Is Robert Putnam Right About Civic America?

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“Is Robert D. Putnam Correct About Civic America?”
By: Patricia Hulverson
Political Science 221

What is the source of the decline in social capitalism? According to Robert D. Putnam in “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America,” it is television. Putnam defines social capitalism as “networks, norms, and trust that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.” (Putnam1) He explored many posssible reasons for the decline including mobility, lack of time, women entering the workforce, marital values, increased welfare, the civil rights revolution, and generation gaps. Astonishingly, in every possibility there was a counter as to why it was not the cause. In fact, during his research Putnam found coutertrends as well as one complicating trend. There are professionals who agree and professionals who disagree with Robert D. Putnam. One thing is for sure, social capitalism continues to decline so are we to assume that this is still due to the over-exposure to television?

The first step to exploring the options is to explore the individual making the accusations. Robert D. Putnam graduated with honors and a bachelor of arts degree form Swarthmore in 1963. From there he went to study at Balliol College and then to Yale for graduate studies. In 1965 Putnam earned a master’s and in 1970 a doctorate. After a brief time teaching political science at the University of Michigan, he settled in at Harvard. His career there includes being department chair for government and the dean of the school of government. Putnam then followed up as the professor of public policy and teaching courses in American Politics, international relations, and comparative politics. In addition to all of his studies, Putnam is the writer of the well-known books “The Beliefs of Politicians” and “Bowling Alone” and has been involved in various research studies. The first book “established him as a major figure in his discipline.” (Smith 1) Currently, Robert D. Putnam “sits on the Advisory Council on Environmentally Sustainable Development at the World Bank, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is President of the American Political Science Association, and a consultant for the Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency, and the World Bank.” (Smith 2) Putnam is now revered as an expert on social capital and could very well be right that television is the cause of the decline in social capitalism.

In 1996, Robert D. Putnam wrote “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America.” In this literature, he describes how “participation in many conventional voluntary associations has declined roughly 25-50% over the last two to three decades.” (Putnam 1) Putnam used a set of analogous tests to determine if his theories were correct. First, is the proposed factor correlated with trust and civic engagement? Second, is the correlation spurious? Third, is the proposed factor changing relevantly? Lastly, is the proposed factor possibly the result and not the cause of civic disengagement? After reviewing these criteria, Putnam was able to rule out certain theories. The first of these theories was mobility. Were people on the move? According to the 1995 U.S. Bureau of the Census the answer is no. In fact, at the time of the article, people were actually moving less than in the fifties. Another theory was time constraints. If this were a feasible theory, the more hours a person worked would influence the amount of time spent doing leisurely activities. The problem is that full-time, part-time, and no time workers are all dropping out on civic engagement at the same rate. The next possible culprit explored by Putnam was the changing role of women. A half century ago, most women were homemakers booked with volunteering in numerous organizations as opposed to now when most women work. The major discrepancy with this theory was that...
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