Robert Putnam
Stanford Humanities Center



On “Bowling Alone”:

The dominant theme [of this book] is simple: For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago – silently, without warning – that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current.  Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.

Bowling Alone, p. 27

On the value of social capital:

The benefits of social capital spill beyond the people immediately involved in the network and can be used for many other purposes.  The more neighbors who know one another by name, the fewer crimes a neighborhood as a whole will suffer.  A child born in a state whose residents volunteer, vote, and spend time with friends is less likely to be born underweight, less likely to drop out of school, and less likely to kill or be killed than the same child – no richer or poorer – born in another state whose residents do not.  Society as a whole benefits enormously from the social ties forged by those who choose connective strategies in pursuit of their particular goals.  We know from many studies that social capital can have what economists call “positive externalities.”  That is, quite apart from their utility in solving the immediate problems (improving wages at Harvard or test scores in Philly), interpersonal ties are useful for many other purposes.

Better Together, pp. 269-270

On the public role of political science:

An engaged political science must talk with our fellow citizens, not just at them. Rather than the European intellectual, a ‘gadfly’ (in the language of Rogers Smith) standing apart from current politics and viewing with a critical, philosophical eye the gap between what is and what ought to be, my hero is the Midwestern progressive of a century ago, seeking to learn from the experience of nonacademic reformers. My image of a more engaged political science is neither a wise counselor whispering truth to power nor a distanced gadfly. It is a political scientist engaged in genuine dialogue with our fellow citizens, learning as well as teaching.”

From the “APSA Presidential Address: The Public Role of Political Science,”
Perspectives on Politics
, v. 1 (June 2003), p. 252. 
Full text available online at:

On diversity:

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.”

From “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community,”
Scandinavian Political Studies
, v. 30, no. 2 (2007), p. 150. 
Full text available online at:

On religion in American life

Perhaps the most visible change in American religion over the last generation is the role it has come to play in the nation’s politics.  Religiosity has partisan overtones now that it did not have in the past.  While there are notable exceptions, the most highly religious Americans are likely to be Republicans; Democrats predominate among those who are least religious.  Among the punditry, this connection between religiosity and the vote has been given the unfortunate but alliterative label of the God gap – the gap in question referring to the political differences between people at varying levels of religiosity.)  It is thus like the so-called gender gap, the difference in the partisan tendencies of men and women.  And, like the gender gap, the coupling between religiosity and partisanship has become one of those unquestioned generalizations of American political life – an election day fault line endlessly discussed by political pundits and shrewdly exploited by political operatives.

American Grace, p. 369


Although explicit electoral politicking is relatively rare within America’s houses of worship, politically relevant information is still communicated over the pulpit and among the parishioners.  Politically relevant information, mostly subtle but occasionally overt, reverberates through the social networks formed in and through one’s place of worship.  The salience of this information is amplified by the political like-mindedness of people who share a given faith.  The political congruence, in turn, is owing to the switching, mixing, and matching in American religion.  People sort themselves – whether consciously or not – into congregations with politically simpático members, through a self-reinforcing process. The more one kind of person predominates within a given congregation, the more that others who perceive themselves as similar will feel comfortable there (and those who see themselves as different will feel uncomfortable, to the point of leaving).  This type of interpersonal sorting even takes place within congregations, as people are likely to gravitate toward friends who are akin to them, in ways including but not limited to their politics.

All of this sorting makes many religious social networks into political echo chambers.  When faced with political parties that diverge on issues with religious relevance, it is these echoes – more than any explicit politicking – that matter on election day.

American Grace, p. 442

Was Tocqueville right that religion contributes to American democracy?  The evidence suggests that with one important exception he was.  Religious Americans are generally better neighbors and more active citizens, though they are less staunch supporters of civil liberties than secular Americans.  Moreover, religious Americans are more satisfied with their lives.  As we have seen, however, theology and piety have very little to do with this religious edge in neighborliness and happiness.  Instead it is religion’s network of morally freighted personal connections, coupled with an inclination toward altruism, that explains both the good neighborliness and the life satisfaction of religious Americans.

American Grace, p. 492

Although differences in levels of religious diversity by religious tradition are interesting and important, one should not miss the forest for the trees.  Most Americans are intimately acquainted with people of other faiths.  This, we argue, is the most important reason that Americans can combine religious devotion and diversity.  We call it the “Aunt Susan Principle.”  We all have an Aunt Susan in our lives, the sort of person who epitomizes what it means to be a saint, but whose religious background is different from our own.  Maybe you are Jewish and she is a Methodist.  Or perhaps you are Catholic and Aunt Susan is not religious at all.  But whatever her religious background (or lack thereof), you know that Aunt Susan is destined for heaven.  And if she is going to heaven, what does that say about other people who share her religion or lack of religion?  Maybe they can go to heaven too.

To put the Aunt Susan Principle in more technical terms: We are suggesting that having a religiously diverse social network leads to a more positive assessment of specific religious groups, particularly those with low thermometer scores.  In offering this hypothesis, we can look beyond our hypothetical Aunt Susan for reasons to think that religiously diverse social networks do indeed have a positive effect on interreligious acceptance.  One place to find such a rationale is in the literature on social capital, by which we mean the norms of trust and reciprocity that arise out of our social networks.  Some social capital consists of bonding, or interconnections among people with a common background.  Other social capital is bridging in nature, and thus connects people of different backgrounds.  While both bonding and bridging each serve important purposes, bridging is vital for the smooth functioning of a diverse society. When birds of different feathers flock together, they come to trust one another.

American Grace, pp. 526-527

Selections by Chris Bourg, Assistant University Librarian for Public Services.
Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources ©2010.



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