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Robert Putnam

Join the Club: Preaching the Virtues of Civic Life

August 27, 2000|Molly Selvin | Molly Selvin is an editorial writer for The Times

Robert D. Putnam is a large man whose booming voice and expansive gestures underscore big ideas. His new book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community," meticulously traces the rise, in the early 20th century, of dozens of community groups and their steady decline in membership, post-1950s. Instead of getting out and getting involved, Putnam writes, Americans are isolating themselves by watching more television, bowling alone when they once bowled in leagues. This pattern, Putnam warns, has profoundly negative consequences for democratic participation, family relationships, even physical and mental well-being.

But don't call him a pessimist. The 59-year-old Harvard professor of public policy has used "Bowling Alone" to cheerlead for a revival of civic life, beginning with more picnics and card games among family and friends, and moving to a better balance between work and family and the reinvention of clubs and community groups to be more inclusive than their early 20th-century predecessors.

Putnam's provocative thesis has its origins in a study he did of local government in Italy. It gradually dawned on him that one of his conclusions--that a healthy democracy depended on civic engagement and social connections--might have implications for American society. Putnam began to gather data on things like membership in fraternal organizations and the PTA. A friend mused that trends in league bowling also fit his evolving thesis, and "Bowling Alone" acquired a broader focus--and a title.

Does Putnam, who divides his time between homes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, practice what he preaches? "Don't count me as one of the saved; I'm one of the sinners," he laments. "I would like to be in the Lexington [Mass.] town choir again. I love singing. I dropped out because I was doing other things. Now, I actually have to start the organization again because everybody else dropped out, too."

But his findings prompted this married grandfather of five to invite his New Hampshire neighbors over, as a step toward organizing to preserve forest land nearby. "I thought if we had dinners together, it would be easier, later on, if we needed to connect to fight a developer." Putnam sat down to discuss the civic fabric during a recent visit to The Times.


Question: Your critics say you paint the 1950s and 1960s as a rosy, golden age.

Answer: One of the common misperceptions of my argument is that I'm selling gloom and doom. . . . Over the last generation or so, a variety of technological and social changes have rendered obsolete the ways we used to connect with our community. That's just jargon for saying two-career families, TV and sprawl mean people no longer go to clubs. I think bad things happen as a result.

But we have been in a similar situation [before]. At the end of the 19th century, technological and economic changes rendered obsolete the ways people connected. The Industrial Revolution and the wave of immigration and urbanization meant that people left their friends on the farm--whether the farm was in Alabama, Iowa or in Russia--and moved to cities. [There was] a very widespread sense [that] people's community ties were missing. At the beginning of the 20th century, we fixed the problem by inventing a whole new set of organizations and ways of connecting. . . . The major civic institutions in American communities today were almost all founded in a period of about 10-15 years at the beginning of the 20th century, like the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts and the League of Women Voters. . . . What I'm saying is not that we have to somehow erase the last 40 years of technological change. . . . But rather, that we need a period of sustained civic inventiveness in which we remove or at least lower the barriers that are keeping people from connecting with their neighbors.

Q: Many of the organizations that flourished earlier in the century were, at their core, racist, sexist or in some other way exclusionary. Isn't their decline a sign of progress?

A: Certainly, the animal clubs [the Moose, Lions, Elks, etc.] were about white men. But the NAACP [National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People] was not, and even the NAACP was a much more active structure in the 1950s and 1960s than it is today. Many women's organizations were much more active [40 years ago] than they are today. The reason I called the book "Bowling Alone" is because nearly one of every 10 Americans used to belong to a bowling league. The leagues were about people connecting with one another. I'm not talking only about organizations. Families used to have dinner together, and they don't. We don't hang out with friends as much or with our families.

Q: But that all gets back to a time deficit. Years ago, many women were stay-at-home moms. Today, people are working long days, families live far apart. How will we find time?

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