Of declining sociability

Published : Oct 28, 2000 00:00 IST

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D Putnam, Simon and Schuster, New York, London etc, 2000; $26.

ROBERT PUTNAM is a Professor of Politics at Harvard University. He achieved fame with the publication of Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton University Press, 1993), and then celebrity status in 1995 when he publishe d an article with the same title as his recent book - 'Bowling Alone', which turned out to be an extraordinarily evocative metaphor for the state of contemporary American society. Making Democracy Work was described in a review in The Economist (of London) as "the most important work of social science since Pareto and Max Weber", and it set rolling the band-wagon of 'social capital' which is now running amok through the social sciences, as well as in the corridors of the World Bank. But it was the publication of 'Bowling Alone' which won Professor Putnam tea with the President and - that ultimate accolade - appearances on TV chat shows. The article also attracted a huge amount of serious scholarly attention in the U.S. and was hotly debat ed - because it appeared (to critics) to project a conservative, communitarian politics whilst claiming to be 'progressive'.

Now Putnam has extended his arguments and answered at least some of his critics in a big book which, because of rather than in spite of its heavy weight of statistical armoury, makes for fascinating reading. Were it not for the meretricious theory of soc ial capital in which it is all wrapped up, the book might well pass as a lucid and provocative account of 'the state of America'.

The solitary bowler (of the ten-pin type, not Shane Warne) depicted on the cover of the book is a figure held to reflect American society at the close of the 20th century. Whereas Americans used to go bowling together and take part in competitive leagues , now they 'bowl alone'. This is not strictly true, for in fact more Americans now go bowling than ever before, and it is an extremely popular way of socialising - so there is a certain theatrical licence in Putnam's title. But the decline of organised l eague bowling serves as a metaphor of the very widespread decline in participation by Americans of all statuses, races and religions, in political, civic, religious and work organisations since the high point of such 'civic engagement' in the 1960s; and the decline, too, since that time, in all manner of simple forms of everyday socialising, such as playing cards together, entertaining family, friends and neighbours at home, or even the commonplace sharing of dinner together by the members of a family. Americans are still more sociable - more willing participants in civic activities and more enthusiastic socialisers - than are the members of most other 'developed' societies but they are now much less sociable, both formally and informally, than they we re.

All these points are richly documented in Part One of the book, from the results of social surveys and of repeated studies by market researchers. Putnam is a master in the deployment of such statistical evidence and the conclusions are rigorously tested, and - when it is appropriate - suitably qualified. But the weight of the evidence (and the evidence is weighty) seems strongly to support the conclusion that "the fabric of American life began to unravel" after the 1960s.

One common criticism of Putnam's account of the declining sociability of Americans is that he mistakes the decline of older forms of civic organisation, which were dominated by older white men, or by women as housewives, for all forms of association and sociability. The critics point to the exclusiveness of many of the old, established membership organisations, and to the rise in their place of much more open ways in which people get together. There are new kinds of organisations, they argue, which are more open and which address a whole range of needs, like the American Association of Retired Persons (the AARP - now the largest organisation in the country, and still growing rapidly) and a congeries of environmental organisations and of civic non-gover nmental organisations. If organisations which depended upon the involvement of women as mothers and housewives have declined as more and more women have entered the workforce, is this not really a positive development? And are not women now getting toget her in different ways both at work and in their leisure? Is not the workplace, indeed, becoming a more important forum where people are brought together than the residential community?

Putnam concedes something to some of these arguments, and he strives to distance himself from the charge that he is afflicted by a romantic nostalgia for the more organised - maybe - but also less tolerant, and more exclusivist days of the 1940s and 1950 s. Certainly he is right to distinguish between the kinds of organisations which have local chapters and which bring people together face-to-face, from the kinds of organisations that have grown latterly. These are mostly the ones that encourage 'partici pation' via the cheque-book - they are about mass-mailing rather than mass movement - and run large bureaucracies to conduct lobbying operations in Washington. They may be effective, but they are not 'membership' organisations in the same sense as, say, the Lions or the Rotary Club. Neither are workplaces in these times of 'flexible' labour markets, part-time working and insecure employment really 'communities' - except when it suits companies to try to create such an illusion.

The second part of the book addresses the question 'why did the fabric of American community life begin to unravel?'. Again Putnam marshals statistical arguments with great skill. The most important factor, it seems, is that of generational change. There is "a long civic generation, born roughly between 1910 and 1940, a broad group of people substantially more engaged in community affairs and more trusting than those younger than they". A large part of the decline in civic engagement and of sociability is due to the passing of this 'civic generation', whose approach to life seems to have been strongly influenced by their Wartime experience of obligation to the wider community, whereas those in the succeeding generations are more inclined to individuali stic and materialistic values. The increased pressures on time and money in the 1970s and 1980s, the increased participation of women in the workforce, the consequences of suburbanisation, and - probably most important amongst these other factors - the a mount of time which people spend in front of their television sets, have also played a part.

The key question, then, is 'what of it?' Does it really matter that people get together less than they used to? This is the subject of Part III, the most interesting part of the whole book. Thus far I have contrived to describe Putnam's argument without bringing in the idea of 'social capital', which is the label he uses for the idea (familiar enough, surely?) that connections between individuals - social networks and the norms of reciprocity and of trustworthiness which arise from them, have value, bot h for the individuals themselves and for their society as a whole. He proceeds to show that what I have called simply 'sociability' or 'people getting together' matters by constructing an index of social capital for each of the states of the Union (Vermont and the Dakotas at the top, and - surprise, surprise - the southern States of the Mississippi Delta at the bottom), and then demonstrating how highly it is correlated with measures of the education and welfare of children, of security, and of h ealth and happiness, and - with less authority and assurance - with economic prosperity and democracy. So he argues, tongue in cheek, that - for instance - for the people of North Carolina to achieve an educational performance in their State like that of Connecticut they should attend church two more times a month, or increase their turnout in presidential elections by 50 per cent. In other words 'getting together', or social capital, matters because there is strong evidence that where there is more civ ic engagement, associational life and informal sociability institutions work better, and people are safer, healthier and wiser. (Note that Putnam is very careful throughout to test the causal strength of 'social capital' against other possible explanator s like differences in wealth/poverty).

The upshot is that Putnam then asks, in Part IV, 'What is to be done?'. If it is true - as he avers - that abundant social capital has all sorts of positive consequences, and that America's stocks of this precious resource have been diminishing, how can they be restored? There are lessons, he finds, in history. Towards the end of the 19th century too, under the pressures of industrialisation and urbanisation, social capital declined. But then in the Progressive Era early in the following century there w as a strong civic communitarian reaction. This was the period indeed when so many of the great membership organisations of America were established.

AND the final short chapter of the book is a clarion call for a similar effort by men and women of goodwill at recreating social capital in the 21st century through such means as improved civics education, changed urban and metropolitan design and the li ke. I do not mean to mock, because the last chapter contains lots of perfectly sensible ideas - but it does seem rather a small squib in the tail of a juggernaut of an argument.

There is an intriguing discrepancy between Bowling Alone and Making Democracy Work. The latter purports to show how variations in social capital best explain differences in government and economic performance across Italy, and how these variations are themselves deeply rooted historically in medieval political institutions. At the end Putnam is pessimistic about the prospects for change in the Italian South. His own society, however, seems not to be subject to the same kind of crushing 'historica l path dependency', and through the agency of 'progressives' such as himself, social capital may be reconstructed.

But one is left wondering whether, in the end, the focus on 'social capital' is not very misleading - and herein lies the significance of Putnam's work for those Indian readers who are not tremendously interested in American society or Italian politics. For this work, above all, has been responsible for encouraging widespread interest in social capital amongst (Western) social scientists, and a fixation with 'the (re)construction of social capital' amongst policy elites and their servants (like Swaminat han Aiyar who wrote in The Sunday Times of India in May this year that 'Social Capital (is) an idea whose time has come', and then proceeded to argue that India's most important social capital lies in the caste system). It should be salutary for t hose who are being carried away by this enthusiasm that Putnam himself concludes firmly from his analysis of social capital in America that - as is also true of Italy, according to him - "inequality and social solidarity (or 'abundant social capital') ar e deeply incompatible".

The American South, as in the case of the Italian South - or the Hindi Belt in India, which in some senses constitutes 'India's South' - starts off with a huge handicap in the Social Capital Stakes because of their histories of inegalitarian, hierarchica l social systems and oppressive social elites. The enthusiasts should also take note of the strong connections that Putnam notes between 'civic engagement' and educational levels (and Peter Mayer at the University of Adelaide in as yet unpublished resear ch has shown how Putnam may have neglected the significance of education - especially female literacy - in his Italian work). Is it not plain, therefore, that all the fuss about 'constructing social capital' - interpreted mainly in terms of building volu ntary associations and social networks - refers, at best, only to a side-show, and at worst constitutes a blind that draws attention away from what really counts?

A powerful point was made by another distinguished American social scientist, Theda Skocpol, in a commentary on the earlier avatars of Bowling Alone: "How ironic it would be if, after pulling out of locally rooted associations, the very bus iness and professional elites who blazed the path towards civic disengagement were now to turn around and successfully argue that the less privileged Americans they left behind are the ones who must repair the nation's social connectedness, by pulling th emselves together from below without much help from government or their privileged fellow citizens. This, I fear, is what is happening..." And I fear in much the same way that the fixation with social capital, as 'local organisation', has exactly these s orts of consequences in the Indian context: let the poorest people organise themselves to provide services which used to be considered to be the responsibility of the state. How very convenient this is for those who do not themselves suffer from cuts in public social expenditure, and who stand to gain from the neo-liberal policies of economic reform which require such expenditure cuts!

Dr. John Harriss is Reader in Development Studies, London School of Economics and Political Science.

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