Robert Putnam, social capital and civic community

putnam_gnuRobert Putnam, social capital and civic community. Robert Putnam has been described as the most influential academic in the world today. His book Bowling Alone seems to have struck a chord with many concerned with the state of public life. Is the hype justified? We explore Putnam’s contribution and its significance for informal educators and animateurs.

Contents: introduction · life · the civic community · social capital · civic involvement – the Bowling Alone phenomenon ·social capital and social change · conclusion: putnam and informal education · further reading and references · links · how to cite this article

Robert D Putnam (1941- ) has made some influential friends in recent years. He has been the focus of seminars hosted by Bill Clinton at Camp David and Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street. His ideas have popped up in speeches by George W. Bush and William Hague. The decline of civil engagement in the USA over the last 30 years or so, which he charted in Bowling Alone (2000), has worried a number of politicians and commentators. Robert Putnam’s marshalling of evidence with regard to this shift; his identification of the causes; and his argument that within the new circumstances new institutions of civic engagement can arise has made him the centre of attention. However, his contribution to thinking about the nature of civic society – and its relation to political life is based on more than his analysis of US experience.


Born and raised in Port Clinton, Ohio, Robert Putnam is one of a long series of writers on community and civic participation that comes from a small town (John Dewey is a another famous example). His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a builder. Port Clinton was ‘pretty unremarkable’ but ‘a good place in which to grow up’ according to Robert Putnam. Like many adolescents in small town America in the 1950s he found aspects of the life stifling. His family had been moderate Republican and Methodist, but his political and religious commitments were to not to be the same. Putnam went to Swarthmore College, Philadelphia – the Quaker higher education institution known for its liberalism, commitment to social involvement and intellectual rigour.

I went to Swarthmore College as a physics major. Swarthmore was the greatest intellectual influence on my life. It was a small, highly intellectual, extremely demanding, and politically very engaged place – quite radical, in fact… I gradually moved from physics to chemistry to biology and finally majored in psychology, but in my senior year I decided I was really interested in political science….

At Swarthmore I was taught by two great teachers, the political theorist Roland Pennock, and a student of American government named Chuck Gilbert. They were very hard nosed, rigorous, serious thinkers, and that excited me – that you can apply some of the rigour of the sciences, where I was coming from, to politics. (Putnam interviewed in ECPR News 2000)

There Robet Putnam met his wife, Rosemary. A sign of the shift in his politics was that on their first date, she took him to a Kennedy rally (and they were later to travel to Washington to see the inauguration).

The early sixties were an unusual period in America. There was a great deal of political discussion and activism – it was the time of civil rights (and we were all involved in sit-ins and protests to some degree) and of Kennedy’s election to the White House, which had an amazingly strong impact on young people at the time. I remember we rode overnight on a train – I, and the girl I was dating, now my wife – to Washington, and stood at the back of the crowd at the Kennedy inaugural. The language of his speech – ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ – had a powerful personal impact. (Robert Putnam interviewed in ECPR News 2000)

Rosemary also introduced him to Judaism (her faith). He adopted the faith, particularly attracted by the ‘unique and intense of community’ he found among Jews (Appleyard 2001).

Graduating from Swarthmore with a bachelor of arts degree with highest honours in 1963, Robert Putnam went on to study at Balliol College, Oxford – where he spent a good deal of time with David Butler and Donald Stokes, (who were writing Political Change in Britain at the time). He then went to Yale to do graduate work. There he earned a master’s in 1965 and a doctorate in 1970. He had wanted to do a comparative study covering Britain and a contrasting country. He chose Italy – partly influenced by Joe LaPalombara’s enthusiasm for the country. This work became the book, The Beliefs of Politicians. Published in 1973 it was to establish him as a major figure in his discipline. Robert Putnam’s reputation was further strengthened by studies of political elites (1976) and summits (1984).

Following graduation, he joined the University of Michigan faculty, becoming a full professor of political science in 1975. In 1979, Robert Putnam moved to Harvard as a professor of government and subsequently served as department chair from 1984 to 1988. In 1989, he was appointed dean of the Kennedy School of Government and Don K. Price Professor of Politics. He is now the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University – and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in American politics, international relations, comparative politics, and public policy.

Early in the 1970s Putnam began a collaboration with Robert Lonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti that nearly twenty years later resulted in the seminal work Making Democracy Work (1993). Based on a study of Italian politics and, in particular, the experience of the move to regional government post-1970, this book displays a number of the classic Robert Putnam hallmarks. These include: sustained and detailed attention to empirical data; a commitment to producing material that could help with the task of enhancing the quality of social and political discourse; and grounded and accessible writing. The book’s concern with civic community and social capital was a direct precursor to Bowling Alone (1995, 2000) – Putnam’s very influential study of the decline in civic engagement in the United States.

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… I frankly was astonished. (AHEE interview 1995)

The original ‘Bowling Alone’ article generated a great deal of interest (see <href=”#debate”> the Bowling Alone debate below). It is easy to see why when Robert Putnam talks about the significance of social connectedness and just how pervasive are its effects.

We are not talking here simply about nostalgia for the 1950s. School performance, public health, crime rates, clinical depression, tax compliance, philanthropy, race relations, community development, census returns, teen suicide, economic productivity, campaign finance, even simple human happiness — all are demonstrably affected by how (and whether) we connect with our family and friends and neighbours and co-workers.

And most Americans instinctively recognize that we need to reconnect with one another. Figuring out how to reconcile the competing obligations of work and family and community is the ultimate “kitchen table” issue. As practical solutions to the problem become clearer — a radical expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act is my current favorite — the latent public support for addressing the underlying issue will become an irresistible “market” for ambitious political candidates. (Atlantic Unbound interview 2000)

Beem (1999: 86-7) makes the point that the astonishing response to the article revealed that Putnam struck ‘a very raw, very sensitive nerve’. His case appeared to offer a clear and convincing explanation for the unease that many were feeling.

As part of his follow-up to the article Robert Putnam launched the Saguaro Seminars. These were a series of meetings held around the USA at which ‘leaders and intellectuals’ considered how they might ‘build bonds of civic trust among Americans and their communities’. He is also founder of The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America, a programme that attempts to bring together leading practitioners and thinkers over a period of time to develop broad-scale, but actionable, ideas to fortify US civic connectedness.

Following the publication of Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam has been involved in a major, five year, study and survey of social capital in the United States, and a joint Harvard/ Manchester University collaboration on social change. The former explores a number of sensitive areas – such as the impact of social diversity on social capital (Putnam 2007); the latter focuses on four areas of social change: immigration; the changing workplace and the consequences of women moving into the paid workforce; the changing role of religion in society; and inequality, particularly the mounting evidence of the inheritance of class and how it restricts social mobility (Bunting 2007).

Robert Putnam has served on a variety of bodies including the staff of the National Security Council. He sits on the Advisory Council on Environmentally Sustainable Development at the World Bank and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Robert Putnam is currently President of the American Political Science Association (2001 – 2002). He is an occasional consultant to the Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency and The World Bank. He lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, and Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

Here we will focus briefly on three aspects of his work. These are his exploration of the nature of civic community, his presentation of social capital, the Bowling Alone phenomenon, and its aftermath. From there we will turn to his significance for educators – in particular informal educators.

The civic community

One of the most compelling studies of civic virtue in politics in recent years was by Robert Putnam and his colleagues in Making Democracy Work (1993: 83-120) (see civic community and civic engagement elsewhere on these pages for a fuller discussion). Their initial concern was to explore the relationship of economic modernity and institutional performance. What they discovered in their investigation of civic traditions in modern Italy was a strong link between the performance of political institutions and the character of civic life – what they termed ‘the civic community’ (ibid: 15). Such communities were characterized by:

Civic engagement

Political equality

Solidarity, trust and tolerance

A strong associational life.

Robert Putnam and his colleagues were able to then take these themes and to connect them up with a range of data sources for different regions in Italy. They found that a clear line could be drawn between civic and ‘uncivic’ regions – and that ‘public affairs are more successfully ordered’ in the former (Putnam 1993: 113). His conclusion was that democracies (and economies) ‘work better when there exists an independent and long-standing tradition of civic engagement’ (Beem 1999: 85). The book effectively set an agenda for those wanting to explore the creation of convivial conditions for of democracy to flourish.

Social capital

The notion of social capital has been around for decades (see the article on social capital elsewhere on these pages for a fuller treatment). It is with the work of Jane Jacobs (1961), Pierre Bourdieu (1983), James S. Coleman (1988) and Robert D. Putnam (1993; 2000) that it has come into prominence. This is how Putnam (2000: 19) introduces the idea:

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

In other words, interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric. A sense of belonging and the concrete experience of social networks (and the relationships of trust and tolerance that can be involved) can, it is argued, bring great benefits to people.

The discussion of social capital in Making Democracy Work while setting out little that was new or original with regard to the concept, did operationalize it in an interesting way – and made possible the development of the arguments in Bowling Alone.

Civic involvement – the Bowling Alone phenomenon

In 1995 Robert Putnam followed up his work on civic involvement in Italy with an exploration of US experience. He began with the same thesis: ‘the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions (and not only in America) are… powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement’ (1995: 66). He then went on to demonstrate that on a range indicators of civic engagement including voting, political participation, newspaper readership, and participation in local associations that there were serious grounds for concern. It appeared that America’s social capital was in decline. He concluded:

The concept of “civil society” has played a central role in the recent global debate about the preconditions for democracy and democratization. In the newer democracies this phrase has properly focused attention on the need to foster a vibrant civic life in soils traditionally inhospitable to self-government. In the established democracies, ironically, growing numbers of citizens are questioning the effectiveness of their public institutions at the very moment when liberal democracy has swept the battlefield, both ideologically and geopolitically. In America, at least, there is reason to suspect that this democratic disarray may be linked to a broad and continuing erosion of civic engagement that began a quarter-century ago. High on our scholarly agenda should be the question of whether a comparable erosion of social capital may be under way in other advanced democracies, perhaps in different institutional and behavioral guises. High on America’s agenda should be the question of how to reverse these adverse trends in social connectedness, thus restoring civic engagement and civic trust. (Putnam 1995: 77)

The data used was disputed – and there were a number of commentators who argued that what was being seen was change rather than necessarily decline (see the <href=”#debate”>Bowling Alone <href=”#debate”>debatebelow). However, the article was simply Putnam’s first step.

In Bowling Alone (2000) Putnam followed up with a comprehensive exploration of a substantial array of data sources. The evidence began to look convincing. First in the realm of civic engagement and social connectedness he was able to demonstrate that, for example, over the last three decades of the twentieth century there had been a fundamental shift in:

Political and civic engagement. Voting, political knowledge, political trust, and grassroots political activism are all down. Americans sign 30 per cent fewer petitions and are 40 per cent less likely to join a consumer boycott, as compared to just a decade or two ago. The declines are equally visible in non-political community life: membership and activity in all sorts of local clubs and civic and religious organizations have been falling at an accelerating pace. In the mid-1970s the average American attended some club meeting every month, by 1998 that rate of attendance had been cut by nearly 60 per cent.

Informal social ties. In 1975 the average American entertained friends at home 15 times per year; the equivalent figure (1998) is now barely half that. Virtually all leisure activities that involve doing something with someone else, from playing volleyball to playing chamber music, are declining.

Tolerance and trust. Although Americans are more tolerant of one another than were previous generations, they trust one another less. Survey data provide one measure of the growth of dishonesty and distrust, but there are other indicators. For example, employment opportunities for police, lawyers, and security personnel were stagnant for most of this century – indeed, America had fewer lawyers per capita in 1970 than in 1900. In the last quarter century these occupations boomed, as people have increasingly turned to the courts and the police. (

He went on to examine the possible reasons for this decline. Crucially, he was able to demonstrate that some favourite candidates for blame could not be regarded as significant. Residential mobility had actually been declining for the last half of the century. Time pressure, especially on two-career families, could only be a marginal candidate. Some familiar themes remained though:

  • Changes in family structure (i.e. with more and more people living alone), are a possible element as conventional avenues to civic involvement are not well-designed for single and childless people.
  • Suburban sprawl has fractured the spatial integrity of people’s. They travel much further to work, shop and enjoy leisure opportunities. As a result there is less time available (and less inclination) to become involved in groups. Suburban sprawl is a very significant contributor.
  • Electronic entertainment, especially television, has profoundly privatized leisure time. The time we spend watching television is a direct drain upon involvement in groups and social capital building activities. It may contribute up to 40 per cent of the decline in involvement in groups.

However, generational change came out as a very significant factor. A “long civic generation,” born in the first third of the twentieth century, is now passing from the American scene. ‘Their children and grandchildren (baby boomers and Generation X-ers) are much less engaged in most forms of community life. For example, the growth in volunteering over the last ten years is due almost entirely to increased volunteering by retirees from the long civic generation’ ( The book also explores the consequences of a decline in social capital (and the benefits enjoyed by those communities with a substantial stock of it), and what can be done (see the discussion elsewhere on social capital).

Various criticisms can be mounted against the argument – and most tellingly, initially, against the data and its interpretation – however, Putnam has mounted a very significant and sustained case here (see our social capital piece) – but it is still open to various criticisms (see, for example, Skocpol 2003).

Social capital and social change

The follow-up US study to Bowling Alone has also stimulated debate. The first findings from the study found that, in the short run, immigration and ethnic diversity tended to reduce social solidarity and social capital. In ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’.

Diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically-defined group hostility, our findings suggest. Rather, inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbours, regardless of the colour of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television. Note that this pattern encompasses attitudes and behavior, bridging and bonding social capital, public and private connections. Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us. (Putnam 2007)

Trust (even of one’s own ‘race’) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer (Putnam 2007).

Robert Putnam has also sought to track emerging, significant generators of social capital – and to examine some of the qualities that make them significant. Religion has been a particular focus – not surprising as in his view religious affiliations account for half of all US social capital. Bunting (2007) reports him as citing US megachurches which, typically, attract tens of thousands of members, as ‘the most interesting social invention of late 20th century’.

They have very low barriers to entry – the doors are open, there are folding chairs out on the patio – they make it very easy to surf by. You can leave easily. But then they ramp people up to a huge commitment – at some megachurches, half of all members are tithing [giving a tenth of their income]. How do they get from the low to the high commitment? By a honeycomb structure of thousands of small groups: they have the mountain bikers for God group, the volleyball players for God, the breast cancer survivors for God, the spouses of the breast cancer survivors for God, and so on.

The intense tie is not to the theology but in the emotional commitment to others in their small group. Most of these people are seeking meaning in their lives but they are also seeking friends. The small groups spend two hours a week together – doing the volleyball or the mountain biking and praying; they become your closest friends. These churches form in places of high mobility – people live there for six weeks and the church provides the community connection. When you lose your job, they’ll tide you over, when your wife gets ill, they’ll bring the chicken soup. (quoted in Bunting 2007)

One of Putnam’s conclusions is that this ‘low entry/ honeycomb structure’ could be used to reinvigorate many other organisations.

Conclusion: Robert Putnam and informal education

Robert Putnam’s discussion of social capital provides informal educators with a powerful rationale for their activities – after all the classic working environment for the informal educator is the group, club or organization. The evidence and analysis also provides a stunning case against those who want to target work towards those who present the most significant problems and tie informal educators’ activities to the achievement of specific outcomes in individuals. Several points need underlining here.

First, from the material marshalled by Robert Putnam we can see that the simple act of joining and being regularly involved in organized groups has a very significant impact on individual health and well-being. Working so that people may join groups – whether they are organized around enthusiasms and interests, social activity, or economic and political aims – can make a considerable contribution in itself. Encouraging the development of associational life can also make a significant difference to the experience of being in different communities. Here we might highlight the case of schooling. Educational achievement is likely to rise significantly, and the quality of day-to-day interaction is likely to be enhanced by a much greater emphasis on the cultivation of extra-curricula activity involving groups and teams.

Second, informal education’s longstanding concern with association and the quality of life in associations can make a direct and important contribution to the development of social networks (and the relationships of trust and tolerance that is usually involved) and the strengthening of democracy. Informal educators interest in dialogue and conversation, and the cultivation of environments in which people can work together, take them to the heart of what is required to strengthen and develop social capital. Their ethical position also demands they attend to the downsides of networks – in particular, the extent to which they are oppressive and narrowing. A focus on tolerance and the acceptance, if not the celebration, of difference is required. There is a place for both bridging and bonding social capital.

Third, there is very strong argument here against those who wish to concentrate the bulk of resources on groups and individuals who present the strongest social problems (currently the received thinking among many policymakers – see, for example, the Connexions strategy in England). If we follow Robert Putnam’s analysis through then we can see that, for example, crime can be reduced, educational achievement enhanced and better health fostered through the strengthening of social capital. Significantly this entails working across communities – and in particular sustaining the commitment and capacities already involved in community organizations and enthusiast groups, and encouraging those on the cusp of being actively involved. The majority of the people we are talking about here cannot be classified as suffering from multiple disadvantage, will not be engaged in criminal activity, and will be (or have been) engaged with education systems and/or the world of work. In other words, open and generic work needs to be afforded a far higher priority – and so-called ‘issue-based’ work needs to be more closely interrogated as to the benefits it brings.

Robert Putnam has done us a great service here, and while aspects of his argument will no doubt be disputed over the coming years, his central message is surely true. Interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric.

Bibliography and further reading

Putnam, R. D. (1993) Making Democracy Work. Civic traditions in modern Italy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 258 + xv pages. Based on substantial empirical research, this book argues that the quality of civic life is central the cultivation of successful institutions in a democratic society. The book makes particular use of the notion of social capital.

Putnam, R. D. (1995) ’Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, The Journal of Democracy, 6:1, pages 65-78.

Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 540 pages. Groundbreaking book that marshals evidence from an array of empirical and theoretical sources. Putnam argues there has been a decline in ‘social capital’ in the USA. He charts a drop in associational activity and a growing distance from neighbours, friends and family. Crucially he explores some of the possibilities that exist for rebuilding social capital. A modern classic. Chapter One of the book is extracted on-line at the Simon and Shuster website (Bowling Alone).

Putnam, R. D. (ed.) (2002) Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society, New York: Oxford University Press. 522 pages. Further exploration of social transformations using the notion of social capital within ‘economically advanced democracies’.


Aberbach, J. D., R. D. Putnam, B. A. Rockman (1981) Bureaucrats and politicians in western democracies, Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press.

Beem, C. (1999) The Necessity of Politics. Reclaiming American public life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1983) ‘Forms of capital’ in J. C. Richards (ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, New York: Greenwood Press.

Clark, T., Putnam, R. D., and Fieldhouse, R. (2010). The Age of Obama: The Changing Place of Minorities in British and American Society. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Coleman, J. C. (1988) Social capital in the creation of human capital’ American Journal of Sociology 94: S95-S120.

Coleman, J. C. (1990) Foundations of Social Theory, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Fukuyama, F. (1999) The Great Disruption. Human nature and the reconstitution of social order, London: Profile Books.

Jacobs, J. (1961) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random

Putnam, R. D. (1973) The beliefs of politicians: ideology, conflict, and democracy in Britain and Italy, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (1976) The comparative study of political elites, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Putnam, R. D. (1993) ’The prosperous community: social capital and public life’ in the American Prospect, 4:13

Putnam, R. D. (1996) ’The Strange Disappearance of Civic America’ in the American Prospect, 7: 24 and a correction

Putnam, Robert D. (2007) E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture’, Scandinavian Political Studies 30 (2), 137–174. [ Accessed August 8, 2007]

Putnam, R. D. and Bayne,N. (1984) Hanging together : the seven-power summits, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Skocpol, T. (2003) Diminished Democracy. From membership to management in American civic life, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.


AAHE (1995) An Interview with Robert Putnam Interview conducted by Russ Edgerton for the AAHE Bulletin.

Appleyard, B. (2001) ‘Joining the team, it’s a better way of life’, Sunday Times March 25, page 8.

The Atlantic Online (2000) Lonely in America. Interview conducted Sage Stossel.

Bunting, Madeleine (2007) ‘Capital ideas’, The Guardian July 18, 2007. [,,2128343,00.html. Accessed July 19, 2007].

ECPR News (2000) Leaders of the Profession: Robert Putnam – Interview with Ken Newton, ECPR News 11: 2.

The Bowling Alone debate

Putnam, R. D. (1995) ’Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, The Journal of Democracy, 6:1, pages 65-78.

Articles in response to the original ‘Bowling Alone’ article:

Michael Schudson, “What If Civic Life Didn’t Die,” The American Prospect no. 25 (March-April 1996).

Theda Skocpol, “Unravelling From Above,” The American Prospect no. 25 (March-April 1996).

Richard M. Valelly, “Coach-Potato Democracy,” The American Prospect no. 25 (March-April 1996).

Robert Putnam, “Robert Putnam Responds,” The American Prospect no. 25 (March-April 1996).

William A. Galston, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” The American Prospect no. 26 (May-June 1996).

Alejandro Portes & Patricia Landolt, “The Downside of Social Capital,” The American Prospect no. 26 (May-June 1996).

Nicholas Lemann, “Kicking in Groups,” The Atlantic Monthly (April 1996).


Going Bowling. Listen to a National Public Radio on interview by Robert Siegel.

Acknowledgement: Picture: Robert Putnam – by Thomastheo – released for use under the under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2001, 2007) ‘Robert Putnam’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education, Last update: May 29, 2012.

© Mark K. Smith 2001, 2007