American civil society has really gone downhill since the 1950s. People used to belong to unions, fraternal societies, PTAs, bowling leagues. Now, self-absorbed and disconnected, they instead go bowling alone. Robert Putnam argues that these metrics of social capital – group membership, trust – even informal sociability – are deeply important to the civic health of a society. He presents a reasonable case that there is some correlation between group membership and civic health, finding that the latter correlates to a wide range of educational outcomes (Putnam, 2002) and that, more broadly, “the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions…are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement” (Putnam, 1995). This is a deeply important topic and Putnam is right to give it careful attention, yet his analysis continually glosses over questions of what qualifies as civic health and who gets to participate in the creation of social capital.
Perhaps most notably, Putnam’s definition of civic health places a heavy emphasis on social and institutional trust. As Putnam argues, social trust is a deeply beneficial good which is strongly correlated with civic engagement. Intuitively, this correlation makes sense – there’s no reason to participate in a process if you don’t trust the outcome, and you probably don’t want to spend your social time with people you don’t trust. Furthermore, potential eroders of social capital may be ameliorated by trust: both adults in a two-parent household cannot possibly be fully civically engaged if they do not periodically entrust someone with caring for their children.
Putnam, however, brings his faith in ‘trust’ as a positive social determinant too far. He takes for granted that social trust is intrinsically good, that it always serves to build better societies. A Burkean, however, would quickly find a critical flaw in this argument. As Cass Sunstein explains, Edmund Burke, the great conservative traditionalist, objects to “passionate movements that start political or social life from the ground up,” arguing that the “spirit of innovation” is the result of “a selfish temper and confined views” (Sunstein, 2009). In other words, Burke trusts past wisdom at expense of current knowledge. While Putnam values trust in current social institutions, Burke warns that these institutions may become corrupt. Trust in a good government may be good; but trust in a bad government can be devastating. Consider also Shanker Satyanath’s work on the rise of the Nazi party in pre-war Germany. It wasn’t a weak civil society which allowed fascism to flourish, rather it was the very traits Putnam praises. Indeed, as Satyanath et al. argue, it was “Germany’s vibrant ‘civic society,’ its dense network of social clubs and associations” which “facilitated the rise of Hitler by bringing more people into contact with his party’s message” (Satyanath, Voigtlaender, & Voth, 2013).
Furthermore, despite his protestations to the contrary, Putnam’s grim picture of the United States as a once-great civic utopia is deeply misaligned with realities of race, class, and gender. While tracing the tragic decline of civic engagement, Putnam pays little attention to inequities in access to engagement. He should be deeply alarmed to find that people without college experience – nearly half the population, in which people of color are strongly over-represented – are virtually shut out from civic life (Godsay, Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kiesa, & and Levine, 2012), a disparity which likely indicates structural barriers rather than apathy or narcissism. This oversight may affect Putnam’s analysis in two dimensions. First, standard survey measures of “civic engagement” do not always capture the many ways in which poor people support their communities (Godsay et al., 2012). While Putnam sees a decline in positive responses to the General Social Survey question of “How often do you spend a social evening with a neighbor?” (Putnam, 1995), Godsay et al. find that acts of “neighboring,” such as sheltering and feeding other community members, were common among non-college youth. Such civic acts may not register as “social evenings,” and therefore may artificially deflate survey responses. But perhaps the most striking finding of Godsay et al. is that non-college youth did engage in civic life when given the opportunity (Godsay et al., 2012). It was not the case, as Putnam fears, that “deep-seated technological trends are radically ‘privatizing’ or ‘individualizing’ our use of leisure time” (Putnam, 1995). Indeed, the greatest barrier to the civic engagement of this segment of the population was something Putnam hadn’t even considered: they had never even been given opportunities to engage.
Putnam takes for granted that engagement in civil society is a right which all residents have the full capability to exercise. ‘Capability’ here can be understood in Martha Nussbaum’s sense of ‘substantial freedoms;’ capabilities “are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment” (Nussbaum, 2011). A person may have the ability to eat, but they don’t have the capability unless they have food. Similarly, civic scholars may agree that all people have the ability to engage as productive and valued members of civil society – but all people do not have this capability until they are all equally welcomed, encouraged, and celebrated for their contributions. In other words, what Putnam sees as a decline in civil society may have more to do with the broader context; rather than a problem of apathy, the increasing professionalization of civil society may undermine some citizen’s capabilities – may rob them of the knowledge that they, too, can contribute to the shared task of governing. This effect can be seen in people’s doubt of their own civic ability. In one survey, for example, Michael Neblo finds that 42% of Americans felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session (Neblo, 2015).
None of this is to say that Putnam doesn’t make good points. Whether due to poor survey measures, disparities in civic capabilities, or even changes in mobility, family structure, or technology we should all be concerned with continually building a strong civil society. But Putnam is too quick to bemoan the past, to turn back the clock to a time when women stayed in the home and we all ate at segregated lunch counters. The Elks Lodge may have once been a great bastion of society, but now it’s a dingy reminder of a time when white men smoked cigars and congratulated themselves for saving the world. Perhaps, like Burke, we should put some trust in the wisdom of the past, but we would be blind to follow Putnam in putting that trust in the present. We shouldn’t be shaming people for not participating in survey-ready forms of engagement; we should be reminding them that governance is a shared activity; that we have a right and responsibility to engage; and that resistance is a worthy civic undertaking. But most of all, we need to convince people – perhaps, even, to convince ourselves – that our perspectives, actions, and voices matter. Our engagement matters.
Godsay, S., Kawashima-Ginsberg, K., Kiesa, A., & and Levine, P. (2012). “That’s not democracy,” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life.
Neblo, M. A. (2015). Deliberative Democracy Between Theory and Practice: Cambridge University Press.
Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating capabilities: Harvard University Press.
Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy, 6(1), 65-78.
Putnam, R. D. (2002). Community-based social capital and educational performance. Making good citizens: Education and civil society.
Satyanath, S., Voigtlaender, N., & Voth, H.-J. (2013). Bowling for fascism: social capital and the rise of the Nazi Party. Retrieved from
Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide: Oxford University Press.