While involvement in associations has always been a distinct feature of American life, the number of people joining small groups has grown dramatically in recent years. Today, 40 percent of all Americans — some 75 million people — belong to a small group that meets regularly and provides caring and support for its members. These groups range from 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous to Bible study groups, book clubs, and singles' gatherings.
According to Wuthnow, the burgeoning small-group movement has been effecting a "quiet revolution" in American society. In this book he documents the results of a groundbreaking three-year study of the movement that involved a team of 15 scholars and over 1,000 Americans. The findings suggest that the current interest in small groups is a response to the intense yearning for the sacred that characterizes the American people, as well as to the breakdown of communities, neighborhoods, families, and other sources of personal support.
Wuthnow waves aside the argument that America is becoming an increasingly alienated society. He sees the strength of the small-group movement, the depth of involvement, and the extent of personal caring and support within these groups as proof that the social fabric has not unraveled nearly to the extent some critics suggest.
All the same, small groups have a tendency to reinforce, rather than challenge, the individualism and fragmentation of contemporary society. Many of today's groups offer their members a sense of belonging without the responsibilities that go hand in hand with traditional communities. The secret of the small group's success, Wuthnow observes, is that it offers a sense of caring and community without asking too much in return.
This is a fine book and a significant contribution to the growing literature on the role of community and spirituality in American public life.
This review appeared in the Spring 1995 issue of the Antioch Review
Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.