Robert Putnam

In case you haven’t noticed, I am a sucker for ‘big picture’ books (not big ‘picture books’, though I like them, too!).  Twenty-one years ago, I bought Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone.  It was an expansion of an earlier essay, Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.  The book had a subtitle, The Collapse and Revival of American Community, suggesting that the breakdown that he had identified in traditional communities was now changing.  I’m not sure if it was the title of the book as opposed to the underlying analysis, but Putnam’s book has stuck in my mind ever since I first I learnt about his ideas.

Putnam’s initial research focus was concerned with trust, mutual involvement and democracy.  My interest with his views was a little more basic:  for much of my life, I have felt the nature of peoples’ relationships have been a function of the impact of changing and dominant technologies.  If it used to be the case that we lived in communities largely comprising people living in our immediate neighbourhood, more recently many communities have become virtual, and as a result the influence of propinquity has diminished.  Virtual communities seem to have become even more widespread during the Covid pandemic.

Thirty years ago, Putnam was interested in social change, and he is one of those people who loves collecting facts and figures.  A political scientist at Harvard, he first developed his ideas about ‘social capital’ through a comparative study of Italian regional governments.  His research had shown the northern regions of Italy had been more economically successful than those in the south.  As he collected more and more data, he noticed northern Italy had a rich history of clubs, community organisations, and other social networks, whereas in the south, possibly as a result of its dominant agrarian economy, strong voluntary associations were far less prevalent.  For Putnam these ‘networks and norms of civic engagement’ were central to interpersonal trust and joint activities.  He concluded that when people in the community trust one another, so democracy flourishes.

As Putnam saw it, life was much easier in a community characterised by a substantial stock of social capital.  Social capital described a number of factors.  The first and most critical was the existence of networks of civic engagement, networks that supported an overall sense of community, and which fostered “sturdy norms of generalised reciprocity and encouraged the emergence of social trust”.  These networks “facilitated coordination and communication, amplified reputations, and thereby allowed dilemmas of  collective action to be resolved. When economic and political negotiation is embedded in dense networks of social interaction, incentives for opportunism are reduced. At the same time, networks of civic engagement embodied past success at collaboration, which then served as a cultural template for future collaboration”. Finally, he noted dense networks of interaction probably broadened the participants’ sense of self, developing the “I” into the “we”, or, in the technical language of rational-choice theorists, enhanced the participants’ ‘taste’ for collective benefits.  In such communities, local teams mattered, and most people didn’t go ‘bowling alone’.

Based on what he had concluded from his research in Italy, Putnam shifted his attention to the US.  As he collected data for the book, ‘Bowling Alone’, he discovered there had been a steady decline in turnout in national elections over the preceding three decades.  As he saw it, “tens of millions of Americans had forsaken their parents’ habitual readiness to engage in the simplest act of citizenship”.  It wasn’t just at the national level, as he identified similar trends in state and local elections.  It was appeared to indicate a broader phenomenon.  Over that same three decades the numbers who reported that in the past year they had attended a public meeting on town or school affairs had also dropped significantly.  This was even more marked in attendance at political rallies or speeches, serving on a committee or working for a political party.  All his measures revealed the same situation: “Americans’ direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation, despite the fact that average levels of education – the best individual-level predictor of political participation – have risen sharply throughout this period. Every year over the last decade or two, millions more have withdrawn from the affairs of their communities”.

Putnam wondered if this was indicative of an even broader downward trend in all forms of civic engagement.  The data he collected was widespread and consistent.  The 1960s witnessed a significant drop in reported weekly churchgoing alongside a smaller decline in membership in all ‘church-related groups’.  Net participation by Americans, both in religious services and in church-related groups, had consistently declined since the 1960s.  He found similar evidence for declining trade union membership and participation, and in parent-teacher organisations.  As several reports had noted, the same drop in numbers was true for membership in (and volunteering for) civic and fraternal organisations.

Bowling Alone is packed with data charting this same drop in participation in many areas.  What stuck in my mind, and gave his work its unusual title, was that more Americans were bowling than ever before, but ten-pin bowling in organised leagues had plummeted. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent.  Defensive as to whether this was a trivial example, he noted “nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections  and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly”.  Ever the social scientist, he also noted the rise of solo bowling threatened the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because “those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not in the balls and shoes”.

Game over, you might say.  However, national environmental organisations (like the Sierra Club) and feminist groups (like the National Organisation for Women) grew rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s and now count hundreds of thousands of fee-paying members.  Even more dramatic was the growth in the membership of the American Association of Retired Persons, the AARP, from 400,000 members in 1960 to 33 million in 1993, becoming the second largest private organisation in the world (second only to the Catholic Church).   However, he observed these organisations were not alternative social networks, as most members only participated through paying membership fees and reading a newsletter.

This finding was replicated in other non-profit service organisations, which similarly contributed little to social connectedness:  Putnam cites as examples agencies ranging from Oxfam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art through to the Ford Foundation and the Mayo Clinic.  Bowling Alone is packed with data of this kind.  Despite the fact these organisations were growing, the evidence seemed overwhelming – that both face-to-face social engagement and connectedness were declining.

Unsurprisingly, Putnam looked for explanations as to what was happening:  what was causing this decline in political participation and social activities?  He identified a number of possible causes.  First was the increasing number of women participating in the labour force.  While it must have had some impact, Putnam saw this as insufficient to explain what was going on, especially the declines in participation were at least as high for men as they were for women.  Other factors that might have contributed included social mobility and smaller families.  However, aligned with my own prejudices, he argued there was one other important issue, and this was that technological trends were individualising the use of leisure time.

For him, and for me, the most obvious and probably the most powerful instrument of this revolution was television.  Bolstered by considerable research  in the 1960s , the growth in time spent watching television dwarfed all other changes in the way Americans passed their days and nights.  As he put it, “Television has made our communities (or, rather, what we experience as our communities) wider and shallower. In the language of economics, ‘electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment.’ The  same logic applies to the replacement of vaudeville by the movies and then of movies by the VCR.  The new “virtual reality” helmets that we will soon don to be entertained in total isolation are merely the latest extension of this trend. Is technology thus driving a wedge between our individual interests and our collective interests?”   As he noted, this would be a good topic for future research.  It would be, but I’m convinced already!

Have I given the impression I liked Bowling Alone?  I did!  As I have commented before, it was more than just well-written and persuasive.  It read like a novel, a ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for social scientists.  I’ve also confessed it played to my prejudices and assumptions:  no-one needed to tell me television was damaging, leaving us ‘interacting’ with the flickering tube, not with neighbours.  Yes, I knew team sports were declining and so was the camaraderie they supported.  As the Trump years unfolded, the downbeat nature of the analysis seemed even more persuasive.  Looking back, maybe with a little more wisdom, it was a great story about America disappearing indoors, but was it just a story?  Even when I first read it, I was aware that the story became a little shaky once he tried to explain the trends he had depicted.  However, I still feel Bowling Alone has much to recommend it.

It seems almost providential that his successor book, The Upswing, written in conjunction with Shaylyn Romney Garratt, was published right around the time of the 2020 Presidential Elections in the US, when Joe Biden knocked Trump off his perch.  In many ways The Upswing is very much about the Downswing, a period that began in the 1960s with a focus on individual fulfilment, both by the left, the New Left, and the libertarian New Right.  Social capital was eroding in the face of the call to ‘do your own thing’.  It seemed so exciting back then, throwing over the dull conformity of the immediate post-war years with the drug-flavoured music and images of The Beatles and others like them.  The cost was hidden.

Individualism became dominant from the beginning of the 1970s, as Bowling Alone had demonstrated.  However, Putnam with Garratt now retold the story more as if this was a regular cycle, the pendulum first swinging one way and then the other.  Back in the 1920s, out of an era of fragmentation came an Upswing.  The latter part of the 20th Century was a Downswing and, logically, there should be another upswing around the corner.  It is easy to gloss over the fact their book has a longer title:  The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.  This is the storyteller as the evangelist:  we had turned things around before and we can do it once more.

As with the previous book, we are offered a compelling story, making sense of many topics and events over 120 years.  Putnam and Garrett keep reminding us they are not presenting a causal theory, but the approach is packed with causal factors, and an underlying moral subtext as they trace that arc over the decades, from a period of ‘mutualism and solidarity’ to a ‘descent into cultural narcissism’.  As in Bowling Alone, union participation, voting patterns, and membership of voluntary and religious organisations are included as evidence of what is taking place.  In this book, they also identify triggers, with social reformers and evangelists at the beginning of the 19th Century initiating the upswing, and the traumas of the 1960s, including campus violence, the civil rights struggles, the Vietnam war, and protests, all combining to push the overall trajectory back down.  It seems to make sense.

Other commentators have noted there were other major transformations that had taken place at different times in this period, from the development of the welfare state, the dominance of free trade, the growing service economy, the emergence of the internet, shifting racial animosities, the sexual revolution, and a skewed growth in wealth.  Only some of this finds its way into The Upswing, leaving readers to worry if there’s enough evidence to persuade us it is “most fundamentally the self-centeredness” that accounted for present-day malaise.

Here’s one example they use:   Google’s digitisation of millions of books provided a database that allowed Putnam and Garrett to track the use of ‘we’ compared to ‘I’ over the 120 years, and, yes, it offered support for their analysis.  However, this observation has led to a spate of other analyses.  It appears  ‘we’ might be losing out to ‘I,’ but ‘community’ has gained in popularity relative to ‘individual’ and writers also discuss ‘you’ more than ‘I’ these days.  Perhaps ‘we’ is on the rise!  Putnam and Garrett place a lot of emphasis on the route from individualism to communitarianism and back again, using that “I-we-I” curve as their shorthand, but, somewhat unsatisfyingly, they must concede that “the available evidence offers virtually no evidence of an uncaused first cause of the I-we-I syndrome.”

As I’ve already commented, there is an underlying moral flavour in their descriptions about the changes.  They describe a reversion from a period of “mutualism and solidarity” to a “descent into cultural narcissism.”  Unionization, voter turnout, and membership in churches and community clubs are all described as reflections of this dynamic.  And despite their cautioning on causality, they present a clear story, suggesting that the communitarian ethos of the Progressive Era, of muckrakers like Ida B. Wells and Jacob Riis and social reformers like the suffragette Jane Addams and education evangelist John Dewey, these were the generating impulses of the upswing, while they go on to argue it was the various traumas in the 1960s, including campus violence, assassinations, the civil-rights struggle, urban riots, and the Vietnamese debacle, became the instigators for the downswing.

It is easy to be picky.  Many other events could also have driven the changes Putnam and Garrett document.  The United States developed a modern welfare state backed by a re-invigorated federal government.  While free trade weakened some industries , the ‘new economy’, based on knowledge, services, and the Internet, flourished.  The sexual revolution began, and while racial animosities did not dissipate, but substantially declined, they were to flare up again.  It seems to me that in the course of all of these bewildering changes it is hard to be persuaded it is principally ‘self-centeredness’ that accounts for the Downswing.

Am I mistaken in being entranced by Putnam’s books?  Trying to be honest with myself, I know I’m often persuaded by overarching narratives.  However, the authors seem to be claiming  an unarguable correspondence between the America today and 100 years ago, as they portray an oscillating character to society over the long term.  Shifting from the anxiety in the earlier book, the new one is optimistic, suggesting the reversal in fortunes that took place in the middle of the 20thCentury offers evidence of the likelihood of another one now.  Will we see another Upswing?  I’m not sure.  I’m not convinced, but yes, I hope so.