Time for an Upswing?

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 different subtitle, however, The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  I found it more than merely interesting, and his ideas have rattled around in my thinking ever since.

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 on the concept of ‘social capital’ in 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, and possibly the result of its dominant agrarian economy, such associations were far less prevalent.  For Putnam these ‘networks and norms of civic engagement’ were central to interpersonal trust and joint activities.  He formed the view that when people in the community trust one another, so democracy flourishes.

Data driven, but his views were controversial.  In recent years, a sizeable literature has shown civic associations have also been associated with anti-democratic movements.  However, resting on his conclusion that social capital was important in sustaining democracy, Putnam went on to write his 1995 paper on Bowling Alone, based on statistical evidence showing declining social capital in America.  The 2000 book took that argument forward and addressed some of the criticisms his earlier book and paper had received.  The decline in social capital was memorably captured by his analysis of data from bowling:  he found bowling leagues had experienced a major drop in membership numbers, although the number of people bowling had increased dramatically.  In effect, people were ‘bowling alone’.

In the book, and in response to various concerns, he separated social capital into two forms:  bonding capital, the kind of networks formed with people who are like you in ethnicity, age, religion, or even socio-economic status, and bridging capital, where the friendships and networks are with people not like you.  In his analysis, while both are important, it is this latter form of social capital that makes all the difference.  He saw the decline of social capital as starting within bonding capital, but then extending to bridging capital, and as social capital decreased, so did democratic norms and preferences.  Moreover, Putnam emphasised what he saw as another link in the data:  if America experienced high levels of social capital, it would also support ‘social trust’, which he saw as necessary to keep a free-market society together.

The central argument in his book was that the data showed a steady decline in social capital had been taking place since the 1960s, a decline associated with political apathy, social fragmentation, and personal unhappiness.  He linked this shift to lower confidence in local government; to declining registration to vote, alongside more participation in protest marches and social reform groups; to lower expectations of collective action; to less charitable giving and volunteering; and to more time spent alone, especially time spent watching television.  As one respondent was quoted, “television is my most important form of entertainment”.

The statistics and the examples made for a compelling narrative.  I was aware he was missing informal and less organisationally based forms of social support, as he was studying formal organisations.  He certainly seemed unaware of the importance of online networks and other sources of social capital enabled by the internet.  Despite this, example after example made good sense.  We were retreating to our homes; we didn’t know or mix with our neighbours as much had been the case in the past:  society was becoming more individualised.

Rereading Bowling Alone, I am struck by the narrative.  It’s persuasive, well told, and convincing.  However, I also read it as more like a novel, a story of America that played to the prejudices and assumptions that people like I possess, rather than an academic treatise.  Of course, I knew television was damaging, leaving us ‘interacting’ with the flickering tube, not with neighbours.  Yes, team sports were declining and so was the camaraderie they supported.  It was a great story about a disappearing America, without my ever having to wonder if his view of the US in earlier times was true.

That he was on uncertain ground was revealed when he tried to explain why social capital was declining.  Was it changes in workforce participation, especially with more women working?  Was it people having to move for work, tearing apart the more densely woven networks that build up in one place over long periods of time?  Was it the flight to the suburbs, living in dormitories with similar people, leaving no time to engage in league bowling or other social pastimes?  Putnam acknowledged all these factors, each contributed in part to the decline he was documenting, but he felt the major factor was technology, especially television, which he saw as individualising leisure pursuits, together with the social preferences of younger generations where he felt bonding capital was predominant.

Putnam as storyteller has reappeared with The Upswing, his latest data driven book, published twenty years after Bowling Alone.  This time he’s taken a longer view, over 120 years, and once again he’s entranced by numbers.  He looks at American society since the end of the 19th Century, examining four sets of data covering economic inequality, political partisanship, social capital, and cultural narcissism.  With a little bit of smart juggling and simplification, the overall and surprising result is that all these disparate trends appear to superimpose neatly on one another. Putnam and his co-author Shaylyn Romney Garratt report on their observation of “an unexpected and remarkable synchronicity in trends in four very different spheres over the last 125 years”, and this provides the core for their analysis.

In summary, the four measures of connectedness were low to begin with, but as the twentieth century progressed, an ‘upswing’ took place, a pattern which continued until the 1960s, after which the indicators slowly sink back down, as the US faced partisanship, deep inequality, and anomie.  Is this chance?  While the logic that links the four measures seems compelling, you won’t be surprised to learn that many social scientists are far from convinced and see the similarity in the trends as suggestive at best, and irrelevant in terms of understanding.  Putnam and Garrett are cautious, admitting their discussion is narrative, a kind of broad-brush history. The book well written, making it easy to agree with the overall conclusion their data reveals:  “a long arc of increasing solidarity and then increasing individualism”, a path from individualism to communitarianism and back, which they call an “I-we-I” curve.

Once again, 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 20th 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.

Some commentators have noted other major transformations that have taken place at different times in this period, ranging 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.  Some of this finds its way into The Upswing, but is there enough evidence to persuade the reader it is really “most fundamentally the self-centeredness” that accounted for present-day malaise?  Here’s one datum.

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 another curve like all the others.  Naturally, this has led to a spate of other analyses.  It appears  ‘we’ might be losing out to ‘I,’ but ‘community’ has substantially gained in popularity relative to ‘individual’ and writers also discuss ‘you’ more than ‘I’ these days.  Some of these comparisons could suggest ‘we’ is on the rise!

Am I mistaken in being entranced by Putnam’s books?  Trying to be honest with myself, I know I love this kind of overarching narrative.  Even though that’s the case, strangely enough some writers in the same vein can irritate me, as with Yuval Noah Harari and his two books, Homo Sapiens and Homo Deus.  Now there’s a writer who looks at the long arc of history.  His first book, Homo Sapiens, was generally thoughtful and interesting.  It covered the period from the emergence of human species 800,00 years ago up to the time when several different species still co-existed:  to my surprise it appears that was as recently as 70,000 years ago.  I liked his review of the emergence of language and what he called the ‘cognitive revolution’, followed by the agricultural revolution beginning around 10,000 BCE.  I was still enjoying his overarching narrative when we reached the scientific revolution, and link between science and the ambition to conquer.  The final revolution he covered was the industrial revolution, but then he lost me.  I couldn’t agree with his view the only choices worth considering today as genetic engineering, cyborg engineering, or a world where homo sapiens is surpassed.

Homo Deus was far less satisfying.  In this book Harari is locked into a series of contestable ideas:  we are driven by our bodies (happiness is when dopamine is released); our minds work by running algorithms; we aspire to live forever, etc. The underlying assumption is that we are creatures of our biology, driven by the processing machine called the brain, and especially by a set of neural algorithms.  Quite happily he proposes there is no evidence to support the idea of a soul, and from then on it is assumptions and weak arguments.  He ends with three questions:  Are organisms just algorithms? What is more valuable: intelligence or consciousness? What happens when highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we do?

There is an overwhelming feeling Harari has run out of new things to say, perhaps because he is a historian, not a prophet!  There is a sense he is writing for the affluent, techno-enabled elite.  We can subdue famine, pestilence and war, Harari argues, so now we should train our sights on higher objectives.  Eternal happiness.  Everlasting life.  This is a future in which small, breakaway republic of superhumans and techno-elites will eventually split off from the rest of humanity.  Those who acquire the skills and proprietary algorithms to re-engineer brains, bodies and minds will become like gods; those who don’t will become superfluous,  economically useless, and die off.  This kind of dystopian vision always rests on so many questionable assumptions.  We don’t have free will, and never did, a philosophical question that Harari insists on treating as settled. Another is that humans will shed their collaborative, social instincts, the one which, as he stressed in Sapiens, is what made us so successful in the first place!  I guess I don’t like Harari’s view of the future, and I concede my preference for Putnam may be because he suggests a personally more acceptable vision of humanity, one based on collaboration and networks.  I’m not sympathetic to biological determinism.

Following my usual reading pattern of combining non-fiction with murder mysteries and fantasy novels, I had been reading the fourth, and apparently final, book in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, The Galaxy and the Ground Within.  Putting together a few sentient beings from wildly different galaxies, united briefly by the threat of a major dislocation to their travel plans and even their lives, the novel is an exploration of how community can emerge in the face of diversity. Each character needs a different atmosphere, different food, and even possesses different priorities and perspectives. However, like a group facing a murder in an Agatha Christie country house, each needs to communicate with the others, and their situation demands they work together.  Like the very best Science Fiction, the story is really about emotions: love, fear, anger, and cooperation.  The oddities of the characters (and they are very different in almost every way you can imagine!) disappear in the face of a clever novel about hopes, friendships, and complicated pasts.

Becky Chambers uses an imagined future to speak to us about collaboration and commitment.  It is a world Harari seems to ignore, as he lauds technology and future ways to improve on poor old Homo Sapiens.  Putnam gets it, but if his books sell well, in part it is because they are novels, too.  He reminds me of Joyce Carol Oates’s skill in storytelling, with that same ability to explain through anecdotes, moments and events.  He makes his reader focus on what is going wrong but leavens each account with telling examples to encourage us to want to achieve more, to restore social capital, to build a worthwhile world for the future.

For much of his career Putnam’s focus has been on exploring what went wrong, and why. Bowling Alone documents the decline of social capital, and his second, book, Our Kids, adopted the same approach as Nicholas Kristof did in Tightrope.  For that account he visited his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio.  There he found growing inequality and the fading of the American dream  from one generation to the next to write about.  In it he laid out the elements of an agenda for change, but it wasn’t particularly positive.

Upswing is far more hopeful.  Although it is concerned with exploring and seeking to understand the ways in which American life has been steadily unravelling, his book offers ways to find a path back.  In part this is consequence of beginning the account at the turn of the 20th Century, a choice that allows Putnam and Garrett to describe a time when life in the United States was broadly improving, when the majority of children could expect to earn more and live better than their parents, and when Congress was not wrecked by partisanship.  Garrett and Putnam write well, managing to sell a story about hope as much as charting a process of decline.  I found it hard to be critical when I was reading The Upswing, as I yearn to return to the kind of society where there is the opportunity for social progress, when American Presidents can come up with projects like the Great Society, and not just propose but implement them.  I can remember a past era like that, and, as I remember it, it was exciting, promising, a time for real optimism.  I want the world to be like that once more.

Have I been swept along by good story?  Even if we don’t precisely know the reasons for the upswing all those years ago, one happened.  Now would good time for another round of broad-based social progress.  What can we do to restore social capital in society?  It’s a question I will keep asking, as I hope we find ourselves experiencing another ‘Upswing’.