The talk was interesting. Putnam used all sorts of data as evidence that social capital is in decline. Church attendance is down, fewer people participate in Parent Teacher Organisations, few people go to public meetings. My argument is that most of these things are old fashioned views of how society should be, a sort of nostalgic view that all was wholesome and good in 1950’s America. I had the opportunity to quiz Putnam on this point.
I pointed out that he spoke of a "loss" that occurs as fewer people go to church yet, for many people, organised religion was a repressive or oppressive force in their lives. He ignored this, stating only that, in America, various social movements "wouldn’t have happened" had it not been for the church. I still don’t get it. Why must formal church attendance be viewed as inherently better than non-attendance, particularly where there may very well be positive aspects of NOT participating in organised religion?
Putnam claims that he doesn’t have a nostalgic view of the America of the 50’s yet, for all his evidence, he looks at the past as a baseline and, when the numbers go down, it’s suddenly evidence of a "loss". Use of the word loss is inherently negative so I find myself struggling to understand why he can’t simply use the word change.
Last week, in addition to getting married, going on a brief honeymoon and preparing to launch two very big new services as part of my day job, I also sent emails (via writetothem.com) to each of my elected local and national representatives voicing my opposition to a planned local development. In Putnams World, I didn’t attend a public meeting so my actions are off his civic participation radar. Yet I got replies from two county councillors, one city councillor, my MP, and the opposition Parliamentary candidate of another party – within days. I didn’t have the time to attend a public meeting, even if there had been one, I just used a different avenue to engage with government.
Things may have changed, and certainly Putnam’s evidence shows this, but it’s not necessarily a gain or a loss. The cup isn’t half empty or half full, it’s just sitting there being topped up with something else everytime someone takes a drink. If only I could have convinced Putnam…