Interview: Robert Putnam

"The Challenges in Building Social Capital"
February 7, 2005

"The trends are actually very similar everywhere, so that really makes it likely that it's not something regional in its origins. Actually it's quite interesting. The trends in all of these things—in spending time with your family, and spending time with your friends, and in being involved in the community organizations, and voting— these trends are down in essentially all parts of America, East and West, and North and South, and big cities and small towns, and women and men, and black folks and white folks. It's basically down everywhere and that means you have to look at something general that's happened to cause this, not something peculiar to a sector of the society.

"Most people suggest the same sorts of things. Often people suggest television as a cause of it, and I always say, 'well, you know, actually public affairs television—watching Jim Lehrer—is good for your civic health... but most people don't watch public affairs. More people watch Friends rather than having friends. It's commercial entertainment television, and it is part of the story.

"People also think about two—career families, and maybe working outside the home. And there is a little bit of that in terms of what, I think, actually is part of the story. It's a less important part of the story than most people think, actually, but you can see a little bit of it.

"Many people think that moving around a lot... Oregon to Boston, or Boston to Palo Alto... is actually bad for social connections. But we're moving less than our parents did in social geographic mobility. The moving from one place to another is settling down over the last 50 years, and has really turned toward less geographic mobility. So that can't be part of the story, even though many people would rank it high.

"More than I would have thought, people often mention commuting, and that actually does turn out... to be a significant part of the story. It's a mystery that I've not completely solved.

"The basic problem, as I saw it when I was writing the book Bowling Alone, was that ... these trends have not been going down forever. I mean, in my lifetime they're going the other direction, but then in the middle '60s, late '60s, early '70s, all those trend lines—going to church, and bowling, and joining, and spending time with you family and friends, and so on—all those trends begin to turn down.

"The last 30 or 40 years has basically seen an erosion of the ways we connect as a result of technological and economic and social change, that is, two-career families, and urban sprawl and TV and maybe some other things.

"Now if you go back about a hundred years ago in America, the same thing is true then, actually and remarkably. At the turn of the last century, around 1900, America had just been through 30 or 40 years of dramatic social and economic changes that had made those senses of community and connectedness much weaker.

"In that case, it was the Industrial Revolution and urbanization and immigration, which meant that more people moved from the village to the city. They left all the family community institutions behind and the new way of living there was a sense of social disconnection. They were—actually everybody in America was—much better off materially than their parents had been. They had lots of nifty gadgets, like telephones and cars... so they were materially better off. But they felt disconnected from one another. They talked about the problem, and in that sense it felt a lot like our period, as we're better off materially but we don't feel as connected.

"And then in a very short period of time, about 15-20 years, most of the major civic institutions in American life today were invented—the Boy Scouts and the Red Cross and the League of Women Voters and the NAACP and the Urban League and the Knights of Columbus and Rotary and Kiwanis and, and, and. It's actually hard to name a major civic institution, a major collective institution in American communities today, that was not invented in about 20 years at the turn of the last century.

"Now, if you'd been around then, it would have been tempting to say, indeed some people did say... 'move back to the farms, please.' But that's not what they did. What they did instead was to invent new ways of connecting that fit the way they had come to live.

"And so I thought that the challenge for us now, in our own times, is to figure out new ways—not try to recreate the '50s—but to identify new ways of connecting that fit the way we've come to live. The solutions last time did not come from Harvard professors. They came from ordinary people living in places like Bend, or in Peoria, or in Savannah, or whatever. And it's in those sorts of places around the country that I think we'll begin to see the new forms of social connection."

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