Robert Putnam: after the talk

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 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…


  1. I don’t know man, I can think of some potential problems with your reading of Putnam’s argument.
    1. you seem to write Putnam off as “yet another” theorist blinded to reality by nostalgia for a mythical golden age. He is thus irresponsibly moralizing when these declines are painted as bad or “negative.” You say, “if you’re going to try to measure social capital in the way Putnam does, you have to view declines in formal membership in religious and social organisations as a bad thing.”
    I’m not so sure.
    You contrast video games, malls, getting high in the park, and email (the good) with boyscouts, sunday school, and PTA meetings (the bad or at least outdated).
    You then imply that we shouldn’t be concerned with decreasing “old fashioned” things like church attendance because, for example, organized religion has often been oppressive/repressive, and so it’s loss is practically a good thing. While I could argue for the intrinsic “goodness” of organized religion, I’ll just say that Putnam was probably thinking in terms of social and cultural capital when he spoke of a “loss” involving decreasing church attendance: people who do not attend literally have smaller networks and fewer opportunities for the kinds of social and cultural learning, norm-negotiation and maintenance, and a variety of other social “goods” than people who do attend regularly.
    2. Granted, some of Putnam’s indicators of social capital are at best ambiguous and at worst meaningless. But I’d say that about maybe 2 or 3 of them; for the rest I’m not so sure your criticisms are valid. A common thread in your criticisms seems to be that “because I did the online version of X, therefore X is not in decline.” Yes, online activities that are socially meaningful have been taking over for the “old-fashioned” kinds of social activity – the kinds involving face-to-face interaction. But that, I would say, is exactly consistent with Putnam’s point. People are turning to computer-mediated interaction in part BECAUSE more traditional forms of interaction are becoming more scarce.
    You (admirably) are involved in various social and political pursuits via email. Certainly this is better than apathy, but I would question whether your type of engagement really infuses you with the kinds of capital someone who actually goes to meetings gets. Alone at your computer, with one-on-one email interactions, there is no opportunity for group effects on sociality – no negotiation, no small talk with other attenders, no way to observe how the political processes actually work interpersonally.
    Same goes for the boyscouts: sure, video games serve some similar social functions. However participating in something like scouts or sunday school offers a structured social environment that is much more comprehensive and more fundamentally social than smoking pot in the park. You can learn lots of valuable social and cultural lessons in such a structured environment.
    Also, have you checked out the work of Dmitri Williams?
    I saw him give a talk over the summer at GLS, wherein he examined data about MMORPG players in order to evaluate Putnam’s argument. Some of his findings may shed some light on what you see as problems in Putnam.
    One of his main points is that, Putnam talks about 2 types of activities: bridging and bonding. Bonding tends to happen horizontally – we bond with our local companions who are like us. Bridging is more vertical – we bridge when we form connections with others unlike ourselves. Bridging, Putnam would say, is on the increase, while bonding is on the decrease. Thus, Dmitri shows how MMORPG players, driving from bonding by “bowling alone” forces, turn to the internet and online games for their social interaction, and once there it is easier to bridge than to bond (because geographic proximity is less important, meaning it is easier to interact with people from different environments and different cultures who may introduce us to new ideas). As you say, then, there is a *change* in how we socially interact, though I don’t think that is inconsistent with Putnam so long as you don’t attrubute naive moralizing to him.
    All that said, I like your blog and read it often. I wish I would have stumbled on this post in time to post some questions for you to ask Putnam. Oh well, keep up the good work!

  2. Hi Jeff. You make some good points in your comment and I’ll have to take the time to address them properly when I get the chance (I’m just back from holiday). I think the main point I was trying to make about Putnam is that his arguments always place value judgements upon different types of social interaction. Participation in organised religion, for example, is always viewed as positive yet there are plenty of people out there who, every single time they participate in an organised religious activity, find it negative. But Putnam would ignore this, thinking it’s a positive thing to be involved in organised religion. I think this approach is blind to the different ways in which participants can view various social interactions – the Boy Scouts, Church Membership, PTA meetings: all of these can and are negative experiences for some people and do nothing to help them increase their social capital, much less their mental and emotional wellbeing.
    Thanks again for your comments – a lot to think about and I’ll take a stab at replying properly soon!

  3. People who come from traditions outside of organised religion tend to view it as ‘bad’, people who come from traditions within organised religion tend to view it as ‘good’ or positive. It’s a fact of culture.
    But the interesting demographic are the ones that change sides, the ones that change their opinion. Putnam’s comments seem to suggest that the trend is away from religion and no one seems to disagree.
    Wouldn’t this suggest that Putnam’s views are nostalgic since the trend is away from religion?

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