Social capital and death of cocktail parties

An item in my newsfeed caught my attention this weekend Р9 Reasons To Bring Back Cocktail Parties by  Brie Dyas in the Huffington Post.

The article itself is not that exciting. Spoiler alert: the author thinks cocktail parties should make a come back. But its opening lines seemed oddly reminiscent:

Your grandparents probably enjoyed one trend that has sadly since died a thousand deaths: The cocktail party. These gatherings dominated the 1950s and 1960s, then fell by the wayside for a variety of reasons. The hub of socialization shifted away from the living room and into bars…

I can practically hear a young, modern, hipster-style Robert Putnam bemoaning the death of social capital.

Citing a drop of about 30-40 percent in “entertaining friends at home,” Putnam argued in his 2002 article Community-Based Social Capital and Educational Performance:

Our use of leisure time has been substantially privatized, as we have shifted from doing to watching. Americans have silently withdraw from social intercourse of all sorts, not just from formal organizational life.

Putnam speaks more broadly than the death of cocktail parties – pointing to declines in going to bars, participating in sports, and, of course, bowling leagues.

But Dyas’ totally unscientific claim that “the hub of socialization shifted away from the living room and into bars,” invokes the spirit of social capital.

Going to a bar, as the article points out, is a totally different experience then entertaining in your home. There is, of course, a vast diversity of bars, all with different characters and ambiance. But, on the whole, bars are crowed, noisy, and more expensive.

You go to a bar to be seen and to meet new people. The later, of course, being somewhat ironic because it’s impossible to hear anything in a crowded bar.

Putnam talks about the decline of social capital as if it is universal to our experience. Once upon a time everyone was friendly and life was just swell. Then we all got sucked into our individual televisions and never spoke to another living soul again.

His data support this vision – there have been significant declines in organizational participation and other, informal, modes of socialization. But his video killed the radio star rhetoric always puts me over the edge. What if the story is more complex than that?

Perhaps it’s not our overall sense of society that has died, but just our time spent in small groups. Our time spent actually meeting new people – in venues where you can hear their name. And our time spent really getting to know someone by talking about their experiences of life, liberty, and pursuing happiness.

So perhaps the Huffington Post is right – it’s time to resurrect the in-home cocktail party. Putnam would surely want us to.


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