Robert Putnam
Stanford Humanities Center

Robert Putnam


Robert Putnam portrait

Robert Putnam. Used by permission.

Attending to the concerns of our fellow citizens is not just an optional add-on for the profession of political science, but an obligation as fundamental as our pursuit of scientific truth.[1]


A Public Scholar and His Scholarship

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.”[2] 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 Nation’s Immigrants.”

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[3] and has just published American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, a much-anticipated new book on religious life in America.[4]

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.[5] 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[6] 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?”[7]  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.[8]

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[9] (the 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture), Putnam presented findings from the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey,[10] 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.”[11] 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.”[12]

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 and tolerance.

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.”[13]

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 Stories

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 writes:

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 classmates.[14]

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.[15]

In his 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture, Putnam illustrates the bystander benefits of social capital with a confession:

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 parties.[16]

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?”[17]

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.


[1] Robert D. Putnam, “APSA Presidential Address: The Public Role of Political Science,” Perspectives on Politics 1 (2003), pp. 249-255.

[2] Saguaro Seminar webpage:

[3] In “E Pluribus Unum,” Putnam defines social capital as “social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness” (Scandinavian Political Studies 30 [2007]: 137).

[4] Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

[5] 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).

[6] 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).

[7] Robert D. Putnam, Lewis M Feldstein, and Don Cohen, Better Together: Restoring the American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003).

[8] Better Together, p. 5.

[9] Robert D. Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” Scandinavian Political Studies 30:2 (June 2007), pp. 137-174.

[10] Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, 2000:

[11]E Pluribus Unum,” p. 165.

[12]E pluribus Unum,” p. 161.

[13] Michael Gerson, “The Faith for the Nones: The Right Kind of Religion Would Bring You Back,” The Washington Post, May 8, 2009:

[14]E Pluribus Unum,” p. 160.

[15] American Grace, pp. 35-36.

[16]E Pluribus Unum,” p. 138.

[17]E Pluribus Unum,” p. 160.

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


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