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Robert D. Putnam


Robert Putnam on the Decline of Communities

By Frank W. Elwell

An excerpt from Industrializing America:
Understanding Contemporary Society through Classical Sociological Analysis


In a widely commented upon article "Bowling Alone:  America's Declining Social Capital," Robert D. Putnam (1995) details and comments upon the decline of community life in America. Among the items that Putnam cites as evidence of a decline in social engagement at the local level are: 


· Volunteers for mainline civic organizations have also experienced significant decline. Volunteers for the Boy Scouts declined by 26 percent since 1970; volunteers for the Red Cross are off by 61 percent since 1970.

· Participation in parent-teacher organizations has dropped from more than 12 million in 1964 to about 7 million now.

· Weekly churchgoing has declined from 48 percent in the late 1950s to about 41 percent in the early 1970s, and remaining about the same since then.

· Union membership has declined by more than half since the 1950s--representing only 15.8 percent of the work force in 1992. 

· Membership in traditional women's groups has declined steadily since the mid-1960s. "For example, membership in the national Federation of Women's Clubs is down by more than half (59 percent) since 1964, while membership in the League of Women Voters is off 42 percent since 1969" (p. 5).


· Membership in fraternal organizations have dropped substantially.  "Membership is down significantly in the Lions, the Elks (off 18 percent since 1979), the Shriners (off 27 percent since 1979), the Jaycees (off 44 percent since 1979), and the Masons (down 39 percent since 1959)" (p. 5).

· "The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent" (P. 5).

· The General Social Survey (GSS), a national sample survey conducted times in the last two decades indicates: "Within all educational categories, total associational membership declined significantly between 1967 and 1993. Among the college-educated, the average number of group memberships per person fell from 2.8 to 2.0 (a 26-percent decline); among high-school graduates, the number fell from to 1.2 (32 percent); and among those with fewer than 12 years of education, the number fell from 1.4 to 1.1 (25 percent). In other words, at all educational (and hence social) levels of American society, and counting all sorts of group memberships, the average number of associational memberships has fallen by about a fourth over the last quarter-century"  (pp. 6-7).

· The proportion of Americans who socialize with their neighbors, according to the GSS, has declined from 72 percent in 1974 to 61 percent in 1993. This is somewhat offset by a rise in socializing with friends outside the immediate neighborhood, perhaps reflecting the increasing importance of social ties in the workplace.

Putnam also comments upon the decline of the extended and nuclear family (the decline of which is so well known he mentions only in passing) which he believes reflects the general erosion of connectedness, and may serve as one of the causes as well.

Working Women

In explaining the decline in social connectedness, Putnam calls in all the usual suspects. First and foremost, he argues, would be women moving into the outside labor force.  This movement serves to reduce the time and energy of a significant proportion of the population for social involvement. Here he notes that this trend, in and of itself, cannot easily explain the decline in participation by men which has been as significant as that by women. Male declines cannot be explained with "dishwashing crowded out the lodge."  He correctly points out that time-budget studies indicate that men are not sharing household chores and childcare in any significant way (particularly when women are asked the questions). Perhaps a fuller explanation would acknowledge that one of the "traditional roles" of women was to organize the social life of the family--this is yet another role that had to be compromised because of outside labor force participation--a role that males, yet again, have not taken up in any significant numbers.

Another possible reason for the decline, Putnam asserts, would be the hypothesis that geographical mobility disrupts social ties. Here, however, the evidence is mixed.  Putnam points out that a number of studies have found that residential stability and home ownership are clearly associated with greater involvement in the community. But, the evidence also shows, Putnam reports, that residential stability and home ownership has risen (modestly) in America since 1965, "and are surely higher now than during the 1950s, when civic engagement and social connectedness by our measures was definitely higher" (p. 8). I believe that the hypothesis is still viable, the problem may well be in our measures of residential stability. On a subjective level, the tie to a geographical place seems to be stronger among earlier generations. Perhaps the tie has been weakened by the cumulative effect of mobility over the last few generations.

Other demographic factors that Putnam briefly considers include the recent changes in the American family--divorce, fewer children, and lower real wages. "Each of these changes might account for some of the slackening of civic engagement, since married, middle-class parents are generally more socially Divorceinvolved than other people" (p. 8). Other changes, Putnam speculates, might include the changes in scale that have swept over the American economy in the last few decades.  Here, Putnam is referring to the decline of local merchants, growth of mass retailing, and the rise of multinationals.  The replacement of community-based enterprises by these giants, Putnam believes, may have undermined the "...material and even the physical basis for civic engagement" (p. 8).  

Finally, Putnam speculates that the "technological transformation of leisure" may also be partly responsible for the decline in social ties. Recent technological trends in entertainment have served to individualize tastes--privatizing the way we increasingly spend our leisure time.  Television, the growth of cable and satellite systems, DVRs, DVDs, video games, and soon the virtual reality helmets serve to isolate the individual from the group forms of entertainment of earlier societies. 

Other social trends dealt with in this book that are related to the decline in social engagement and community life would include the rise of the individualistic ethic,  the investment of more time and energy to work, and more general technological change such as those in transportation, computer and cellular phone communication.  The social process that I would identify as being most related to loss of community, however, is the increasing division of labor or specialization that prevents us from identifying with each other.

As often stated, Durkheim(1933/1893) posited that the increasing division of labor weakens the identification of the individual with the group, weakens the sense of shared values and outlook.  However, like Comte and de Tocqueville before him, Durkheim recognized that the increasing division of labor caused a greater reliance on a new bond between individual and society, a bond of enlightened self-interest. 

Because the individual is not sufficient unto himself, it is for society that he works. Thus is formed a very strong sentiment of the state of dependence in which he finds himself. He becomes accustomed to estimating it at its just value, that is to say, in regarding himself as part of a whole, the organ of an organism. Such sentiments naturally inspire not only mundane sacrifices which assure the regular development of daily social life, but even, on occasion, acts of complete self-renunciation and wholesale abnegation (p. 228).

But suppose this enlightened self-interest is no longer operative?  Robert Reich (1991) makes a compelling case that the recent globalization of the economy has meant that, at least among the elite, it is What's in it for me?no longer necessary for the society as a whole to do well for the elite to prosper.  In such a society, the individual is no longer functionally tied to the health and welfare of fellow citizens.  Community needs can be ignored without jeopardizing one’s own position.

Add to this erosion the hyper-specialization of individuals, as well as the sheer size, complexity, and cultural diversity of contemporary society, and acts of self-sacrifice, of submerging the narrow interest of the self to community or broader social needs lose their foundations.  Wendell Berry (1977) also comments upon this phenomenon: “Because by definition they lack any sense of mutuality or wholeness, our specializations subsist on conflict with one another.  The rule is never to cooperate, but rather to follow one’s own interest as far as possible.  Checks and balances are all applied externally, by opposition, never by self-restraint.  Labor, management, the military, the government, etc., never forbear until their excesses arouse enough opposition to force them to do so. The good of the whole of Creation, the world and all its creatures together, is never a consideration because it is never thought of; our culture now simply lacks the means for thinking of it” (p. 22). Traditions, sentiments, values and enlightened self-interest previously bound us together. These ties are loosening, and in their place we have substituted rational coordination and management of competing self-interested individuals.

If the decline in civic participation were simply confined to involvement in local community organizations it would be cause for serious concern. However, Putnam relates this decline to broader concerns such as the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions. "Researchers in such fields as education, urban poverty, and unemployment, the control of crime and drug abuse, and even health have discovered that successful outcomes are more likely in civically engaged communities.  Similarly, research on the varying economic attainments of different ethnic groups in the United States has demonstrated the importance of social bonds within each group" (p. 3)Civic Engagement. Scholars of the new democracies in the post-communist world, Putnam points out, have lamented the absence of traditions of civic involvement and the widespread passive reliance on the state to provide services. Putnam also concludes from his own study of governments in different regions of Italy that the performance of representative government varied by local norms of civic commitment. "Voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and football clubs--these were the hallmarks of a successful region.  In fact, historical analysis suggested that these networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic modernization, were a precondition for it" (p. 4). Individual involvement in community organizations, Putnam points out, provide several benefits for the community at large. These networks promote communications between members of the community, often providing the coordination needed for collective action. In addition, local networks encourage the individual to identify with the broader community, thus lessening the incentives for the opportunistic behavior of self-aggrandizement.  Finally, involvement in civic organizations promote norms of self-government and traditions of community collaboration that can be drawn upon for future social action.  The decline of these organizations in advanced industrial societies, Putnam asserts, are a matter of complex cultural significance.

Perhaps the most significant symptom of the decline in civic involvement is in democratic participation in local, state and national government. Putnam reports on the well-known decline in voter turnout in national elections since the 1960s--a decline of nearly 25 percent. Similar trends occur in state and local elections as well.  Putnam also reports on Roper Organization data from national samples over the last two decades that reveal that Americans who attended public meetings on town or school affairs 'in the past year' has fallen from 22 percent in 1973 to 13 percent in 1993.  "Similar (or even greater) relative declines are evident in responses to questions about attending a political rally or speech, serving on a committee of soI Votedme local organization, and working for a political party" (p. 4). This decline is also evident in the numbers of Americans who "trust the government in Washington" only "some of the time" or "almost never" which has gone from 30 percent in 1966 to 75 percent in 1992 (p.4). The decline in social trust, according to the GSS data, extends across all social institutions--the media, courts, labor unions, corporations.  Perhaps most ominously, the decline in social trust extends to other individuals as well. "The proportion of Americans saying that most people can be trusted fell by more than a third between 1960, when 58 percent chose that alternative, and 1993, when only 37 percent did.  The same trend is apparent in all educational groups; indeed, because social trust is also correlated with education and because educational levels have risen sharply, the overall decrease in social trust is even more apparent if we control for education" (p. 7). 

Putnam does note one significant "countertrend" in the form of new mass-membership political organizations.  Groups like the Sierra Club, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) have grown exponentially during the 1970s and 1980s.  While Putnam believes these groups are obviously of "great political importance" they are of a different character than the community organizations of the past.  "For the vast majority of their members, the only act of membership consists in writing a check for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter. Few ever attend any meetings of such organizations, and most are unlikely ever (knowingly) to encounter any other member.  The bond between two members of the Sierra Club is less like the bond between any two members of a gardening club and more like the bond between any two Red Sox fans (or perhaps any two devoted Honda owners): they root for the same team and they share some of the same interests, but they are unaware of each other's existence" (p. 6).  [End of Excerpt]


Berry, Wendell.  1977. The Unsettling of America.  San Francisco: Sierra Club.

Durkheim, David Emile. 1933 [1893] The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George Simpson. New York: The Free Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 1995.  "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Current 373 (June): 3-9.

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