Robert Putnam

Recent Articles

1996: The Civic Enigma

More than a decade ago, I began to explore changes in Americans' civic engagement and social connectedness (for which I borrowed the term “social capital”) and the impact of those changes on our communities and our democracy. My initial findings, suggesting a remarkable decline in social capital nationwide, appeared in a 1995 article called “Bowling Alone” in the Journal of Democracy . A year later, The American Prospect published “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,” a preliminary investigation of explanations for the decline. These articles -- along with work by other scholars, some predating mine -- triggered a massive international debate that has proved one of the most fecund controversies in recent scholarly and public life. Last year, after a decade of exponential growth, scholarly articles about social capital were appearing at a rate approaching one a day. Press articles using the term soared from 136 in 1994 to 1,649 in 2004. Not all the research supported my thesis...

Bowling Together

T he closing decades of the twentieth century found Americans growing ever less connected with one another and with collective life. We voted less, joined less, gave less, trusted less, invested less time in public affairs, and engaged less with our friends, our neighbors, and even our families. Our "we" steadily shriveled. The unspeakable tragedy of September 11 dramatically interrupted that trend. Almost instantly, we rediscovered our friends, our neighbors, our public institutions, and our shared fate. Nearly two years ago, I wrote in my book Bowling Alone that restoring civic engagement in America "would be eased by a palpable national crisis, like war or depression or natural disaster, but for better and for worse, America at the dawn of the new century faces no such galvanizing crisis." Now we do. But is September 11 a period that puts a full stop to one era and opens a new, more community-minded chapter in our history? Or is it merely a comma, a brief pause during which we...

Unsolved Mysteries: The Tocqueville Files

Robert Putnam Responds

A ny social change as broad gauged as that sketched in " The Strange Disappearance of Civic America " is surely complex--with multiple causes, conflicting countertrends, and uncertain consequences--so I welcome a lively discussion of these issues, especially with interlocutors as sophisticated as those in this symposium. In my view, four central questions must be considered: 1. Is it true that civic engagement has declined in the last few decades--that is, have Americans' connections with their communities become attenuated? My 1995 article on "Bowling Alone" surveyed this issue, and "Strange Disappearance" briefly reviewed the evidence. This is the central question addressed by Schudson. 2. If so, why has it happened? "Strange Disappearance" was a first attempt to sort through some possible answers to this question. Schudson, Skocpol, and Valelly all respond in part to this question. 3. Does it ...

The Strange Disappearance of Civic America

A year ago the author set off a national debate with his article, "Bowling Alone," which reported a pervasive decline in voluntary association and mutual trust among Americans. Now he sifts through the plausible explanations.

A more extended version of this article, complete with references, appears in the Winter 1995 issue of PS , a publication of the American Political Science Association. This work, originally delivered as the inaugural Ithiel de Sola Pool Lecture, builds on Putnam's earlier articles, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy (January 1995) and "The Prosperous Community," TAP (Spring 1993). For American Prospect subscriptions and bulk reprints, call 1-800-872-0162. F or the last year or so, I have been wrestling with a difficult mystery. It is a classic brainteaser, with a corpus delicti, a crime scene strewn with clues, and many potential suspects. As in all good detective stories, however, some plausible miscreants turn out to have impeccable alibis, and some important clues hint at portentous developments that occurred before the curtain rose. The mystery concerns the strange disappearance of social capital and civic engagement in America. By "social...

The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life

If we want prosperity, we might begin by working to restore the fabric of community.

Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. 'Tis profitable for us both, that I should labour with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labour with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I should be disappointed, and that I should in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone; You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security. --David Hume The predicament of the farmers in Hume's parable is all too familiar in communities and nations around the world: Parents in communities everywhere want better educational opportunities for their children, but collaborative efforts to improve public schools falter. Residents of American ghettos share an interest in safer streets, but collective action to control crime fails...

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