In 1995 Hal Salwen released a movie, Denise Calls Up, about people who conduct their lives on the telephone, living so entirely on that instrument that the characters who share their most intimate thoughts on the phone pass each other by, unrecognized, on the street. The fear that technology will somehow disconnect us from reality has haunted the modern world ever since Emerson claimed that the telegraph would have us nattering into space without real human contact, or since Ruskin said that railroads would rush us past nature and each other, unable to see them. Robert Putnam picked up that lament and decked it out with statistics in his famous 1995 article "Bowling Alone," which appeared in the Journal of Democracy.
According to Putnam, TV, the Internet, and other technologies have speeded up our lives to the point where we no longer invest "social capital" in each other by means of overlapping memberships in clubs and other organizations, which are essential to human trust and mutual support.
Putnam's book advances the same argument with further statistics and with the catchy symbolic examples of disconnectedness that appealed to people when the article appeared. We are told, for instance, that people entertain less in their homes, not gathering there for bridge or poker. When they eat out, they eat as they bowl, alone--at fast-food places, in anonymous lines, not at neighborhood bars or restaurants where people know each other. Putnam blames these trends mainly on a vague "generational change."
Instead of relying on odd statistics (he claims that television watchers give other drivers the finger more than those who do not watch television), Putnam should look harder at major social and economic reconfigurations affecting urbanization, education, professionalization, information technology, the family, and the work force. One reason people eat at fast-food places is that women are working at outside jobs, not staying home alone all day to fix the evening meal. Putnam admits that this causes new forms of social capital to accumulate, but laments that it also means that women have time for fewer activities of the sort housewives engaged in with each other. Those activities were mainly with other women (one reason for the decline of clubs is that they were segregated by gender in the past, and integration sometimes made two groups into one).
The ties formed with others by working women link them to women and to men. Putnam, moreover, does not emphasize that wo-men are working at higher levels of professionalization, mingling with their peers and their clients as lawyers, business executives, professors, doctors, preachers, military officers, and so on. Though Putnam thinks of social mobility mainly as a solvent of social capital, women's increased professional mobility carries them into varying social clusters.
Putnam's imagined good old days, which have a roseate Norman Rockwell glow about them, include a Duffy's Tavern, where everybody knows your name. But that tavern, like Cheers, had mainly male customers--so that everyone knows Norm, but no one knows Vera. The modern equivalents--the omnipresent Starbucks and other coffee shops--have a clientele that is both male and female. In the coffee shop where I meet my friends, the Unicorn in Evanston, Illinois, people know each other, hang out together, and even receive phone calls as the regulars did at Duffy's--but not from wives complaining about their husbands' absence. Some of the coffee shop activity is clustered around campuses. Though Putnam admits that education offers new arenas for social grouping, he says that just deepens the mystery that those with higher education partake in fewer of the old clubs and activities. What is mysterious? The new ties supplant the old.
Since urbanization and professionalization require higher levels of schooling, the family structure is altered. The costs of college and graduate school require that parents limit the number of their children, and they each must hold a job just to finance the education of those children they have. The delay before children enter the work force creates a youth culture that reshapes the years of training, producing the generational change Putnam calls the great disconnector of our time. It is true that the young live more with their peers than with the family during this interval--just as the wives spend more time with their working partners than in their homes. There goes the family game of monopoly and the women's bridge clubs that Putnam pines for. But the new patterns of association bring their own forms of social interchange.
Putnam underestimates these new groupings, not because they are not productive of social capital, but simply because they are new. The clubs and activities whose decline he quantifies have a comfortable air of stability because they were the fixtures of a prior world--4-H clubs, Knights of Columbus, Elks, Jaycees, Shriners, the American Legion, the Lions Club, the Y. By contrast, the new social clusters are unsettling to some because they are brought about by change, and change is seen as disorienting. Women's professional organizations create new kinds of connectedness, but they are resented by those who think the only place for a woman is in the home. Very few people resented 4-H clubs.
Theda Skocpol, co-editor of Civic Engagement in American Democracy, an anthology devoted to this topic of social capital, is in partial agreement with Putnam; but instead of seeing a decline in voluntary organizations, she sees a change in their character--from horizontal ties of members interacting with each other (like labor unions of the past) to vertical structures in which "participants" send money to a central cadre of professional lobbyists (like the Sierra Club). But Everett Ladd, in The Ladd Report, produces evidence that Putnamites overstate the participatory activity of unions and understate that of environmental groups (where the Adopt-a-Highway program is just one of many participatory activities).
More pointedly, Ladd offers examples that reverse Skocpol's horizontal-to-vertical pattern. Putnam made the shrinking of PTAs a major part of his argument, but Ladd shows that this reflects a rebellion against the central structure and ideological leftism of the PTA as a national structure, which is being supplanted by local and self-started organizations in the schools, involving parents to a greater extent than ever. Charter schools and the voucher movement are just part of this grass-roots activity.
The same trend can be seen in the decline of hierarchical "mainline" churches and the explosive growth of horizontally membered evangelical churches and para-churches (e.g., Promise Keepers, Prison Fellowship Ministries, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America). Membership in the Episcopal Church declined by 26 percent between 1980 and 1995, but Pentecostals grew by 469 percent, Jehovah's Witnesses by 286 percent, and Baptists by 73 percent. The most participatory forms of religion are now the most popular ones--a fact that is reflected in other social forums, like the blossoming "interactive" aspects of education, entertainment, museums, radio, and the Internet.
These correspond to the large social changes already referred to, which depart from a vertical structure of authority patterned on the patriarchal family. The young now have a relation with their peers that matches the new ties, outside the home, of women with fellow workers, giving the "lower" strata of the patriarchy a horizontal mobility that the father alone enjoyed in the past. The same loosening of hierarchical structure has taken place in churches, colleges, corporations, and even (despite resistance) the military. Students now not only grade their teachers, but have a greater say in the development of the curriculum; they participate in faculty meetings and even in university board meetings. Teachers are no longer in loco parentis--or rather, they are in the role of parents who have themselves become less autocratic. Integration of the genders in the public sphere has created a paradoxically separate mobility of spouses. Seen in this light, a rise in the divorce rate is not the inverse of a shift from hierarchical religions to evangelical ones, but an aspect of the same process. Both produce new kinds of participation in society, but not any less participation.
Putnam worries about the Internet's tendency to separate people. But it brings them together as well--as it did the demonstrators in Seattle, who were mobilized by the Internet. Here, too, individuals range out from local and familial structures to pursue their own interests. In one case I know of, that of a man with an extremely rare disease, the Web put him in touch for the first time with others, all around the world, who were suffering from the same disease.
The loosening of ties within the self-centered family has been matched with a rise in volunteer social service and in charitable donations. Putnam himself has to admit that volunteer activities are up, even in visible ways--and some of these are invisible, like the networks of helpers in the 12-step programs, where older members give many hours weekly to helping the newcomers. The campus religious groups I'm familiar with have a far higher level of volunteer activity than in the past: working at soup kitchens, teaching in literacy programs, and other activities. At Northwestern University, every dormitory has a "philanthropy chair" devoted to volunteer work, and many of the dorms' regular meetings are taken up with that chair's programs. The new president of the MacArthur Foundation tells me that he cannot believe the Putnam thesis when he considers all the nongovernment organizations (NGOs) that have sprung up and are asking his staff for funds. Our nation has never been more caring for the previously disadvantaged or excluded, from ethnic and religious minorities to gays, battered women, and children.
Putnam, like many social critics, finds in America's lower voting rate a deficit of social trust. But Ladd argues that the turnout is not as low as it seems. Absentee ballots are not counted (which have been reaching over two million votes in California alone), and the pool of potential voters is overstated by failure to exclude from it the ineligible (8.5 percent of the population, mainly convicted felons). Moreover, most of the low turnout is caused by the nature of a compromising two-party system that does not reward those outside the mainstream. His points are buttressed in Roderick Hart's Campaign Talk. One study shows that, even when only 55 percent show up to vote, 75 percent of those questioned afterward claim that they did vote. This destroys the notion that there is widespread disillusionment with a system people are proud to claim (unjustifiably) a part in.
Even more stunning evidence that people are not made cynical by the electoral system comes from a National Election Studies project reported by Wendy Rahn, John Brehm, and Neil Carlson in the Skocpol/Fiorina collection of essays. In a study of five national elections (1980-1996), the same people were asked the same questions about social trust before and after the vote, and the responses showed a growth in trust during the campaign. In the 1996 election, for instance: "Before the election, only 40 percent of those interviewed reported that most people could be trusted, while over half of the postelection respondents offered a trusting response." Hart also quotes polls by Larry Bartels to show that, despite all the talk of negative campaigning, respect for both presidential candidates increases in the course of a campaign. Hart argues that American elections, precisely because they do not have the issue-sharpening dynamic of a parliamentary system (where minority parties articulate strong ideological positions and bring out the votes of those with minority views), have a social-ritual effect of reknitting community ties. The country is never more united than in the "honeymoon" period of a newly elected president.
Ladd, who until his death last year was director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, also shows that we must make certain distinctions when dealing with polls that express a low opinion of politicians, Washington, or the government. Those asked their opinion of local government often express a high regard for it, and those who despise Congress in general have great enough esteem for their own representative to re-elect him or her continually. John Henry Newman contrasted "notional assent" with "real assent." The former is an agreement with some abstract statement, while the latter deals with concrete realities within a person's experience. In that sense, the view of Congress as an abstraction is notional, but the judgment on one's own representative is a real assent.
Given these facts, why was Putnam's thesis greeted with a kind of instant recognition and affirmation? We are all subject to good-old-daysism. In our personal life, a psychic mechanism lets us function by tending to dim or even obliterate unhappy memories, while we treasure (and magnify) happy ones. On the social level, a piety toward forebears strengthens this tendency. Intrusive change in the present has not had time to undergo these softening or enhancing effects. That is why the newer forms of social capital do not have the stabilizing feel that the old ones did (Putnam's bridge clubs and bowling leagues). But the adjustment to change is itself formative of new resources for dealing with it. Putnam indicates this fact when he points to the Progressive Era as a time when weakened social ties were re-established after the effects of immigration, industrialization, and technology had depleted social capital at the end of the nineteenth century. But many of the Progressives' new forms of social work and ethnic grouping (much of it assisted, as Skocpol notes, by government) were considered radical in their day, as destabilizing society rather than restabilizing it--much as new social activities are seen today.
To deny that there is a social-capital crisis doesn't mean that we have solved our society's problems. We still have vast income disparity, poor schooling, inadequate health care, an obscene proliferation of guns, a political system dependent on fat-cat interests. Other developed countries are able to provide decent wages and health care and schools; they can limit the length and costs of elections and the presence of guns. Much of our inability to do the same comes from a distrust of government--a belief that it should not interfere with the economic or political markets, or "socialize" medicine, or limit guns or political donations. I have argued elsewhere that this is not a new development but the result of historical myths about the Constitution as itself distrustful of government, meant to be inefficient as well as unintrusive, to check itself to the point of paralysis. This kind of ideological antigovernmentalism can co-exist with, can even encourage, volunteerism, NGOs, professional organizations, and cause-related social groupings. After all, the governmental problem of gun-related crime is, for one kind of social-capital formation, a plus--the NRA is a bonding group for millions of people, just the sort of club that Putnam praises.
By focusing on the kinds of nongovernmental social ties that have actually increased in recent years, Putnam chases the wrong phenomena. In this realm, despite our good-old-daysism, we must brace ourselves to bear the good news that America has never been more participative, interactive, inclusive, or charitable. ¤
You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)