Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community: Empirical Foundations, Causal Mechanisms, and Policy Implications
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in which he documents the decline in civic engagement, social connectedness and social capital, and sense of community among Americans. Putnam illustrates the devastating effects of these trends for America and Americans by focusing on five “illustrative” fields: child welfare and education, public safety and neighborhood organization, labor- market outcomes and economic performance, health and happiness, and democracy and democracy values. The chapter explains what social capital is and how it works before concluding with an assessment of several areas where scholars have fruitfully engaged or challenged Putnam’s theoretical contribution.
While the focus of Robert Putnam’s writing and research has spanned a number of fields, including comparative political elites, Italian politics, and diplomacy, he always seems to tackle the most pressing questions in the social sciences. For example, in his 1993 book, Making Democracy Work, he addressed the age-old question of why some democratic governments succeed while others fail. The findings from this project, which focused on regional governments in Italy, centered on the importance of civil society and civic engagement for the development of strong and effective political institutions. Building on these insights, Putnam very quickly published his now famous article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” in the Journal of Democracy. This article not only created an incredible stir among policy-makers, pundits, and political elites, but also provided the impetus for the 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Because the ultimate question in Bowling Alone is essentially a matter of public policy—What can be done to revive community and the stock of social capital in America?—it is this piece of Putnam’s collective works that will serve as the central focus of this chapter.
Building on his findings in Making Democracy Work, which connected civic virtue and the cumulative effects of choir groups and soccer leagues to the development of trust, civic engagement, and cooperation among Italian citizens, in Bowling Alone, Putnam shifts his attention to the United States and the question of what happened (p. 590) to civic and social life in our local communities over the past several decades. He wonders: “Is life in communities as we enter the twenty-first century really so different after all from the reality of American communities in the 1950s and 1960s” (p. 25)? Though Putnam brings more data to bear on this question than he did in the Journal of Democracy article or other similar essays,1 he arrives at the same answer in Bowling Alone: Yes! Indeed, bringing together an impressive array of indicators and evidence, Putnam devotes section II of the book (chapters 2–9) to documenting the waxing and waning of Americans’ social capital and civic engagement.2 While not all of Putnam’s graphs include trends for the entire twentieth century, those that do tend to show the same basic pattern (depicted in Figure 40.1): rising from a low baseline in the early 1900s and continuing until around 1930, dipping slightly during the Great Depression, climbing steeply through the 1940s and 1950s to a peak around 1960, and then declining gradually and steadily though the last decades of the twentieth century.3
In Bowling Alone, Putnam devotes considerable time and energy not only to documenting this trend, but also to explaining its causes and sources. In section III of the book he addresses the questions of how and why the US metamorphosized from a model of civic virtue and social connectedness to a nation of non-voters and non-joiners. While television is still part of the answer, the expanded set of data sources employed in Bowling Alone and Putnam’s more rigorous criteria for evaluating causal hypotheses in this research lead him to attribute only about 25 percent of the decline to television. He estimates that “suburbanization, commuting and sprawl” and the “pressures of time and money, including the special pressures on two-career families” each account for another 10 percent of the decline in social capital and that “generational change”—what Putnam defines as “the slow, steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren” (p. 283)—explains the lion’s share of the decline (more than 50 percent).
These findings, as well as Putnam’s meticulous documentation of the changing character of American society over the past several decades, are stimulating and provide much food for thought. However, it is really the second half of the book, sections IV and V, where Putnam addresses the critical policy questions of whether social capital matters for individuals and communities and what if anything, we can do to get it back. (p. 591) For this reason, my chapter focuses on how Putnam goes about addressing these policy questions and identifies what I see as some of the main strengths and weaknesses of his approach and analysis. As a disclaimer, I should note that Putnam’s tendency to focus on aggregate-level measures and macro-level processes and explanations is a bit at odds with my own approach, which is much more localized and micro-focused. Though I will put aside issues of local context and how variation in local conditions, legal and political frameworks, and cultural norms and expectations shape social processes and outcomes for now, in this chapter I do pay considerable attention to conceptual, theoretical, and empirical issues that I believe must be examined more critically at the micro-level. Indeed, throughout this chapter I will make the case for why a micro-foundation to the study and understanding of social capital is so essential, particularly for those of us interested in public policy and administration.
Social Capital: Outcomes, Relationships, and Mechanisms
Having documented the decline in civic engagement, social connectedness, and Americans’ sense of community more broadly, in section IV of Bowling Alone, Putnam sets out to document just why these trends are so devastating for America and Americans. He selects five “illustrative” fields—child welfare and education, public safety and neighborhood organization, labor-market outcomes and economic performance, health and happiness, and democracy and democracy values—and summarizes the literature and findings that examine the relationship between “social capital” and a variety of indicators measuring these outcomes. He draws on studies and findings that examine these relationships at the individual and aggregate levels, where aggregates vary from neighborhoods and schools, to states and even nations.
Across most of these fields, the research investigating the effects of social capital is relatively advanced. Thus, it is to be expected that his review of this research is neither systematic nor comprehensive. While in places, he devotes more time to articulating the causal mechanisms and specific components of social capital that underlie the substantive outcome of interest, his purpose appears to be to illustrate the broad array of outcomes that are linked to social capital and to highlight just how pervasive this concept is across all of the social sciences. A clear strength of this section is the way it uses the concept of social capital as a vehicle to demonstrate the interconnectedness of social science disciplines. For example, researchers in sociology, economics, public health, psychology, and political science, use indicators of social capital to explain outcomes such as SAT scores, the Kids Count Index of Child Welfare, violent crime rates, the employment status of inner-city black youths, housing values, life expectancy, tax compliance, to name just a few. Though we infrequently attempt to speak to audiences outside of our subfields or contemplate how our own work might contribute to larger (p. 592) processes or phenomena that span multiple subfields and even disciplines, Putnam shows us just how valuable these exercises could be.
Indeed, tackling the big questions and problems—as Putnam does in Bowling Alone—requires that scholars and researchers move outside their comfort zones and engage in more meaningful cross-disciplinary research and writing.4 Given the nature of our work, policy scholars are more apt to already be doing this, or to at least realize the value of this type of cross-fertilization. However, it remains more difficult (and less rewarded) than it ought to be, particularly given the pay-offs in terms of moving knowledge forward, increasing our capacity to tackle the biggest and most pressing questions, and ultimately providing critical evidence that could aid policy-makers and other practitioners as they devise programs and solutions to these problems.
While Putnam’s section IV is likely of most interest to policy scholars, it is the shortest and most superficial section in the book. Apart from summarizing many well-established areas of inquiry and highlighting some key findings, he does not engage this literature very rigorously, or offer much in the way of a plan for how future inquiry might proceed. The main purpose appears to be to answer the “So what?” question. Why should we care about social capital and its decline? Answer: Because it matters for practically everything important to us as humans and human societies!
The downside in this broad and relatively superficial approach to the concept of social capital in Bowling Alone is that it is so all encompassing that it tends to muddy and confuse the waters rather than add clarity and precision. This is a problem for section IV and the book more generally, since Putnam tends to lump myriad indicators of social capital—ranging from behaviors to attitudes to social structures—into a single construct and simplify what are in reality, complicated processes and relationships. Policy scholars and practitioners will likely find this approach limiting since they are especially interested in both identifying precisely which indicators of social capital are linked to which outcomes and understanding what mechanism(s) are at work This level of specificity would enhance policy makers’ ability to concentrate on the things that really matter, protecting and expanding programs and policies that appear to be working, eliminating or changing others that are not, and devising new ones to address problem areas or exploit new opportunities.
Given that the ultimate objective of the Bowling Alone seems to be in section V, where Putnam tackles the biggest question of all, “What is to be done?” there is indeed, an imperative to be more precise about indicators, relationships, and mechanisms. Otherwise, how can Putnam or the researchers and practitioners interested in policy change develop a set of tangible and doable steps for what individuals and communities can do to reverse the disturbing decline of social capital in America? For this reason, in the next section of this chapter I look more critically at both the dimensions and indicators of social capital and the relationships and mechanisms Putnam identifies and describes. This will lay the foundation for understanding (p. 593) whether and how Putnam’s answers to the “What is to be done?” question are appropriate and capable of addressing our social capital problem and thus what solutions might be developed for stemming or even reversing the depletion of social capital in American communities.
What is Social Capital and How Does it Work?
As the first sections of the book amply illustrate, Putnam conceptualizes social capital as multi-dimensional. By his account, it includes a wide range of social and political behaviors (voting, volunteering, joining, donating, talking, bowling) as well as attitudes and beliefs (trust, efficacy, tolerance). However, it also includes social structure (networks) and social resources (norms, obligations, information). In fact, Putnam emphasizes the role of social structure in the definition of social capital he provides in the opening pages of the book:
[S]ocial capital refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that rise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.
(Putnam 2000: 19)
Social capital is not simply a multi-dimensional concept, but a multi-level one as well. The broad range of individual-level attitudes and behaviors can be and customarily are, aggregated to create measures of social capital at the neighborhood, city, state, or even national level. Yet, according to Putnam’s own definition, this measurement approach might not be enough to capture the stock of social capital among groups, communities, and societies. In particular, because social structures and resources embody what Przeworski and Teune (1970) called “settings,” they are properties of collectives that cannot be observed at the level of individual at all. Indeed, social structures and resources are the most elusive component of the social capital story. They appear as indicators, mechanisms, and outcomes of social capital, depending on the question or context of Putnam’s writing. Yet, they are rarely operationalized and almost never measured. In short, we know almost nothing about them, despite the central role they play in Putnam’s description and analysis of social capital.
The complexity of the “social capital” construct raises significant problems from both a conceptual and empirical perspective. For example, how do we specify and test social science theory if we do not have a clear understanding of concepts and measures? How can we identify potential solutions and alter outcomes if we have not first clearly defined social capital’s component parts and specified how they are related to each other?
(p. 594) Table 40.1 lists the four major dimensions of social capital referenced by Putnam and provides examples of specific indicators of each. Putnam goes to extraordinary length when it comes to measuring the individual-level indicators over time. Yet as noted previously, when it comes to explaining what causes the waxing and waning of these indicators, Putnam’s focus is on macro-level factors rather than the specification of a micro-level theory.5 This is not to say however, that Putnam does not imply, and in many instances formally hypothesize about the relationships among and between micro-level phenomena. And though he may state that “The causal arrows among civic involvement, reciprocity, honesty, and social trust are as tangled as well-tossed spaghetti” (Putnam 2000: 137), the claims he makes in Bowling Alone and elsewhere suggest that some causal relations and processes are more favored than others.
For starters, it is clear in many of Putnam’s earlier articles that associational membership is the arena where he believes much of the social capital activity and formation takes place. According to Putnam, membership in voluntary associations fosters face-to-face interactions between members and creates a setting for the development of trust. While the process does not necessarily begin with joining and participating, Putnam repeatedly asserts that civic attitudes are developed and strengthened through social interactions that take place in formal organizations and settings:
• “Internally, associations instill in their members habits of cooperation, solidarity, and public-spiritedness. … Participation in civic organizations inculcates skills of cooperation as well as a sense of shared responsibility for collective endeavors” (Putnam 1993: 89).
• “Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others” (Putnam 2000: 288).
• “The theory of social capital presumes that, generally speaking, the more we connect with other people, the more we trust them, and vice versa” (Putnam, 1995b: 665).
It is not only formal involvement that matters however. Informal social interactions play a critical role in Putnam’s argument since they foster the development of (p. 595) attitudes—especially generalized trust—and the formation and maintenance of social networks and structures:
• “Frequent interaction among a diverse set of people tends to produce a norm of generalized reciprocity” (Putnam 2000: 21).
• “People who trust others are all-around good citizens, and those more engaged in community life are both more trusting and more trustworthy” (Putnam 2000: 137).
• “[I]nformal connections generally do not build civic skills in the ways that involvement in a club, a political group, a union, or a church can, but informal connections are very important in sustaining social networks” (Putnam 2000: 95).
• “Dense networks of interaction probably broaden the participants’ sense of self, developing the ‘I’ into the ‘we,’ or (in the language of rational-choice theorists) enhancing the participants’ ‘taste’ for collective benefits” (Putnam 1995a: 67).
• “People who have active and trusting connections to others—whether family members, friends or fellow bowlers—develop or maintain character traits that are good for the rest of the society” (Putnam 2000: 288).
Table 40.1 Components of the Social Capital Construct
Though Putnam never devotes much time or attention to the literature on social networks, they figure prominently in his causal thinking. Networks exist and are activated when two or more individuals engage in social behavior. In Bowling Alone he develops a stronger distinction between two particular types of networks: bridging (inclusive) and bonding (exclusive). These parallel Granovetter’s (1973) weak and strong ties and also incorporate in some respects, Coleman’s (1988) concept of closure. In any case, Putnam typically treats networks and social structure as the mechanisms that translate individual behaviors and attitudes into social resources and outcomes:
• “Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity” (Putnam 2000: 20).
• “Networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved” (Putnam 1995a: 67).
• “When people lack connections to others, they are unable to test the veracity of their own views, whether in the give-and-take of casual conversation or in more formal deliberation. Without such an opportunity people are more likely to be swayed by their worst impulses” (Putnam 2000: 288–9).
• “Bonding social capital is good for undergirding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity. … Bridging networks, by contrast, are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion” (Putnam 2000: 22).
• “Bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40. Bonding social capital, by creating strong in-group loyalty, may also create strong out-group antagonism” (Putnam 2000: 23).
(p. 596) While the causal relationships depicted have been examined, empirically scrutinized, verified, and refuted by scholars across many subfields and disciplines, a unified causal model capturing each of the four dimensions in Table 40.1 has not been fully specified or tested (for more on this, see Theiss-Morse and Hibbing 2005; Delhey and Newton 2003; Lin 1999). So while there is ample empirical evidence to support causal connections between each of these dimensions of social capital, there is also conflicting evidence, counter-arguments, and alternative theorizing. Putnam’s objective was not to engage this line of inquiry very rigorously. Yet not doing so leaves readers unsatisfied and still uncertain of how social capital works. I will highlight several areas where scholars have fruitfully engaged or challenged Putnam’s theoretical contribution, again keeping an eye on the fact that Putnam’s ultimate question in Bowling Alone is essentially a matter of public policy: “What is to be done?”
Challenges, Extensions, and Future Directions
First, much was written in the years between the publication of Putnam’s initial piece on social capital (Putnam 1995a) and Bowling Alone, critiquing Putnam’s argument that civic engagement and social interactions are solely or even primarily responsible for trust production.6 This criticism continues. For example, some scholars posit that sources of social interaction outside of associational life (e.g. school, family, work, and community) are equally, if not more important (Newton 1997; Mutz and Mondak 2006; Schneider et al. 1997; Delhey and Newton 2003). Others point to institutional and state sources of trust and cooperation (Berman 1997; Levi 1996; Tarrow 1996) or broader experiences and societal conditions (Whiteley 1999; Newton 1999; Inglehart 1999), while still others believe that social trust is primarily a personality trait learned early in life and only marginally subject to change from outside forces (Uslaner 1999; see also social psychology literature, e.g. Allport 1961). Thus, if we are to devise policies and devote public (or private) resources to stimulating the development of social capital, it is important to have a more accurate understanding of which interactions are most productive, the conditions under which they produce constructive attitudes such as social trust, and what the magnitude of these effects are under different conditions. Otherwise, policy-makers run the risk of investing scarce resources in civic organizations and programs to bolster membership and civic engagement to little or no effect.
Second, there is the sticky problem of the causal arrow. To be sure, people who are joiners and participators also generally trust others more. Does this greater trust lead them to participate? Does trust develop primarily as a result of involvement in civic and social organizations? Or is it some combination of both? While Stolle (1998) makes a rather strong case for self-selection (see also Rothstein and Stolle 2008; Stolle and Rochon 1998), others have specified and tested a reciprocal relationship between trusting and joining, finding mixed evidence (e.g. Claibourn and Martin 2000). For example, empirical findings from Brehm and Rahn (1997) support Putnam’s argument that building or maintaining social capital involves a cyclical process. However, the (p. 597) tight reciprocal relationship between civic engagement and interpersonal trust uncovered in their analysis is an asymmetric one. Specifically, they find the effect of civic engagement on interpersonal trust much stronger than the reverse effect. As they put it, participation is more efficient in bolstering positive impressions of others, and an ecology of trusting people may not be necessary to initiate the virtuous cycle (Brehm and Rahn 1997: 1017). From a policy perspective this finding is optimistic. Not only are many of the tools and mechanisms necessary for fostering civic engagement relatively well defined by political scientists (see e.g. Verba et al. 1995), but they are also better understood than those required for developing trusting attitudes among community members.
A third and related point concerns the nature of associational groups and memberships. As Rothstein and Stolle (2008) aptly note, even if the link between civic engagement and trust exists, not all associations serve a normatively desirable purpose. Indeed, Putnam’s initial failure to acknowledge this point—that groups are just as likely to promote intolerance and undemocratic values and thus are quite capable of creating “unsocial” capital (Levi 1996)—likely prompted him to devote an entire chapter in Bowling Alone to the “Dark Side of Social Capital.” Indeed, we do not need to search very hard to find examples of such groups in the United States. From cults to gangs to neo-Nazi or al-Qaeda groups and the KKK, there are many associations that nurture an inward-looking, segregating culture that is frequently characterized by intolerance and norms of obedience (see also Armony 2004; Theiss-Morse and Hibbing 2005). Therefore, this causal link in Putnam’s model must be given considerably more care.
Associations cannot be treated as black boxes that automatically produce positive externalities in the form of civic attitudes, democratic norms, or collective benefits. As an early advocate of this concern, Stolle (1998) cautioned that little was known about whether and how voluntary associations make their members more trusting and cooperative, whether trust and cooperative attitudes increase linearly with the length of time spent in any type of association, or whether these civic attitudes are a function of a particular type of involvement or a special type of group. While Putnam’s work has certainly inspired researchers to tackle these questions with renewed enthusiasm, a priority should be the advancement of micro-theory of social capital capable of explaining the role of membership in voluntary associations with respect to trust, norms of reciprocity, and collective attitudes.
The fourth point focuses on the connections among civic attitudes, social structures and resources. Putnam describes resources as collective assets that are embedded in social networks. He views them as the core element of social capital. However, with the exception of his delineation of bridging (weak) and bonding (strong) ties, he never pursues this piece of the puzzle. Nowhere in Bowling Alone does Putnam truly engage extant work on social networks and he offers little when it comes to the issue of how to measure the social structures that connect behaviors and attitudes to social resources and ultimately outcomes. What are these resources and how can we operationalize and measure them? Who possesses these resources and how are individuals within (p. 598) and outside the network situated vis-à-vis the individuals who possess them? How might the social networks of Americans have changed over the decades that Putnam has recorded declines in behavioral and attitudinal indicators of social capital? And what do the social networks of communities and societies look like in places that score high on Putnam’s Social Capital Index?7
In his article, “Building a Network Theory of Social Capital,” Lin (1999) addresses these questions in considerable detail, enumerating and describing the array of indicators that have been used by network scholars, summarizing the perspectives and controversies in the literature, and tackling the difficult issue of how to model social capital. Lin not only articulates how resources are embedded in social structure, but also explains what mechanisms are at work to enable individuals situated in networks with different forms, compositions, and sizes to access, utilize, and contribute to these resources. Lin’s work helps us to specify both theoretically and empirically how we might devise programs and policies to target social capital creation. In addition, Lin provides a much stronger framework for addressing Putnam’s vexing question about how contemporary modes of social interaction, namely social media, fit into the social capital debate. For example, in response to Putnam’s arguments regarding the decline of social capital in the US, Lin states that:
There are a number of conceptual (tautological) and measurement (what associations are relational) flaws one can find in this [Putnam’s] research program. In view of the dramatic growth of cybernetworks, a fundamental question can be raised: do cyber-networks carry social capital? If so, there is strong evidence that the declining thesis is false. I suggest that indeed we are witnessing a revolutionary rise of social capital, as represented by cybernetworks. In fact, we are witnessing a new era where social capital will soon supersede personal capital in significance and effect.
(Lin 1999: 45)
In short, research on social networks has much to say about and contribute to the ideas and claims Putnam makes in Bowling Alone. There seems to me a grave danger in leaving this critical component of the social capital story unspecified, as Putnam is so prone to do. Without anchoring the concept of social capital more clearly and unambiguously in social networks and embedded resources, its utility is questionable and, as Lin predicts, it is increasingly likely to fade away as an intellectual enterprise (Lin 1999: 48).
Putnam’s “What’s To Be Done?” A Policy Perspective
So, what is to be done? This is the ultimate question Putnam poses in Bowling Alone, and the one policy and public administration scholars are likely most anxious to finally get to. Putnam does not provide many hints about what this section will contain, (p. 599) and indeed, it comes largely as a surprise (at least to this reader!). It includes a rather lengthy chapter that uses the historical period of the Gilded Age (1870–1900) and the Progressive Era (1900–15) to illustrate how a similar national crisis during this period was overcome by the “great civic generation” through their inspired grassroots activism, national leadership, social inventiveness, political reform, and practical civic enthusiasm (Putnam 2000: 368). Having told the story of this “exceptional epoch,” Putnam concludes with a final chapter, “Toward an Agenda for Social Capitalists,” where he outlines six key spheres in which Americans—collectively and individually—can begin developing more concrete ideas and plans for how to move forward and restore American community for the twenty-first century. As he explains, these suggestions were informed by the Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, which brought together 33 accomplished thinkers and doers from all over the country (including Barack Obama), to deliberate about the ways in which our actions impinge daily upon social capital and how we might discover and invent new ways to connect and engage with each other (Putnam 2000: 404). As a spoiler alert to those who have not yet read the book, these are not policy recommendations! Instead, they are a set of milestones that Putnam believes Americans can and should achieve over the next decade. For example, he calls for us to find ways to ensure that by 2010:
[T]he level of civic engagement among Americans then coming of age in all parts of our society will match that of their grandparents when they were that same age, and that at the same time bridging social capital will be substantially greater than it was in their grandparents’ era. (p. 404)
America’s workplace will be substantially more family friendly and community-congenial, so that American workers will be enabled to replenish our stocks of social capital both within and outside of the workplace. (p. 406)
Americans will spend less time traveling and more time connecting with our neighbors than we do today, that we will live in more integrated and pedestrian-friendly areas, and that the design of our communities and the availability of public space will encourage more casual socializing with friends and neighbors. (p. 408)
To be sure, Putnam’s milestones are lofty and laudable. They reminded me of President Bush’s 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, which among other things, sought to have all American students achieve proficiency or better in reading and math by 2013–14 and all American students taught by highly qualified teachers by 2005–6. Like NCLB Putnam’s milestones have proved unrealistic and ultimately unobtainable. Writing this chapter in 2013, it is evident that we have achieved none of them. While we have certainly made progress in some areas, we have also lost ground in others. So, what happened? And what do we do now?
Stepping back for a moment, Putnam’s original essay in the Journal of Democracy definitely played an important agenda-setting role. Akin to Kingdon’s (1984) focusing event, the paper focused attention in a very compelling and simple way on a problem (p. 600) with which most people could identify. It generated considerable enthusiasm among academics, foundations, and public figures. In particular, there was widespread attention paid to renewing involvement in associational life. As Theiss-Morse and Hibbing (2005: 228) note, not only did foundations and institutes pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the study of civic participation, but academic communities also supported it through scholarships, required volunteering, and service-learning programs.
Unfortunately, Bowling Alone appears to have done very little to move the process along. The issue has receded from the public agenda and is not as fashionable among academics and foundations as it was a decade or so ago. In addition to the points I have made here, the contents of other chapters in this volume are sure to offer many valuable insights. Using the language of policy scholars, there are clear limitations in the way Bowling Alone addresses the problem definition and issue framing stages of the policy process. Putnam’s macro-level focus in diagnosing the causes of social capital decline not only makes the problem seem unapproachable and insurmountable, but the possible policy solutions often seem at odds with American’s core values of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For example, are there government programs or policies that could alter Americans’ TV viewing habits, make us (especially women) work less, or encourage some of us to earn or accumulate less wealth? Perhaps, but imagining how such policies could be framed is not easy. How about policies that alter our residential patterns so that we live closer to work or school or that redesign our cities and suburbs in ways that make them denser, less dependent on automobiles, and more friendly toward pedestrians? Or most obtusely, what about programs that would help us become more like our grandparents or great grandparents?
In short, framed as it is in Bowling Alone, the issue of American’s declining social capital is too big, too elusive, and frankly, too controversial. Instead of gaining momentum, it faded from public view. One might argue that this is at least in part due to the fact that the terms for policy debate were not concretely or explicitly established. In addition, Putnam did not offer any specific policy proposals in developing his agenda for social capitalists. Finally, he did not seem to have delegated any action items to his Segura Seminar participants. Unaware of what actions could or should be taken, stakeholders appear not to have taken up Putnam’s call to arms.
It is interesting that Putnam borrows the title from Lenin’s famous political pamphlet, What is to be Done? for the final section of his book. In Lenin’s version, however, strategy and action are the drivers for political and social change. Lenin views the creation of a unified, political party that would provide the necessary leadership and organization as essential to his revolutionary movement. Had Putnam’s agenda provided more strategy and specific action items for his social capitalists, perhaps an advocacy coalition (Sabatier 1988) or a set of issue networks (Heclo 1978) might have emerged and began to lobby more effectively for policy change. With the timeline Putnam set for the achievement of his milestones, it does appear that he was envisioning something more revolutionary (a punctuated equilibrium?)8 and less incremental. In any case, insights from other chapters in this volume will certainly provide more thorough answers as to (p. 601) why Putnam’s milestones have not yet been achieved and what he might have done differently in his attempt at agenda-setting.
Summary and Concluding Remarks
At the heart of Putnam’s Bowling Alone is the quest to address the pressing problem of the declining stock of social capital in America. As Putnam illustrated, this problem has the potential to adversely affect all facets of our lives—economic, political, social, psychological, physiological. Yet the limitations in Putnam’s approach to measuring and modeling social capital are a major stumbling block for Putnam’s project. In particular, he does not go far or deep enough into the matter of how the different dimensions of social capital are related to one another or which mechanisms are principally responsible for turning social connections and resources into socially desirable outcomes. For policy analysts and public administration scholars, this is a serious shortcoming. To formulate and evaluate public policies and programs it is imperative that we understand not only the problem, but also its causal dynamics, pathways, and mechanisms. If we are to devise solutions to the decline and disappearance of social capital in America, the micro-foundations of social capital development must be better articulated and empirically demonstrated.
At the same time, the concept of social capital has been critically important in getting scholars and policy-makers to pay more attention to the social processes and relationships that shape so many of the outcomes that matter to Americans and America. Putnam deserves a great deal of the credit for this. Through his steadfast commitment to the Bowling Alone project and his intellectual exuberance, his work has influenced social and even natural scientists of nearly every stripe. He has single-handedly fostered truly meaningful cross-disciplinary work and he has gotten us all thinking about the questions that truly matter. As policy and public administration scholars and practitioners continue to do the hard work of addressing Putnam’s question of “What is to be done?” we can draw on the ever expanding body of research that spans many disciplines and subfields. Indeed, thanks to Putnam and the cross-fertilization his work has inspired, we now have better tools and a broader view of just how important and urgent the work of social scientists and policy scholars is.
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(1.) e.g. Putman 1995(b).
(2.) e.g. membership rates in national chapter-based associations (p. 54), parent-teacher associations (p. 57), organizational involvement (p. 60), club meeting attendance (p. 61), union membership (p. 81), professional association memberships (p. 84), social visiting (p. 99), family dinners (p. 101), card-playing and other leisure activities (p. 105), “neighboring” (p. 106), informal socializing (p. 108), and, of course, bowling leagues (p. 112).
(3.) There are a few exceptions. For example, Putnam’s data show an increases in altruistic and charitable/volunteer activity as well as activity by evangelical conservative groups, self-help support groups, and other new small groups (for more on the implications of these counter-trends, see Shapiro 2001; Quesenberry 2002).
(4.) This comfort zone also encapsulates the incentive system of our profession, which tends to encourage more narrow and specialized research and publication outlets.
(5.) Specifically, he attributes the decline in social capital to Americans’ TV viewing habits, work habits and income levels, residential patterns, and the fact that the attitudes and behaviors of the “great civic generation” have not been exhibited at the same rate by subsequent generations of Americans.
(6.) Putnam acknowledges the “lively debate” in a footnote (ch. 8 n. 15), but notes only that it is important, yet complicated both theoretically and empirically, and only tangential to his concerns (p. 466).
(7.) e.g. figures 81–3, Putnam finds a linear relationship between this state-level index and the Kids Count Index (1995), an index of educational performance (1990–6) and TV watching by fourth and eighth graders (1990–4) (negative in this case). Presumably the networks of residents in these high-scoring states (e.g. SD, ND, VT, MN, MT, NE, IA) are different than those of residents in low-scoring states (e.g. MS, LA, AL, GA), but Putnam never pursues this line of inquiry.