Copyright © 1995 American Association for Higher Education. Used with Permission.


An interview with Robert Putnam about America's collapsing civic life.

This September issue of the AAHE Bulletin announces the theme and call for proposals for AAHE's next National Conference on Higher Education (March 17-20, Chicago). It's our occasion to stimulate your thinking and reading about the theme, in hopes you'll sign on to become part of the annual intellectual adventure that is AAHE's conference planning process. For more information about the conference, or to register, call (202)-293-6440.

This year, the troubled state of American society was much on the minds of AAHE's Board as they began deliberating a focus for the upcoming gathering. "How," the Board asked, "could higher education become a more engaged part of the solution?" This question in turn led to a prior one: "How should we think about what's gone wrong with American civic life?" And this led us to Robert Putnam.

Robert D. Putnam is Dillon Professor of International Affairs and director of the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. In his book on Italian politics, Making Democracy Work (Princeton University Press, 1993), Putnam builds a strong intellectual foundation for the thesis that the vigor of civic life is a strong predictor of the performance of democratic government. Now he has turned his attention to civic life in our own country.

"Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" is the first report to come out of his new research. Since its publication in the January 1995 Journal of Democracy, the inquiry into what is happening to civic engagement in America has become the talk of the town. In July, while on sabbatical from Harvard and at work on a new book, Robert Putnam spoke with AAHE president Russ Edgerton about what he's finding out.--Eds.

EDGERTON: "Bowling Alone" is an arresting title. You say in the article that while the total number of bowlers in America has increased by 10 percent between 1980 and 1993, "league bowling" -- that is, the number who bowl as members of organized leagues -- has plummeted by 40 percent. You say that's bad news for bowling proprietors, because league bowlers consume three times the beer and pizza, and that's where the money is.

More to your point, that's also bad news for American democracy.

PUTNAM: I used the title because, frankly, I didn't want people to think that the trend of disengagement from civic life that I was talking about was limited to participation in do- gooder organizations like the League for Women Voters.

EDGERTON: The data you cite in your article are quite striking. Weekly churchgoing is down. Union membership has declined by more than half since the mid-1950s. PTA membership has fallen from 12 million in 1964 to 7 million. Since 1970, membership in the Boy Scouts is down by 26 percent; membership in the Red Cross is off by 61 percent.

Did any of these data surprise you?

PUTNAM: Frankly, the first time we got back the data on PTA membership, I didn't believe it. I thought there was a mistake. I was astonished when the data turned out to be true. That's a huge change.

The people trying to make these organizations go sometimes assume that they have done something wrong . . . that they have a lousy director or something. But they need to see themselves as part of a broader picture -- a pattern of civic disengagement.

I came across the bowling evidence doing what academics in the 1990s have to do: fund raising. I was talking about my work to a person who had been a generous supporter of Harvard. As it turned out, he was the owner of one of the largest bowling chains in America. He told me that the trend I was observing wasn't limited to the Red Cross and the Moose Club. It was affecting his own bottom line. Then he told me about the declining participation in bowling leagues.

EDGERTON: Let's talk about why all this is important for our civic life and the future of our democracy, Bob. I understand from reading your book Making Democracy Work that your ideas about civic engagement are rooted in your studies of civic traditions in Italy, and that you've been tracking data in that country for an amazingly long period of time.

PUTNAM: That's right. Since 1970.

EDGERTON: In the preface, you talk about being in Italy in 1970 when, unexpectedly, the Italian government agreed to establish a system of regional governments. As a budding political scientist, you realized that a wonderful experiment was about to unfold.

PUTNAM: I had just gotten my PhD and was in Rome, with my one-year-old and three-year-old, trying to set up interviews with members of the Italian parliament for another study I wanted to do. The government was falling apart. The politicians had left the city, I couldn't arrange my interviews, and in the midst of all this confusion, the government decided to go forward with a constitutional reform to establish regional governments.

To me, this seemed like being able to start a study in 1789 of Congress . . . to be able to understand how it took root, what social circumstances conditioned how it evolved. And so, in a hand-to-mouth kind of way, I started with several colleagues doing this research.

EDGERTON: . . . and twenty-five years later, you're still there!

PUTNAM: I am indeed. The one-year-old daughter I mentioned is now finishing her own doctorate, with a daughter of her own.

Making Democracy Work

EDGERTON: Unfortunately, we don't have time to go through the marvelous analysis and argument you lay out in Making Democracy Work. But our readers should know the punch lines.

You found, to oversimplify horribly, that different regions of Italy varied enormously in things like rates of membership in sports clubs, and that associational ties like sports club membership turned out to be critical predictors of the quality and success of the regional governments you were tracking.

PUTNAM: Yup. You tell me how many choral societies there are in an Italian region, and I will tell you plus or minus three days how long it will take you to get your health bills reimbursed by its regional government.

EDGERTON: So, Alexis de Tocqueville got it right when he pointed out in Democracy in America the critical importance of voluntary associations. Is this thesis pretty well accepted now in the academic circles you travel in?

PUTNAM: Well, as you know, nothing is settled in academic life. But let me distinguish two propositions that I laid out in the book, one of which is pretty widely shared, the other of which is still debated.

The first proposition is that if you want to know why democracy works in some places and not others, de Tocqueville was right . . . it's the strength of civil society.

But the second is that if we ask why some places have a stronger civil society than others . . . why there are more football clubs and choral societies in one region than another . . . the answer gets more complicated. As you know, in my book I went back a thousand years and traced some deep historical roots. But there is professional debate about this historical argument.

EDGERTON: You also found in your work in Italy that the various forms of civic engagement are interrelated. Participation in civic associations, newspaper readership, voter turnout, . . . they all go together.

PUTNAM: That's right. If a region is high on one, it's high on the others.

That's true, by the way, in the United States, too. Just yesterday, I was looking at how voter turnout, membership in groups, and indicators of social trust are all correlated in different states. People in Minnesota, for example, are the most trusting people in the United States. They are also among the most intense joiners. And they are the most likely to turn out to vote.

EDGERTON: That's a nice segue to your current research into American civic life. You're a scholar of international affairs and economic development; how and why did you shift your focus to our own country?

PUTNAM: For many years, I've been worried . . . as a citizen . . . about things like the collapse of trust in public authorities. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, 75 percent of Americans said that they trusted their government to do the right thing. Last year, same survey, same question, it was 19 percent.

As I was finishing my book on Italy, it occurred to me that what I was finding out as a scholar of Italian politics was connected to what worried me as an American citizen -- namely, the sense that our national experiment in democratic self- government is faltering. So I started digging around about trends in civic engagement in America. As I said earlier, I frankly was astonished.

EDGERTON: So you've now mounted a serious research effort? PUTNAM: I have seven research assistants working on this broad project about what I like to call "social capital" . . . the networks and norms of civil society. My study question is: What's been happening to our social capital? As I reported in "Bowling Alone," what we're finding is that it's collapsing.

Now I'm sitting up here in New Hampshire, on sabbatical, trying to write a book about that and about what we might do about it. This time it's going to be written for a broad public audience, rather than simply an academic audience.

EDGERTON: Say a bit more about how our associational life is tied up with how well our democracy works.

PUTNAM: Well, let's take the toughest case, which is my claim, partly but not entirely tongue-in-cheek, that the fate of the republic hangs on the fact that Americans are no longer engaging in league bowling.

First, when you participate in a bowling league, interacting regularly with the same people week after week, you learn and practice what de Tocqueville called "habits of the heart." You learn the personal virtues and skills that are the prerequisites for a democracy. Listening, for example. Taking notes. Keeping minutes. Taking responsibility for your views. That's what is different about league bowling versus bowling alone.

Second, bowling leagues . . . and sports clubs and town bands, whatever . . . provide settings in which people can talk about their shared interests. These are settings quite different from, say, a talk show, where Ted from Toledo calls in and shares his prejudices with a nationwide audience. In that scenario, the rest of us don't know Ted, we don't know how to interpret what he says. But if Ted were in my bowling league, I'd understand him better, because I would interact with him regularly, and so I'd hold him accountable for his views.

EDGERTON: In "Bowling Alone," you take note that not all forms of organized life are collapsing. Mass membership organizations such as the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women, nonprofit organizations, and informal support groups are growing. But these kinds of associational relationships don't, in your view, teach the sort of civic virtues that you just mentioned.

PUTNAM: That's right. The kinds of groups that are growing most rapidly are the mailing-list organizations, like the AARP and the NRA. You don't attend meetings; membership involves merely the act of writing a check or perhaps reading a newsletter. From the point of view of social connectedness, such or2anizations are a very differen2 species from the bowling

Next Steps?

EDGERTON: I assume your book-in-progress will not only describe the trends but point out what those of us who care about democracy in America can do about reversing them. I know that you're a long way from completion, but give us a sense of how you are thinking about turning the corner from diagnosis to solutions.

PUTNAM: In searching for how to put these trends in perspective, I find myself going back to the massive social and economic transformation America went through between 1865 and 1890. The Industrial Revolution, urbanization, immigration, and so on rendered obsolete a lot of social capital . . . which is a jargony way of saying that in the transition from the country to the city, a lot of connections got left behind. And then in a rush, roughly from 1890 to 1910, all kinds of new organizations formed. That's when the YMCA, Red Cross, Boy Scouts, National League of Cities, and on it goes, really took off.

While the parallel is not perfect, my sense is that over the last thirty years we have been going through a period like that after the Civil War. Television, the global economy, two-career families . . . such developments are rendering obsolete the stock of social capital we had built up at the turn of the century. What we need now is a new round of reform, as we had in the Progressive Era, to reinvent new social organizations, new ways of connecting, for the twenty-first century.

I'm not sure what those connections will look like. I've been going around the country this year, visiting lots of places where people are trying to move against the current of civic disengagement. I'm hoping that I can put these strands of activity together and articulate ways in which people might contribute to a new period of civic inventiveness.

EDGERTON: One last question. When you talked about the birth of new forms of associational life at the turn of the century, what came to my mind are all the affiliations that academics are now engaged in . . . the American Political Science Association, the American Historical Association, and so on. You've been a dean. Have you thought about what's happening to community within academe?

PUTNAM: A little. Americans are in the midst of a transformation that is privileging nonplace-based connections over place-based connections. This is playing out within the academic community as well, and it means that the average faculty member's ties to colleagues around the country and around the world are getting closer, while ties to colleagues in the next building or across the hall are weakening. It's harder and harder to fill faculty clubs.

This erosion of social capital on our campuses has serious consequences for university life. Deans can't order people around; they depend on the faculty's sense of campus citizenship. When that citizenship weakens, it becomes harder and harder to get on with the important tasks of the campus.

EDGERTON: So what do we do?

PUTNAM: I don't have any simple answer here, any more than I have a simple answer for the broader society. The first step is to recognize the character of the problem, to acknowledge that connections matter. Without connections, it's not just that people don't feel warm and cuddly toward one another. It's that our schools don't work as well . . . that the crime rate gets worse. And so it is on campus. So, while I can't give you five easy steps to rebuilding community on our campuses, I can say that recognizing the character of the problem is the place to begin.

EDGERTON: . . . and then to look, as you are doing now, as you traipse around the country, for those nascent forms of new community that might be nurtured?

PUTNAM: Yes, that's exactly right.

EDGERTON: Bob, what a fascinating project! I'm sure AAHE's members will want to stay in touch with your work, and join me in thanking you for letting me interrupt your sabbatical.

PUTNAM: You're welcome.