1996: The Civic Enigma

More than a decade ago, I began to explore changes in Americans' civic engagement and social connectedness (for which I borrowed the term “social capital”) and the impact of those changes on our communities and our democracy. My initial findings, suggesting a remarkable decline in social capital nationwide, appeared in a 1995 article called “Bowling Alone” in the Journal of Democracy. A year later, The American Prospect published “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,” a preliminary investigation of explanations for the decline.

These articles -- along with work by other scholars, some predating mine -- triggered a massive international debate that has proved one of the most fecund controversies in recent scholarly and public life. Last year, after a decade of exponential growth, scholarly articles about social capital were appearing at a rate approaching one a day. Press articles using the term soared from 136 in 1994 to 1,649 in 2004. Not all the research supported my thesis -- far from it! Here I present a not-entirely-impartial assessment of what that debate has shown about four central questions raised by the original articles.

What has happened to civic engagement and social capital in America over the last 30 to 40 years? The first wave of critical commentary suggested that I had missed some crucial countertrends, such as the rise of soccer teams and self-help groups; if only we looked more closely, the picture would supposedly not be so dire. But as I reported in my book Bowling Alone, the more data I gathered, the more dismal the picture became. Though disputes continue along the margins, this controversy seems to have moved toward a broad consensus that the initial reaction of the American public to the debate was correct: We are, in fact, less civically engaged than our parents were.

Why the decline? “Strange Disappearance” identified several suspects, including a World War II generational effect, the movement of women into the workplace, and so on, though many read my argument as essentially monocausal -- television as the root of all evil. Subsequent research supported many of the article's hypotheses, but I now think that my analysis overlooked three important factors: the growth of inequality, the growth of diversity, and the decay of mobilizing organizations. (I'm currently engaged in research on several of those omitted forces.)

Does it matter? Most public commentators have assumed all along that if civic engagement were, in fact, declining, it would be big news. Social scientists have been appropriately more cautious, wanting incontrovertible evidence that social capital is actually a cause, and not merely a correlate, of the benefits I claimed -- better schools, longer lives, more responsive government, and so on. It is premature to render a final verdict on this still-heated debate, though I expect that more sophisticated research will, in the end, vindicate the importance of social connectivity for American politics and society.

What can we do about it? The weakest part of my argument was the paucity of solutions, and it remains so despite the creative insights of many people and my own efforts, as exemplified in the book Better Together. That our democracy seems even less healthy today than it was a decade ago suggests that my diagnosis was right -- and that practicable ideas for revitalizing American civic life are needed more urgently than ever.

Robert D. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy and former dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.