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Bowling Alone:  America’s Declining Social Capital

An Interview with Robert Putnam

Robert Putnam

  • Putnam’s main contention here is that in the post cold war era, civic engagement has given way to passive reliance on state and media apparatus.
  • Historically, the US has been a model for self-federation and active, participatory democracy – this is enshrined in de Tocqueville’s work.
  • Yet, this slide toward federation always comes at the expense of widespread nepotism.
  • Putnam describes some forms of civic engagement:  voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and football clubs, etc.
  • Social capital:  features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.  Putnam identifies well functioning societies as those that are “blessed with a substantial stock of social capital.”
  • Government distrust and political engagement on both psychological and civic levels has risen dramatically in the post-industrial, post-communist era in the US.
  • Attendance of organized religious events has also been in steep decline in the corresponding time period of 1960-1990.
  • Putnam’s observations about “tertiary associations” instead of traditional club/group affiliations is interesting.  Tertiary=AARP, traditional=Masons.  Anyhow, this form of affiliation is more of bankrolling and passive civic disengagement than active civic participation.  This is especially true when thinking about forums for affiliation (face-to-face).
  • While Putnam recognizes it, I am a bit skeptical of his claims based on the fact that he seems to define traditional group affiliations in androcentric terms – post-industrial society is also semi-post-patriarchal society. . . so, perhaps his model is flawed?
  • He hasn’t went there yet, but I wonder what role the media (I know, a stupid bass-ackwards catchall term. . . Latour would be irritated!) plays in the disintegration of trust, as well as the rise of tertiary association.
  • Reasons for social decapitalization:
    • The movement of women in the labor force:  this is especially prominent in traditionally women’s based organizations like the PTA, Red Cross, etc.
    • Mobility:  cars, suburbanization and the Sun Belt
    • Demographic transformations:  a huge ?
    • Technological transformation of leisure: now we’re talking! The inidividualization of leisure seems a plausible answer to the decrease in social capital to me.
    • Putnam makes a nod to the impact of electronic networks on social capital – hooray!

Habermas, Jurgen.  “The Public Sphere: An Encyclopedia Article.”  New German Critique, No. 3 (Autumn, 1974), 49-55.

  • According to Habermas, the public sphere is the “realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed.  Access is guaranteed to all citizens” (49) – which to me sounds like something that has never existed. . . re: Fraser.
  • Necessary requirements for public sphere participation:  guarantee of freedom of assembly and association and freedom to express and public opinion.
  • Multiple public spheres:  political, literary, etc.
  • Public spheres are essential in post-monarchical democratically controlled state bureaucracies.
  • Habermas traces the public sphere to the development of salon culture in the 18th century.  Centered around public opinion and conducted by a burgeois public (theoretical problem here), the public sphere came into being in contrast to the public representation of power in monarchical social arrangements.  These middle and late middle age European societies represented power “before” the people, not “for” the people (52).
  • Religion as a private matter is the result of this emerging public.  Economically speaking, capitalist, privately-owned enterprise also arose out of the break between state control of corporations (Jamestown, VA) toward privately held, commodified assets.
  • Modern constitutions guarantee the private realm of the individual (autonomy) and the restriction of public authority to a few functions.
  • Newspapers as instruments of political advantage arise in the early development of the public sphere; hence, the media has long been imbricated in swaying political opinion.
  • The “refeudalization” of the public sphere is (a bit unclear!) what happens in social welfare state mass democracies wherein large capitalist organizations make political deals with the state and with one another behind the open discussion of the public sphere; however, those same bodies must then turn to the mass populations – now distinctly more than bourgeois – in an attempt at “openness” in reassuring the public good.  A bit of rhetoric here too!
  • Special interests intercede on behalf of public opinion in the late-capitalist realities of the refeudalized public sphere of social welfare state mass democracies.  Public spheres are constructed and reconstructed on individual bases in order to keep the masses disengaged but feeling relevant.

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