Robert Putnam on the decline of civic life

IF ANYONE HAS ever put to the test Andy Warhol’s famous thesis that everyone is accorded 15 minutes of fame, it is Robert D. Putnam. A former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Putnam is an expert on international diplomacy and comparative politics. Though well respected for works such as his 1993 book Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Putnam was little known outside of the academy prior to his 1995 article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” The 13-page paper — presented at an obscure conference in Uppsala, Sweden, and published in the equally obscure Journal of Democracy –– seemed an unlikely path to stardom. Still, Putnam’s argument that civil society has declined over recent decades — as evidenced by lagging participation in civic activities, declining membership in fraternal organizations, and waning trust in fellow citizens — struck a deep chord in the popular culture.

What was, in essence, an intellectual trial balloon landed Putnam in the pages of People magazine. And his vivid ten-pin metaphor — derived from the observation that “more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted” — set off hand-wringing from coast to coast about America’s declining sense of community. Putnam says he has received “thousands of letters from just ordinary people,” which he attributes to a “shock of recognition.”

“I had inadvertently stumbled onto a problem that many, many Americans felt privately but had not articulated publicly,” says Putnam. “Many people knew that their dad had belonged to the Masons and their mom had belonged to Hadassah and they didn’t, or their parents had gone regularly to PTA meetings or to church socials or whatever and they didn’t. They also didn’t feel comfortable about the fact that they were not connecting with their community the way they once did, or they weren’t having as many friends over to the house, or they weren’t maybe even eating dinner together as often as they remembered their parents eating dinner together. All of that seemed to each of us-because I include myself in that category-a purely private problem. I learned that I had stumbled into something that was actually much bigger than I had any idea [it was] when I started the research.”

Putnam also paid a price that comes with fame: “Bowling Alone” drew criticism like a lightning rod. For every example of declining “social capital” Putnam enumerated (falling voter turnout, declining church attendance, increasing scarcity of Boy Scout troop leaders), critics offered counter-examples of blossoming civic virtue (rising rates of volunteerism, increasing flows of charitable donations, burgeoning membership in youth soccer leagues). “Bowling Alone” may have been, in the words of one reviewer, “one of the most cited pieces of scholarship ever published in the social sciences,” but it was also one of the most picked over.

Putnam has waited — and worked — five years to respond. The result is a book-length rejoinder, also titled Bowling Alone. He has taken all the criticism in, but only a portion of it to heart. “From the critics, I learned that there were many, many forms of ways of which people could connect, of which my original article had touched on only a few,” says Putnam. “Maybe we’re not going to the Elks Club but we’re going to Alcoholics Anonymous or we’re going to New Age poetry groups or we’re standing on the sidelines while our kids play soccer or maybe we’re becoming more involved in the women’s movement.” This line of quibbling caused Putnam to seek out, and in some cases stumble over, new sources of data on the ways Americans use their time and expend their energies. But he found nothing that changed his mind that America’s social capital was dwindling.

“It turns out that the original article was wrong only in that it underestimated the depth and breadth of the changes,” says Putnam. “When we got this fuller information on, you know, groups that hang out in bars and groups that play ball, and ways in which we connect with our friends and neighbors and even our family, the trends are actually even more widespread and deeper than I had originally expected.”

Whether the book will have the same socially cathartic effect the article had five years ago is unclear. But Putnam’s brief celebrity-and notoriety- was enough to convince him he had a responsibility not only to name the problem but to point toward solutions. To that end, Putnam has established the Saguaro Seminar — named for a desert cactus that grows underground for decades before sprouting its robust trunk — a Kennedy School program that brings together thinkers and doers to explore ways of restoring America’s civic connectedness. “This problem, when it is solved, will be solved by lots of ordinary people discovering how to reconnect in their own lives and then sharing that information with others,” says Putnam. “But maybe if academics work with practical people, we can come up with some new ideas more quickly.”

CommonWealth discussed those ideas and his new book with Putnam in his Cambridge office. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length.



CommonWealth: You make the case that there has been a decline in what you call “social capital,” the connections between individuals that create and enhance civic life. Voter turnout is down; membership in local and chapter-based organizations is down, replaced by Astroturf lobbies in Washington surviving on mailing lists; church-going is down. We even spend less time socializing with friends and neighbors. What do you think are the most telling indicators of social decline?

Putnam: Well, partly, of course, the measures of participation in what you might call official community life-that is, the frequency with which we go to public meetings-is down by about 40 percent. I don’t mean town meetings; I mean just going to any meeting with other people where you talk about local affairs. I think that’s a pretty powerful statement of the fact that we’re not talking with other folks about our shared concerns, whether it’s the quality of schools or what to do about the overruns, the costs of the Big Dig, or what to do about the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s financial troubles. All those kinds of problems that mainly concern all of us, we’re not talking with other people about. That, I think, is a sad commentary on our civic life.

But in some sense, I’m more struck by [declines in] quite homely, quite ordinary forms of connectedness. When I found the evidence that there’s been a collapse in playing cards together, that really struck me because card playing is very common in America. Even today the average American plays cards three times more often than he or she goes to the movies. So playing cards is a big deal. And playing cards is one of those things which we do for fun with friends, informally. But when you’re playing cards, you’re not just sitting there looking at the cards, you’re talking with other people. It’s another occasion in which we can chat with other people about our lives and their lives and our shared lives. And we discovered that the frequency of playing cards was collapsing, down about 60 percent over a 20-year period.
I suppose the single most striking fact was that families were having dinner together less often. There has been a decline of about one-third in the frequency with which families have dinner together. We’re even eating alone now, mostly eating alone in front of the television. Those kinds of changes suggested to me this was not a matter of, “I’m upset with Bill Clinton” or “I’m upset with Watergate so I stopped taking part in politics.” It’s saying, in our ordinary, everyday lives we’re not connecting with people in ways that we used to.

CommonWealth: I wonder what the impact of changing norms of family life has to do with that. I think there are fathers who, a generation ago, would have thought nothing of spending the evening at the Elks Club or the local barroom and meeting with other people, because they felt no particular obligation to spend the evening at home. Whereas I think today, among younger parents anyway, they feel a very different obligation. After being away at work all day, maybe working so late that they’re not eating dinner with the family, they reserve some measure of that time for home life.

Putnam: Well, I’m very sympathetic to the challenges that face young parents today. Both of my kids are married and both of them have kids. We observe our own kids raising their children and the struggles that all of them have, because both my son and his wife and my daughter and her husband all work, so I understand exactly the problem you’re talking about. And I admire the way in which young families nowadays are trying to square the circle and do all the things that they should be doing. That said, I have to say that, as a general matter, it isn’t true that we’re spending more time with our family. There’s really some striking evidence that we uncovered about trends among people who have children still at home. The frequency with which a family takes a vacation together, for example, has fallen from 53 percent of Americans who said they took a vacation together with their family in the last year, in the 1970s, to 38 percent today. The fraction of people who say that they typically watch TV with their family has gone down significantly. The fraction of parents who say that they just spend time talking to their kids has gone down. So the evidence is pretty clear. Although I’m sure you’re right, some families are trying really hard and conscientiously to focus their attention on their families, it’s not true across America as a whole that parents are spending more time with their family and kids than your dad did. Indeed on average, the average American parent is spending less time with his or her kids than their own parents did.

CommonWealth: Let’s talk about the causes of civic decline. You line up a great many potential suspects and then, one by one, either indict them or exonerate them. You dismiss, for instance, the entry of women into the work force as a cause, likewise the rootlessness that comes with a highly mobile society. You do identify a number of other factors as having a more minor effect-pressures of time and money, including the rise of two-career families, and suburban sprawl, which eats up hours in commuting and disassociates work life from community life. These seem as if they might very well be much bigger factors in the time and energy crunch that can have an impact on social capital. Why do you see them as having more marginal effects?

Putnam: Well, you’re right. In Murder on the Orient Express, the crucial thing about solving the mystery is that everybody did it, and this mystery is a little bit like that. There are multiple assailants, not a single cause of the problem. I went into the research really quite unsure as to which of the suspects would have some guilt and which would be innocent. Exactly as you report, you can discover an effect of two-career families and the work crunch they’re under. It has an effect but it’s much smaller than I would have guessed or that most people would have guessed. It’s only about 10 percent of the overall problem, not more than that. Now, you asked me how do I know that it’s such a small part of the problem, and the answer is you can isolate groups in this society that should have been unaffected by those trends. For example, if you look at civic engagement among bachelors in the 1970s-among unmarried men, in other words-and then look at [civic] engagement among unmarried men in the 1990s, those are people who are not working any longer hours, they don’t have family obligations and, nevertheless, among those in that group, there has been a substantial decline, just the same degree of decline there has been in the rest of the population.

Or look at the category we call “traditional moms.” That is a category of people who are women who are married with a family who do not work outside the home and who are in reasonably good financial shape. These are the people, in a way, who have not taken part in the women’s revolution in the sense of going out to work and increasing the time stress on the family. Even in that category, among traditional moms, there has been a very substantial decline in PTA membership and other forms of civic engagement. So when you look at categories of Americans who ought to have been insulated from these trends, they, too, show essentially the same downturn. That suggests that we have not really isolated the [causal] factors when we look only at pressures of time and money.

For sprawl, the same thing is true. It is true that the level of disengagement is related to commuting time. The factoid here is that every 10 minutes of additional commuting time cuts all of our forms of social connection by about 10 percent. Ten minutes more commuting time means 10 percent less church-going, 10 percent fewer dinner parties, 10 percent fewer public meetings, 10 percent fewer dinners with your family, and so on. So that also has a visible effect. But you can discover the downturns even among people who do not commute. So my basic conclusion is that those are accessories after the fact. They are not the main culprits in the crime.

CommonWealth: A bigger culprit, you find, is television. We used to take our entertainment out of the house, in the company of others. Now we air out our minds in front of the tube, often by ourselves, mostly watching programs that deepen our social disengagement and often that give us little pleasure. If TV watching is so terrible for us individually and as a society-and we’ve been told that by any number of social critics, who link TV to everything from violence to obesity-why do we do so much of it?

Putnam: That’s an excellent question. The first thing I want to say is I did not begin as a cultural grouch on this point. Indeed, I was astonished when I first discovered that television was part of the story, and I frankly resisted it because I didn’t like being in the position of being the grinch who stole the TV. But the evidence in my own work gradually persuaded me that this is a really powerful factor in pulling us out of our communities and, as you say, bringing us home in front of the tube. Why do we do it? Well, I think there are several reasons. For one, it’s really cheap, because once you’ve bought the TV, it essentially costs nothing, compared to going out to the movies, much less taking part in other forms of civic involvement. Secondly, it’s really easy. It’s all just pushing one button, flopping on the couch. Thirdly, you don’t have to coordinate with anybody else. All of those forms of connectedness that require coordinating your life with somebody else’s life–if you’re going to a meeting and you’re the only person there, it’s not a meeting–are down a whole lot. Even meeting somebody for the movies requires coordination. But TV doesn’t require that. You can do it by yourself very easily, very cheaply. And frankly, I’m not trying to be holier than thou. If I find myself really zonked one evening after a long day of work, sitting in front of the TV and just letting it pass in front of me is really a lot easier than trying to get up and go out to the bowling league.

CommonWealth: The biggest cause that you find in this decline is generational change. Essentially, a long generation of joiners is giving way to succeeding generations of Baby Boomers and Generation Xers who show little of the same drive for this kind of involvement, even as they are hitting the ages in their lives when you would expect them to be taking up the cudgels of civic obligation. But I wonder if that doesn’t beg the question. It doesn’t explain why that long generation was so civic and why the Boomers and Xers don’t seem to be growing into that same level of civic responsibility and activity.

Putnam: Yes, you’re absolutely right, it’s one of the not-entirely-solved aspects of this mystery story. I completely agree with that. We know parts of why there are the generational differences. We know, for example, that television itself is some part of the story. The long civic generation that you described-the generation of people who came of age during the Great Depression and during World War II and who have all their lives been really very civic-that generation was the last generation to grow up without television. The next generation grew up with television and that was part of the reason why the Boomers and the Xers differ from their predecessors.

A second reason, I think, was the experience of going through World War II. There’s pretty good evidence-not just in World War II but in previous wars in American history and in other countries-that wars, though they are horrible in many respects, do have the effect of reinforcing a sense of national community. After every major war in American history, there has been a boom in civic involvement. The boom after World War II was much bigger than any of the previous booms, but it followed the same pattern. All those victory gardens that kids planted and all the scrap iron they collected during World War II reflected, in effect, the exercising of community habits, exercising the skills and habits and values of working with other people on a shared goal. I’m not for a second arguing that what we need now is a great war to recreate American community, but I am saying that one of the side effects of World War II was this massive injection of community spirit and community habits and community vitality into the American bloodstream. Of course, we’ve had wars after World War II, but they had nothing like the same unifying effect. Vietnam, of course, did not have that same unifying effect.

But there may be other parts of this mystery. In fact, I think there probably are other parts of the mystery that I have not completely solved. This is a mystery story for which I think I’ve gotten most of the major suspects into the lineup but I’m not convinced yet that I’ve uncovered all of them.

CommonWealth: The one hopeful note that you found on the generational front is at least some evidence of increased volunteering among the “Echo Boom” generation, the youngest of today’s adults. Is there anything that you see that suggests to you that these children of the Boomers will provide an upturn in social capital?

Putnam: It’s the single most hopeful sign in the entire book. Without question, there has been a modest but significant increase in volunteering among people who are currently in their early 20s. It’s not true, actually, for people who are in their 30s. People who are in their 30s today are volunteering less than people in their 30s did a generation ago. But people in their early 20s are volunteering more. There’s a lot of debate among specialists in this field as to why that is. There are at least three possible reasons. One is-and the one that some of my Harvard undergraduates confess privately might be part of it–résumé building. In order to get into a good school like Harvard, they figure you’ve got to do volunteering; it makes you look a little better. And if that’s the explanation, of course, it probably isn’t going to last and it may not be such a significant phenomenon.

A second reason is that many school districts and even a few states around the country are requiring community service as part of getting a high school or a college degree. That is surely part of the story; there’s no doubt about it. Part of the reason there has been this upturn is that many people are having to do this just in order to graduate from school. I wouldn’t be dismissive of that because it may be that this is a habit that they’re learning. Many good habits of our lives we first of all had to do and then gradually came to realize we enjoyed doing. The third possibility, of course, is that there may be just some natural rebirth of idealism in this latest generation. I think that may be part of it, too.

However, I’d also add that so far the boom in volunteering, welcome though it is, is seen largely in individual terms. That’s the way one of my students described it: “I go off, spend an afternoon tutoring some underprivileged child in Roxbury, and then I come back to Harvard and the rest of my week goes on the way it is.” That is, people don’t see these as occasions for making enduring connections, as the bridge across barriers in our society that implicate us in a more continuing way in broader community issues. And young people today are really quite turned off about politics and broader community issues. Now I have some hope that gradually-this is the thin edge of the wedge-that gradually people will see that the only way you can enduringly help the underprivileged kid in Roxbury is to actually get involved in community action and politics. This may be the early robin of a spring that will then blossom later.

CommonWealth: Now, even though you argue that the decline in social capital across the country has been a fairly uniform process, you do find considerable regional variation in extent of civic capital and civic involvement (see State of the States, p. 25). Massachusetts and New England as a whole don’t come out too badly in comparison. We’re not quite as virtuous as the upper Midwest and the Dakotas–though I note that these are some of the most sparsely populated states in the country that seem to be so civically engaged–but we’re up there in a second tier with the Pacific Northwest, and above the mid-Atlantic states and California, which are sort of middling, and far ahead of the South, which seems to be the most deprived of social capital. In what ways is our stock of social capital in New England and Massachusetts richer than in some other parts of the country?

Putnam: A large part of it, frankly, is that we have inherited from our predecessors of this part of the country–and when I say predecessors I mean both the Pilgrims and the Irish immigrants and the Italian immigrants and more recently other immigrant groups–we have inherited a pretty significant commitment to public spiritedness. When John Winthrop spoke about the “city on the hill” that was to be established here, he was talking about a kind of a collective responsibility for our welfare, and that still plays a role in the political culture of Massachusetts. We often think of the heroes in American history as being great heroic individuals–Paul Revere riding out to warn folks in Lexington, where I live, of the coming of the British. We don’t as often think about the fact that it was, in my jargon, social capital that enabled the folks in Lexington to connect with one another, to rally on the green that cold April morning and to defend what was to be the United States. If you look at the history of that ride, those towns that had dense networks of engagement, where there had been trust and connectedness among the citizens, were the ones who showed up when Paul Revere and Rev. Dawes issued their call. There were a couple of other towns in the area–I won’t name them–which actually did not have a well developed network of connections and didn’t have a local militia and they were AWOL that morning. What I’m trying to say is Massachusetts–and New England in general–does have a quite strong history of civic involvement, of civic engagement, and those habits don’t die easily. So we’re the beneficiary of that inheritance.

CommonWealth: And it does us some good, doesn’t it? You go through a substantial part of the book talking about the broad benefits of social capital. It’s not simply that we can hold our heads high on civics tests.

Putnam: That’s absolutely right. It’s one of the important things that I’m trying to convey in the book. This is not just a matter of warm, cuddly feelings. There are measurable ways in which our community’s health and our own health actually is directly affected by our social connections. Take schools, for example. If you’re worried about the quality of schools in your community, you have one of two strategies: You might increase by 10 percent the amount you spend on the schools-better teacher salaries or more computers in the school. Or [get] 10 percent more parents involved in school activities and involved in their kids’ education. The evidence is pretty clear that the additional parental involvement is actually a more effective strategy for increasing the quality of the schools. I am not for a moment saying we shouldn’t spend money on schools. My wife is a public-school teacher in Wellesley, so I have a vested interest financially in saying that we should invest in schools. I am saying that probably the primary reason why our schools don’t work so well as they once did is actually nothing that is happening inside the schools but rather the fact that parents are not connected with their kids’ education as once they were.

Or take crime. Again, the same basic story. If you worry about crime, you can either have 10 percent more cops on the beat or 10 percent more neighbors knowing one another’s first name, and all of the evidence suggests that it’s the neighbors knowing one another’s first name that has a greater influence on crime rate, not the cops on the beat. Again I’m not saying we don’t need cops. I am saying that social connection, social capital, has a powerful effect on the crime rate. It has very strong economic effects. It’s clear that people that have better connections are more likely to get good jobs and more likely to have faster career progression. Where the degree of social connectedness is higher, where there is a higher level of social trust and responsibility among people, the tax evasion rate is lower. So in many ways, our community institutions work much better when we are engaged with one another, when we trust one another, when we behave in a civic way.

But the most striking factor here, I think–and the one that usually captures most people’s attention–there are strong health effects. Physical health is powerfully affected by our social connections. The best evidence from many, many studies in this country and elsewhere is that controlling for your blood chemistry and how old you are and whether you smoke or not and whether you jog or not-all the standard risk factors-holding those constant, your chances of dying over the next year are cut in half by joining one group, cut in a quarter by joining two groups. These are big effects. The effect of social connectedness on your physical survival is about as great as whether you smoke or not.

The effects on our mental health are even more powerful. Many Americans don’t know that over the course of the last generation–the same period that I’m talking about in which there’s been this decline in social capital–there has been a tenfold increase in the clinically measured incidence of depression. This is not more folks going to shrinks. It’s not just that the barrier to going to see a psychiatrist has fallen, but clinically measured depression has increased tenfold–not 10 percent, but tenfold–over this period. And social isolation is a very strong risk factor for depression. So, it’s not just that schools will be better and crime will be lower and the economy will work better if we have better connections. It’s that our own physical being, and, certainly, our own psychic being, is powerfully, measurably affected by these tendrils of connection that link us to the rest of the world. We are made to be social beings. We are not made to be isolated, sitting on a couch in front of a tube.

CommonWealth: I have to say that the book paints a relatively bleak picture of where our society is and where it’s going. But you do your best, late in the book, to look forward with some hope. One of the ways you do that is to draw a historical parallel, to look back at the Gilded Age of the late 19th century and see how civic life was falling apart then, too. America was going through a transformation from rural to urban society, families and social networks were disrupted by migration, income inequality was growing, foreign immigration gave rise to nativist fear and loathing. But the Gilded Age was followed by the Progressive Era, which provided a great burst of civic energy. In fact, the Progressive Era produced the panoply of organizations that has marked our American civic life for quite nearly a century, until the decline that you’ve documented in the book. Do you see reason to believe that our own Gilded Age, if that’s what it is, has within it the seeds of the next Progressive Era?

Putnam: There are these really deep parallels between the end of the 19th century and the end of the 20th century-driven, as you say, by a technological revolution then and now: then the industrial revolution, now the information revolution-that have rendered obsolete the ways that we had previously connected with one another. My first reason for optimism is I don’t see any reason for thinking that we can’t do once again-that is, our generation can’t do-what those folks did 100 years ago. They weren’t any smarter than we are; they weren’t any more worried about community life than we are. What it seems to me is required now, in part, is just a little self-confidence that we can actually address these problems.

The last time we went through this problem, we fixed it. We ordinary Americans, faced with a problem of eroding social capital at the end of the 19th century, created a whole new set of institutions, institutions that to our generation seem normal. I mean, God must have invented the Boy Scouts, right? No, a particular person at the beginning of the 20th century said, “Got a lot of kids here that don’t know their neighbors the way they used to on the farm. How about if we get them together in an organization we call the Boy Scouts.” And the same with Girl Scouts and the Red Cross and the League of Women Voters and the NAACP and Hadassah and the Knights of Columbus and the Urban League and the Rotary and Kiwanis. It’s actually hard to name a major civic institution in American life today that was not invented in this remarkable burst of social inventiveness at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century. And, precisely as you say, we lived for more than a century on the proceeds of that period of very intense social inventiveness.

Meet the Author

Now, the last time around, most of the solutions did not come from Harvard or Columbia or Yale or Chicago. They didn’t come, in other words, out of the great universities. They didn’t, frankly, even come out of the major metropolitan areas. They didn’t come out of New York or Washington. They came out of Peoria and Toledo and Galveston, where ordinary folks were trying to confront ordinary problems. We need to have a national conversation so that people in Taunton can learn from people in Toledo and can learn from people in Tulsa about how they are connecting. One of the things we’re doing here at Harvard is to provide a platform on which these civic inventors from various parts of the United States can get together. There are ideas that one hears from around the country-reading groups, for example, or dramatic decentralization of urban governments to really create vibrant neighborhood councils.

Or take a different example: Some very interesting experiments are going on in the use of the arts to bring people together. I don’t mean the arts as a spectator; I don’t mean just going to the [Museum of Fine Arts]. I mean groups that bring people together to do arts, to sing, to paint, to create sculpture, to dance together. One of the reasons why the practicing arts–I repeat, not the spectating arts, but the practicing arts–are so valuable is that, like sports, they are forms of connectedness that reach easily across the other divisions in American society. We tend to pray with people like us, but we can play with people quite unlike us. We can play ball in mixed racial leagues and in groups that cut across city and suburbs and so on… So I’m actually quite hopeful that we can, if we roll up our sleeves, be creative. I don’t know all of the answers; I don’t even know half of the answers. But I think there are a lot of smart people out there in America who, if they begin talking with one another about this issue, will be able to solve it.