular locales that have experienced severe forms of social breakdown. Determining why our era is so weak in social inventiveness is crucial not only to addressing these problems, but to revitalizing society itself.

During the great political and industrial changes of the 18th and 19th centuries, societies were transformed by rapid population growth, urbanization, new technologies, the rise of factories, the expansion of markets, and greater mobility. Though this first wave of disruption produced plenty of advances, it also resulted in many social ills, perhaps best described in the commentary that pervades many of Charles Dickens's novels on mid-19th-century England. In response, social entrepreneurs developed a slew of new organizations — ranging from the Knights of Columbus and the Boy Scouts to labor unions and the YMCA — and promoted an expanded role for the neighborhood church, especially in urban areas. These organizations came to dominate American life. Over time, government complemented these efforts by establishing new regulations and social-support programs to help ameliorate the ills resulting from rapid industrialization.

This combination of public and private action was effective at addressing the social breakdown brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Yet as we think about reversing the breakdown we're experiencing today, we tend to remember only the role that the government played during that first wave. The ways in which civil society reinvigorated old social structures and built new ones to supplement or replace them are mostly forgotten.

A second wave of disruptive social change began during the 1960s. The easing of ethnic and racial segregation, the expansion of opportunities for women, the transformation of travel and shopping, the decline in the influence of organized religion, the changes in values, and the rise in educational and professional competition again upended existing social patterns and structures. As occurred during the earlier wave, these changes brought forth several benefits: Many previously marginalized populations — including women and middle- and upper-class persons of color — have been greatly empowered, while all Americans have gained materially from these developments and have access to far more choice as a result.

But the benefits of this second wave have been unevenly distributed.Though some communities profited handsomely from the new social dynamics, others were entirely upended, leaving Americans in certain locales especially vulnerable. As Case and Deaton surmise, second-wave changes "left people with less structure when they came to choose their careers, their religion, and the nature of their family lives," contributing to a sense of purposelessness.

Many new social organizations did emerge after the second wave of change, but they were of a different quality than the ones that arose after the first wave. Theda Skocpol observes that while first-wave institutions were localized, voluntary, membership driven, cross-class, and dependent on making connections with local residents, second-wave institutions, which primarily include corporations and non-profits, are organized around professional management. Instead of relying on local networks, they distribute mass mailings, hold seminars, and offer promotional websites to a geographically dispersed, and often national, audience. They do not attempt to structure social life or behavioral norms the way organizations did in the past.

Due to the changes brought about by the second wave of social disruption, many older social structures — including those established during the first wave — have declined in importance. Today, there is little role for place-specific institutions beyond schools, and the ability of schools to develop character and integrate socio-economic classes has been greatly diminished. Meanwhile, there are fewer neighborhood committees to join or local leadership roles to fill — and fewer willing leaders to fill them.

So while our country is full of social entrepreneurs and civic organizations (many of which do good work), they have little impact on the social structures of any particular place. The problem is that we are not replenishing the structures that provide social support by bringing neighbors together on a regular basis; instead, we are allowing these structures to deteriorate. Society is now more fragmented and isolating. We all have less of a sense of belonging and meaning than Americans once did as a result.

Amid this institutional decay, core elements of our biological makeup and psychological drive remain unchanged. As Daniel Chirot of the University of Washington points out, the "essential psychological and biological [composition] of humans today" is similar to that of "those of say, 5,000 or 10,000 years ago or more" — before the rise of states and even the settling of villages. And as psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary remind us, humans both then and now share certain needs, foremost among which are relationships that are long-lasting; that involve frequent, positive interactions; and that are structured in such a way as to encourage stability, care, and concern. What has changed is not the needs themselves, but our society's ability to satisfy them.


Whereas in previous eras — such as the late 19th century — social disruption produced vigorous efforts to renew and re-invent social structures that could provide meaning and a sense of belonging, the social disruption of the 1960s has failed to produce such results. Creativity may still be abundant in the social space, but it is directed at ideas, identity, media, and protests rather than on building institutions at the local level. These may provide meaning and belonging for some, but they don't have the reach — in terms of function or personal embeddedness — that strong, place-based structures do. Many people are left out of them, and even those who view them as fulfilling initially may find the experience less gratifying over time.

Why is our capacity for social renewal so diminished?

The first reason is that Americans' focus has shifted dramatically from local to national concerns. This started sometime around World War I and accelerated with the establishment of mass media (beginning with the three big networks and later with cable television, the internet, and social media), the interstate transportation system (including highways and relatively low-cost airline flights), a national market for products, and the expansion of the federal government. The dramatic growth in university attendance — often at schools far from home — and subsequent migration of graduates to a handful of major metropolises like New York City, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., encouraged youth to become interested in national rather than local concerns. Few graduates returned home, producing a brain drain for well over half the states and an even greater majority of locales. These developments provided the opportunities that workers sought and helped fuel their ambition, but often left them uprooted, atomized, and alone.

Second, people are much more passionate about advocacy directed toward specific issues than they were in the past. This may be partially the result of higher education levels — individuals with university degrees tend to be more excited by abstract ideas involving their intellectual peers and less enamored with the often frustrating and labor-intensive work that local associations entail. It may also be a symptom of busier lives, which preclude the latter. As a result, while people once invested their spare time in local churches, neighborhood associations, and volunteer activities, today's Americans have less time to spare and are more interested in using the time they do have to advance abstract rights and causes — especially if they can contribute virtually or financially instead of in person.

Third, driven by a focus on short-term, quantitative results, governments and non-profits tend to address problems in a siloed manner, even if the problems exist in symbiosis with one another (which is often the case). As a result, there is little attempt to consider cross-cutting, comprehensive solutions, which would naturally lead to an emphasis on social structures and the place-based dynamics they are enmeshed in. Programs instead tend to be disbursed over large geographic areas and are sometimes undertaken in ways that weaken the very social structures that their ostensive outcomes depend on. For example, when training programs place workers in higher-paying jobs, they may be achieving their mandates, but if they encourage the most talented people to move to new neighborhoods, they risk undermining the social structures of the places those individuals leave behind.

Fourth, those most equipped to create the kind of social organizations our neighborhoods need are also the least informed of the realities on the ground. As historian Christopher Lasch observed, elites were once tied to a given place, where their families often settled for several generations. They were deeply embedded in the communities in which they lived, and they understood that their wealth came with an obligation to serve the people and institutions in their surroundings.

Such allegiances are far more attenuated today. The new elites, wrote Lasch, are "more cosmopolitan," following the "siren call of opportunity wherever it leads." Success is now closely associated with mobility, enabling the best and the brightest of the non-elites to rise into the ruling class and ending what was once the country's democratic ideal of the "rough equality of condition." This cosmopolitanism not only undermines elites' sense of duty to invest in their communities, it also depletes the knowledge base such investment requires. Today's elites may be highly educated, but they are often disconnected from the real problems our families and neighborhoods face.

Fifth, the expansion of government has changed the context in which social organizations evolve. Whereas these institutions once had to depend on local residents for funding and volunteers in ways that enmeshed them within their neighborhoods, forcing them to play a crucial role in nurturing the locale's strength, today they are dependent on pursuing government money and other grants, which disconnects them from their immediate surroundings. Far too often, as University of Chicago sociologist Elisabeth Clemens writes, government encourages the development of "large hierarchical organizations" geared toward meeting top-down goals and satisfying complex rules and contractual requirements. Social entrepreneurs can still innovate and expand, but the massive outflow of public resources creates incentives for groups to direct efforts away from localized social structures and toward programming that will satisfy government requirements — to become service- rather than relationship-oriented. Additionally, the expanded role of government encourages organizations to focus on advocacy and limits efforts to address certain issues (such as the role of social codes) or engage with certain social structures (such as houses of worship) that are key to social health.

Of course, innovation in the wake of the latest wave of social change may require more time. We are only two generations into this wave and only six or seven generations into the Industrial Era, with all its wrenching changes. As Chirot argues, "human societies have not yet had time to absorb the consequences of all these transformations or to find workable solutions to all the problems they have produced." He posits that it will take centuries of social learning to find the right set of new and old structures to meet these changed conditions.

Yet it remains abundantly clear that our society's response to the latest wave of change differs from that of the late 19th century. According to Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett, "[b]etween 1870 and 1920 civic inventiveness reached a crescendo unmatched in American history....The organizational seeds planted from the Gilded Age into the Progressive Era proved exceptionally hardy, and throughout the next six decades they flowered into an intensely Tocquevillian America" that was rich in social structures to mediate relationships between people as well as those between citizens and the state. The social-renewal capacity of these institutions propelled society through two world wars, making it ever more "we"-oriented.

Since the 1960s, by contrast, Americans have allowed their social-innovation muscles to atrophy. While the number of civil-society organizations doubled between the 1960s and 1990s, membership in these institutions declined to roughly one-tenth of previous numbers. Most of these organizations were advocacy-oriented, as opposed to the kinds of people- and place-oriented organizations that once thrived. In terms of charitable organizations, Americans have largely traded in the "doing with" model — which requires direct interpersonal engagement — for a "doing for" model that involves providing aid from a distance. In short, our social institutions have become less "we"-oriented and more "me"-oriented, to the detriment of us all.


While there is surely a need to improve our politics, economy, and culture, it is clear that such reforms will only benefit society as a whole when the fourth subsystem — social institutions — is returned to health. This depends above all on social innovation geared toward strengthening social structures, and especially those grounded in specific locales.

Our goal, therefore, should be to develop and nurture organizations that use innovative techniques to support and enhance the social structures necessary for human flourishing. These organizations should focus on concrete efforts that aim to improve social institutions on a place-by-place basis. When people focus on specific, localized problems, their allegiances shift from the abstract to the tangible. Rather than launching campaigns for ideological (and sometimes polarizing) goals, they tend to build partnerships with other individuals to achieve real, lasting results. As Nisbet wrote, "the history of social organization comes the history of the rise and spread of...relationships among individuals." If we want to renew our decaying social institutions, we need to begin by building and nurturing such relationships at the neighborhood level.

Just as business entrepreneurs experiment with new products and models in response to shifting markets, social entrepreneurs should learn to enhance existing and test out new social structures in response to the dramatic changes that continue to roil American society. And just as successful companies expand after their models prove successful, the social entrepreneurs who are most effective at improving their locales should receive the support necessary to bring their models to other areas.

As sociologist Patrick Sharkey points out, "community change can be sustained only if it is planned and carried out by a well-run, well-resourced organization led by people who make a longterm commitment to the community and all its residents." Some examples of such organizations exist today. A faith-based organization known as Communio is building out a network of local affiliates focused on strengthening marriage and maintaining family stability. Purpose Built Communities is developing a network of neighborhood "quarterbacks" to help revitalize distressed neighborhoods in as many cities as possible. Community Renewal International has established a three-tiered model of building social relationships block by block in different parts of the country. It is now establishing a network of organizations to bring this model to communities across the nation. Each of these organizations has had success in strengthening social structures at the local level, and each is working to expand its model to additional communities.

If organizations like these multiplied, we would see a real sea change in how our society functions, with less social breakdown and greater social resilience. In every case, local entities would take the lead on the ground, with regional or national entities supporting and bringing structure to their efforts. The catalyst can come from either end — local actors may start addressing problems on their own before partnering with a national organization to expand their efforts, or the latter may take the lead at jumpstarting efforts within a given locale. But local ownership and drive are the prerequisites to ensuring that organic, sustainable efforts take hold within a given neighborhood.

What would help spur this kind of commitment?

Academic institutions could play a significant role in boosting the efforts of organizations like those mentioned above and helping establish new entities geared toward this kind of social innovation. They could emphasize the importance of strengthening place-based social structures in various academic disciplines, including sociology, urban development, architecture, and economics. They could offer academic credit for time spent working in neighborhoods most in need. They could also provide mid-career training to those willing to bring management skills and resources to disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, philanthropists and non-profits could do more to encourage people who leave their hometowns for post-secondary education to return to those locales and either work within existing organizations or launch new initiatives to help build on local social structures. One example of such a program, Lead for America, selects youth who "prioritize humility, service, and collective impact over self-advancement," then trains and places them in two-year fellowships at public-serving institutions in towns and counties outside the typical circuit for ambitious young people. It then encourages them to stay on after their fellowships and "build place-based initiatives, start entrepreneurial social ventures, and act as community hubs to broaden and deepen local connection."

Policymakers could support these efforts by expanding place-based national-service programs — including some AmeriCorps programs — and encouraging participants to join one of their area's social institutions. They should also consider reviving the Social Innovation Fund, a federal grant-making program signed into law by President Barack Obama, to help ensure that more public and private money is used for venture philanthropy that encourages social innovation and the scaling up of successful initiatives. If their evaluations emphasize the strengthening of social institutions and a focus on specific neighborhoods, they might yield dedicated funding for these programs.

Policymakers should also shift their strategy from the silo-based approach, in which sector-specific experts focus on large-scale projects across a range of locales, to one based on generalists who commit to a particular neighborhood for an extended period of time. By virtue of their wide range of skills and frequent, localized interactions, these public servants would develop more intimate knowledge of the residents, businesses, and other institutions in their assigned neighborhoods, encouraging them to see their roles as facilitators rather than deciders. Gaining a fuller understanding of a particular neighborhood's dynamics would enable them to take calculated risks with the potential for greater rewards. Policymakers could then evaluate these efforts based on metrics keyed to the success of the neighborhoods overall rather than the number of subsidies dished out, permits issued, roads completed, or other boxes checked, as is typically the case today.

A successful example of the place-based generalist approach comes from the neighborhood-quarterback model championed by Purpose Built Communities. The quarterbacks have a unique mandate: to advance their neighborhood's overall well-being. They build a vision, coordinate with a range of local actors, and follow through on implementation. Because they are generalists focused on a specific community, they operate differently from government agencies and service-oriented non-profits that focus on addressing a specific, self-contained problem across a broader territory. And they tend to be more successful as a result.

Finally, political leaders should push to devolve authority to the government entity closest to the localities targeted — a principle known as "subsidiarity." As public-interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson explains, "[y]ou cannot be an effective problem-solver from a distance. There are details and nuances to problems that you will miss unless you are close enough to observe those details." Rather than implementing a predetermined mandate from above and using standard funding formulas based on data for large populations, subsidiarity relies on deep, place-based knowledge of the people living in a given community and the problems to be addressed there. This bottom-heavy, top-light strategy naturally leads to a greater emphasis on social innovation and the strengthening of social structures — precisely the sort of focus our ailing society needs.


Whereas the American Dream originally had more to do with developing a social order in which every person's potential could be fulfilled, today it grasps for upward social mobility and individual material success. Lasch calls this understanding a "sadly impoverished" one, noting that "its ascendancy, in our own time, measures the recession of the dream and not its fulfillment."

The modern reframing of the American Dream reflects a society that is not only more individualistic than the America of previous generations, but arguably more so than any society of such scale in history. As Mary Eberstadt of the Faith and Reason Institute observes, Americans "are living in ways that are profoundly unnatural for the ineradicably social creatures that we are; and many are suffering as a result, at times without even knowing the name of what ails them."

We are not meant to live as unconstrained, atomized, self-centered individuals. Our ties to society are not based on a series of disconnected voluntary transactions geared toward each person's self-interest, but on dense, overlapping social bonds embedded in robust social structures. For most of us, these structures must be place-based, grounded in the communities in which we live. When these structures weaken, the talented can move away and the well-off can compensate, but most of us are left more fragile by the strain.

Americans need to reconsider our nation's subsystem of social institutions on both a personal and neighborhood level. Social structures have played an essential role in every part of our history, from the assemblies and courts established by the first settlers to the churches and other organizations that brought together and sustained the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Our future very much depends on their revival.

Change will inevitably be piecemeal, faster in some places than in others and dependent for the most part on local circumstances and leaders. Many of today's social entrepreneurs don't lack commitment or a desire for change; the problem is that their commitment is channeled toward causes rather than places, projects rather than people. We need a movement that is horizontal, not vertical; one that is driven by networks of place-based individuals rather than dictates from above. If enough locales can show the way — and enough national and regional supporting organizations can emerge to bolster their efforts — our many little societies may someday renew American society as a whole.

Seth D. Kaplan is a lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His next book, Fixing Fragile Neighborhoods, will be published this year.


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