A Public Scholar and His
As one of the most publicly engaged
social scientists of his generation, Robert Putnam has more than met the
obligation that he laid out for his fellow political scientists in his 2003
Presidential Lecture before the American Political Science Association. In
fact, Putnam has built his career on the rare ability to combine rigorous
research methods with an engaging and accessible writing style. His work has
consistently focused on exploring important social and political issues,
including early research on international conflict resolution, best-selling
research on social capital, and his most recent research on the changing role
of religion in American life. Moreover, Putnam has put his research and
theories into action through such efforts as the Saguaro Seminar – a project
focused on “expanding what we know about our levels of
trust and community engagement and on developing strategies and efforts to
increase this engagement.”
He has been called upon to offer advice to world leaders such as former
President Bill Clinton and Former Prime Minister Tony Blair regarding matters
of civic engagement; has made numerous public appearances discussing the
practical implications of his research; and has written editorials with such
engaged and practical titles as “How Joblessness
Hurts Us All” and “A Better Welcome for Our
Putnam is the Peter and Isabel
Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, and Visiting Professor and
Director of the Manchester Graduate Summer Programme in Social Change,
University of Manchester (UK). He is widely renowned as an expert on the topic
of social capital
and has just published American Grace:
How Religion Divides and Unites Us, a much-anticipated new book on
religious life in America.
Putnam became a truly public
political scientist with the publication of his widely-read article, “Bowling
Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” followed by the publication of
his best-selling book Bowling
Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
In both the article and the book, Putnam warned us that while more Americans
than ever before were bowling, fewer of us were bowling in leagues. Using
bowling league data and virtually every other relevant source of credible data
available, Putnam presented a convincing case that traditional forms of social
connection had declined dramatically in the last third of the twentieth
century. As measured by levels of political and civic engagement, extent of
informal social ties, and degrees of tolerance and trust of others, America’s
supply of social capital has declined dramatically since the 1950s. Anticipating
popular works like Freakonomics and Blink: The Power of
Thinking Without Thinking
by several years, Putnam’s Bowling Alone marked the beginning of the
recent surge in popular social science.
Putnam followed Bowling Alone
with a project spurred by the questions he heard most frequently while
promoting the book: “What can we do to end the atrophy of America’s civic
vitality? What can bring us together again?”
In Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Putnam and his
collaborators presented twelve case studies of diverse groups and organizations
that represent “social-capital success stories.” In keeping with his commitment
to use scholarship as a means of contributing to the public good, Putnam made
the practical goals of Better Together explicit from the start:
We focus on these
social-capital success stories, hoping and believing that they may in fact be
harbingers of a broader revival of social capital in this country. We hope and
believe that they may perhaps guide and inspire others who are seeking ways to
build social capital and to accomplish goals or solve problems that are as
challenging as those faced by the groups described in Better Together.
Better Together includes
stories of sixth-grade activists in a small Wisconsin town, successful small
business initiatives that rely on social networks, and examples of huge
churches that have successfully built community among their members. By
studying and describing these diverse examples of social capital creation,
Putnam was able to extract lessons on how to rebuild the social capital that America
has lost. These lessons include the fact that building social capital takes
sustained time and effort, that social capital is mainly a local phenomenon,
and that the creation of common spaces (physical and virtual) is an effective
strategy for forging connections among diverse people.
Putnam’s next major publication
tackled the thorny subject of the negative impact of increasing diversity on
social solidarity, civic engagement, and levels of trust within communities.
In “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century”
(the 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture), Putnam presented findings from the Social
Capital Community Benchmark Survey,
the largest and most comprehensive survey of civic engagement in America. The
survey results revealed that Americans who live in more ethnically diverse
communities are less likely to vote, do volunteer work, and trust others (both of
the same and of different ethnicities/races) than are those who live in more
ethnically homogenous communities. In other words, higher levels of ethnic and
racial diversity are related to lower levels of civic health.
Ever sensitive to the public
implications of his research, Putnam concluded his article by noting, “It would
be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny the reality
of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity. It would be equally
unfortunate if an ahistorical and ethnocentric conservatism were to deny that
addressing the challenge is both feasible and desirable.”
Putnam expressed optimism that America can meet the challenge through policies
that focus on “the reconstruction of ethnic identities, reducing their social
salience without eliminating their personal importance.”
Putnam based at least some of his
optimism about Americans’ ability to deconstruct the disruptive salience of
ethnic divisions, while retaining the personal importance of ethnicity, on the
fact that religious affiliation has become significantly less socially salient
over the last several decades, while remaining important personally. In his
next major research project, he turned his attention fully to this topic: in
his most recent book, American Grace:
How Religion Divides and Unites Us (published in October 2010), Putnam and
his co-author, David E. Campbell, examine the impact of religion on American
life and how religious attitudes have changed over time.
Just as he did when confronting
important questions about the nature of social capital, Putnam sought answers
to hot-button issues of religion and public life by directing the largest, most
comprehensive survey ever on the topic. The Faith Matters data is based
on a two-wave panel study, consisting of an initial phone survey in 2006 and a
follow-up panel in 2007. This panel design allowed Putnam and his colleagues to
measure change in religiosity and other variables over time, and to make claims
about causality with more confidence than typical cross-sectional survey data
would have allowed.
American Grace details two
major countervailing trends in American religion: growing polarization and
growing pluralism. Growing polarization refers to the fact that there are more
religious conservatives and more secular liberals than ever before, while the number
of religious moderates has shrunk. Growing religious pluralism results from
the increasing frequency of interfaith marriages, individual religious
switching, and remarkably high overall levels of interreligious relationships
The combination of a timely and
volatile topic and a well-known author ensured that American Grace was
hotly anticipated, and the book has received significant pre-publication
attention. More than a year before its release, Michael Gerson of The
Washington Post predicted that American Grace “will make just about
everyone constructively uncomfortable.”
Some of the uncomfortable findings
reported in American Grace include the fact that religious Americans are
more neighborly, more generous (even to secular causes), and more likely to do
volunteer work of all kinds than are secular Americans. Interestingly,
religious Americans’ higher levels of generosity seem to be more highly related
to being members of faith communities than to the particular tenets and
teachings of their religion. On the other hand, Putnam also found that
religious Americans are significantly less tolerant of others and less
supportive of civil rights than their secular counterparts.
American Grace also contains
ample evidence of religious mixing and religious tolerance. Most Americans
today marry someone outside their religion, and nearly half of all Americans
switch religions during their lifetime. It is this “religious churn” that keeps
the demographic trend of greater religious polarization from turning into
troubling levels of religious conflict and intolerance. Americans encounter
people of different religious backgrounds and beliefs more than ever before –
in neighborhoods, at work, and in their own marriages and families. It is this
close contact with people who are religiously different that fosters the
“peaceful pluralism” that characterizes American religious life today.
A Personal Scholar and his
One of the hallmarks of Putnam’s
writing is his use of storytelling. Better Together is explicitly a book
of stories, intended to illustrate various ways in which social capital has been
successfully cultivated. In much of Putnam’s other work, he uses stories strategically
to provide contextual anchors for the data that he presents. These stories
serve at least two other purposes: first, they make it clear that Putnam is a
far cry from the stereotypical ivory-tower professor, offering only a detached
and analytical relationship to the topics that s/he studies; and second, they
provide readers with richer and more personal biographical insights than his
biography page at the Harvard
Kennedy School website ever could.
For example, to illustrate how the
salience of religious identification has changed over time in America, Putnam
I grew up in a
small town in the Midwest in the 1950s. Of the 150 students in my senior class,
I knew the religion of virtually every one. Even now, when I have long
forgotten their names, I can generally remember who was a Catholic, who was a
Methodist and so on. Nor was that some personal quirk of mine, because in fact
most of my classmates knew everyone else’s religion. My own children, who went
to high school in the 1980s, knew the religion of hardly any of their
As an example of the declining
importance of norms of religious endogamy, Putnam describes the religious
diversity of his own family:
The family tree of
your other author (Putnam) also encapsulates the religious churn that is so
common in America. He and his sister were raised as observant Methodists in the
1950s. He converted to Judaism at marriage; he and his wife raised their two
children as Jews. One child married a practicing Catholic, who has since left
the church and is now secular. The other child married someone with no clear
religious affiliation but who subsequently converted to Judaism. Meanwhile,
Putnam’s sister married a Catholic and converted to Catholicism. Her three
children became devout, active evangelicals of several different varieties. So
this homogenous Methodist household in midcentury America has given rise to an
array of religious affiliations (and nonaffiliations) that reflects the full
gamut of American religious diversity.
In his 2006 Johan Skytte Prize
Lecture, Putnam illustrates the bystander benefits of social capital with a
My wife and I have
the good fortune to live in a neighbourhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, that
has a good deal of social capital: barbecues and cocktail parties and so on. I
am able to be in Uppsala, Sweden [the site of the lecture], confident that my
home is being protected by all that social capital, even though — and this is
the moment for confession — I actually never go to the barbecues and cocktail
Also in his Skytte Prize Lecture,
Putnam tells a story about his granddaughter Miriam’s initial attempts at
understanding her own multi-ethnic identity:
Several of my
grandchildren were raised in Costa Rica, the children of an American mother (my
daughter) and a Costa Rican father. A few years ago they moved to Pittsburgh
and at the end of the first week of school, my granddaughter Miriam came home
and asked my daughter: “People keep calling me ‘Hispanic.’ What do they mean? I
tell them ‘No, I’m Costa Rican.’” My daughter… replied: “Hispanic is how North
Americans refer to people whose parents came from Latin America.” “Oh,” asked
Miriam, “is Daddy Hispanic?” “Yes,” replied my daughter. After a pause, Miriam
asked: “Are you Hispanic?” and my daughter replied “No.” After a much longer
pause came Miriam’s inevitable question: “Am I Hispanic?”
These stories reveal an academic
whose current life of elite education, relative fame, and international travel
likely bears little resemblance to the experiences of his small-town childhood.
Putnam travels far and often, but — as if to sustain his own research findings —
admits that he himself never attends the social gatherings that mark his
current Cambridge, Massachusetts neighborhood as a community rich in social
capital. At the same time, he is a family man who treasures the many personal
details of his children’s and grandchildren’s lives. First and foremost, though,
he is a scholar — always quick to explore the broader social issues raised by
those private stories.
His 2010 Stanford University
Presidential Lecture, “American Grace: The Changing Role of Religion in America,” is likely to be characterized by the same blend of scholarly rigor, public
relevance, and personal insight that has permeated Robert Putnam’s research and
writing throughout his career.
Robert D. Putnam, “APSA Presidential Address:
The Public Role of Political Science,” Perspectives on Politics 1 (2003), pp.
Saguaro Seminar webpage: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/saguaro/.
In “E Pluribus Unum,” Putnam defines social capital as “social networks and the
associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness” (Scandinavian Political
Studies 30 : 137).
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides
and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).
Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal
of Democracy 6 (1995): pp. 65-78); Bowling Alone: The Collapse and
Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
Steven D, Levitt and Stephen J Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist
Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (New York: William Morrow, 2005);
Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big
Difference (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000).
Robert D. Putnam, Lewis M Feldstein, and Don Cohen, Better Together:
Restoring the American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003). http://bettertogether.org/about.htm
Better Together, p. 5.
Robert D. Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” Scandinavian Political Studies 30:2
(June 2007), pp. 137-174.
Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, 2000: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/data/datasets/social_capital_community_survey.html.
“E Pluribus Unum,” p. 165.
“E pluribus Unum,” p. 161.
Michael Gerson, “The Faith for the Nones: The Right Kind of Religion Would
Bring You Back,” The Washington Post, May 8, 2009: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/07/AR2009050703056.html.
“E Pluribus Unum,” p. 160.
American Grace, pp. 35-36.
“E Pluribus Unum,” p. 138.
“E Pluribus Unum,” p. 160.