PUTNAM, ROBERT (Social Science)


It has been a fundamental concern of the social sciences to understand the individual, societal, and governmental traits that enable a human community to thrive. The research of Robert D. Putnam is driven by a desire to understand the conditions for effective governance. Putnam has examined the question of how national traditions of ideological style affect political decision-making in books such as The Beliefs of Politicians (1973) and Bureaucrats and Politicians in Western Democracies (1981). In Hanging Together (1987) and Double-Edged Diplomacy (1995) he also looked at how political leaders negotiate within the constraints of domestic political opinion and national interest to develop international agreements that are beneficial to all signatories.

Putnam is best known, however, for his work on the ways in which an active community—one characterized by a high level of social capital—contributes to the welfare of society and the effectiveness of government. Following Putnam’s lead, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank have each issued reports on how social capital can assist economic development in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, and eastern Europe. As Putnam noted wryly in the epilogue to his book Bowling Alone (2000), he went overnight from being an "obscure academic" to being a guest of presidents and prime ministers and appearing on talk shows and in the pages of People magazine.

In Bowling Alone Putnam defines social capital as "social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them" (p. 19). Like financial, physical, and human capital, stocks of social capital can be built up or drawn down. Putnam finds that the accumulation of social capital in America is rapidly dwindling. His metaphor for the reduction of organized social networks, that Americans are now "bowling alone," is emblematic of their reduced willingness to engage with others for purposes ranging from community improvement to pursuing a hobby.

Putnam’s first sustained treatment of the effects of social capital centered on Italy. Despite the equalization of financial resources available to Italian regional governments, some are far better than others in developing effective policies. Putnam discovered that those regions with a high level of social capital—including active participation in politics, widespread feelings of solidarity, trust and tolerance, and a social structure rich in associational life— enjoy more effective governance because they create an active partnership between government and society. Where social networks are widespread, Putnam notes in Making Democracy Work (1993, p. 113), "light-touch government is effortlessly stronger because it can count on more willing cooperation and self-enforcement among the citizenry."

Putnam’s work in Italy led him to consider declining social capital in the United States. Over the last generation, America has experienced sharp declines in citizen participation in politics, in active membership in all manner of clubs and associations, in church membership and attendance, in involvement in unions and professional associations, and even in social gatherings and family dinners. We have become a spectator society, more likely to support community purposes through our checkbooks than through direct involvement. In Democracies in Flux (2002), Putnam and his colleagues found that other countries have also experienced declines in social capital. The United States is distinctive because the loss of connectivity and participation began earlier and has been steeper than elsewhere.

The immediate impact of a growing disconnection among family, friends, and neighbors is to reduce the quality of social and political life. Growing levels of political distrust and alienation, declining satisfaction with one’s life, the physical decay of cities, and increases in crime, teen pregnancy, and mortality rates are all associated with diminishing social capital. As Putnam notes in Bowling Alone, "Weak social capital fosters the symptoms of social disintegration, such as crime and poverty, and those symptoms in turn further undermine social connections" (p. 287).

Critics have pointed out that the concept of social capital levies a special responsibility to understand social networks in poor communities, and for that matter in any community not organized in ways characteristic of predominantly white, middle-class neighborhoods. The constraints of income, leisure, and social amenities make it likely that poor communities will lag in social capital formation compared to wealthier areas. There are alternative forms of social organization in poorer communities, though, and understanding social capital formation in such areas requires an appreciation of forms of association and collaboration that may be quite different from those characteristic of middle-class communities. Cultivating a broad understanding of social capital formation has always been an objective of Putnam’s, implied in his juxtaposition of reading clubs with bowling leagues as two effective forms of association.

Some observers have pointed to a "dark side" of social capital. A tightly knit community is a community of control. When you know the religion, ethnic background, and political beliefs of everyone in your neighborhood, and when your neighbors know yours, there is pervasive pressure for homogeneity. One who does not (or cannot) conform remains an outsider. The same social networks identified by Putnam as creative of social capital— churches, clubs, social and civic organizations—are identified by Antonio Gramsci as structures that maintain the hegemony of the dominant group (Gramsci 1971).

Although communities with tightly knit social networks may be less tolerant, it is possible to combine highly developed social networks with collaborative attitudes toward people outside those networks. This is a phenomenon Putnam calls the "bridging" form of social capital. In Better Together (2003) Putnam recounts a number of strategies community leaders use to develop community networks that form bridges over existing social divides.

Given the significance of social capital for human welfare, it is important to know how stocks of social capital can be increased. Putnam’s work on Italy demonstrated that regional variations in social capital remained strikingly similar for over 800 years, despite massive changes in government, society, and economy. His more recent work on the United States, however, emphasizes the positive effects of people’s efforts to organize on behalf of some cause that will improve their lives. People do not set out to build social capital, but trust and social networks are nonetheless created as a by-product of person-to-person contacts that occur in the process of working for a common goal. Trends in social capital, like trends in financial or human capital, feature growth sectors even in a general context of stagnation or decline. Robert Putnam’s work aids in the identification of what concerned citizens can do to increase the extent of interpersonal connectivity and trust in their societies.

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