The Education of Robert Putnam

Lawrence M. Mead

Fall 2023

Robert Putnam might be the best known political scientist in America. A longtime professor at Harvard, he has published several books that recast our understanding of important questions in politics.

Most published research in political science today is scholastic — that is, it's focused on narrow specialties with an established literature that later scholars can't add much to. Scholars must also use increasingly rarified quantitative methods to satisfy peer reviewers for academic journals. Those rigors have squeezed much of the intellectual content out of social science.

Putnam's work, however, has been just the opposite. He has a rare gift for posing big new questions and coming up with answers that really matter. In comparative politics, for instance, researchers had traditionally traced the varying politics of countries to different economic or social conditions. But in a study of Italy, Putnam and his co-authors showed that the performance of regional governments in different parts of the country reflected mainly their political history. The middle and north were the most civic and efficient regions because they had developed strong participatory traditions deep in the Middle Ages. The south was governed less well because a remote, unaccountable monarchy had ruled it for centuries. Given these cultural differences, there was no easy way to overcome the backwardness of the south.

Even rarer than Putnam's propensity to ask and answer big questions is his remarkable humility. He responds to hostile feedback, changes his questions and answers as the evidence warrants, and is willing to admit when he has no answers. These responses are often more instructive than any specific conclusion he draws.

Such virtues were on display in the course of Putnam's best-known work, which examined trends in community organization in the United States. Considering that work, and the way it has evolved, can teach us not only about contemporary America, but about modern scholarship and how we might improve it.


Putnam's initial questions in this domain arose from his upbringing in the 1950s in Port Clinton, a modest manufacturing town in Ohio. The Port Clinton he remembered was not wealthy but had great civility — like the Italian north. Most families in the town had only modest means, but they supported their children in school. Few parents had college degrees, but most of their offspring went to college, and many went on to build professional careers. Private firms employed the parents and offered college scholarships to the young. And many local civic organizations mobilized the community to address common issues and needs.

But in later decades, the town fell apart. Factories had largely left it for cheaper venues in the South or overseas, meaning the economy no longer paid well enough to support families. In response, Putnam believes, parental behavior deteriorated. Fathers often quit working or abandoned their families, while the young often succumbed to drug addiction or crime. Fewer children progressed in school or established a career. Community resources were overwhelmed. At the same time, people with more education and income in the community lived far better than they had in prior decades. Inequality had soared. This America had left individuals to get ahead on their own, and only the fortunate could do so.

Why this change? The left usually blames such decline on economic forces that government fails to counter with enough benefits for families when marriages fail or jobs are unavailable. While not adverse to that view, Putnam asked a different question: Why had civility and community organizations failed? Why had modest but earnest towns like Port Clinton come to resemble southern rather than northern Italy?

Before Putnam, no one had asked about the trends in civic organization and involvement in America; both were widely presumed to be high. But Putnam found that they had dropped sharply since the 1960s. What sociologists call "social capital" — the ability of people to cooperate for common ends — had plummeted. Jarred by this finding, other scholars demanded more evidence, and with outside funding, Putnam managed to launch a vast research project involving many Harvard faculty, other scholars, and his own graduate students. The project measured trends not only in voting, but in many other forms of association among citizens.

Published as Bowling Alone in 2000, the findings largely confirmed Putnam's discovery of a great decline in civic involvement since the 1960s. Over that time, voting turnout in America had fallen by a quarter, and interest in public affairs by a fifth. Non-profit civic associations had remained numerous, but they'd become narrower and more professional, oriented toward lobbying politicians rather than engaging a mass membership. Nor had associations based on employment or churches replaced the older, broader civic bodies. There was less generalized trust of other people. In short, compared to the decades before 1960, America had become much more atomized.


Having exposed the "what" of collapsing social capital in America, Putnam was compelled to consider the "why," which was unavoidably murkier. Why had Americans withdrawn from the civic space that had long been central to their self-understanding as a people?

The nation had changed greatly in the decades since civic participation's heyday. Americans were far busier, with less time for politics and volunteerism. Vast numbers of them had moved from the cities to the suburbs. But Putnam's team found it hard to associate any of these shifts with the massive loss of interpersonal connections. Instead, Bowling Alone blames a quarter of the change on the rise of television, which gave people an easier way to spend their evenings than going to community meetings. It blames another half of the decline on the character of the baby-boom generation. These younger citizens were known for activism in the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam movements, yet they were far less involved in organized civic activity compared to their forebears. Still, Putnam candidly admits that his massive research project left much unexplained.

The image Putnam paints of American civil society before 1960 hints at part of what was missing. That picture is dominated by intact families, traditional mores, and white men in shirts and ties. Far fewer women had their own careers outside the family. And above all, race was less of a factor than it has been in the era following the civil-rights movement. Bowling Alone considers race only to test whether black Americans' civic organizations had risen and fallen like those composed mostly of whites. Because the two trends were similar, Putnam set the race issue aside.

But the mere presence of the race issue made social politics far more one-sided than it had ever been before. Because the political mood of the 1960s was liberal, and because blacks were claiming rights they had long been denied, the assumption became that all minority disadvantages were in some way due to white injustice. The earlier civic politics had assumed reciprocity — disagreements in politics often occurred, but they could be civil because both sides respected the other's right to be heard. Once race erupted as a national issue, only blacks and their advocates could be heard. Whites could voice their opinions only if they supported black demands. Any who resisted — and some did — were silenced as racists. Blacks acquired an image of innocent victimhood that preempted all counterargument. That image endures today.

Worse yet, all this happened when social problems among blacks were mushrooming as never before. Until 1960, the prevalence of fatherless households, crime, and other disorders had been only slightly higher among blacks than whites. After 1960, that gap widened dramatically. The black family largely collapsed, rendering most black children fatherless and sending too many black men to prison. But because of the taboo against any criticism of blacks, white society was unable to respond seriously for decades.

The establishment and the media continued to enforce this protective taboo even as conservatives and Republicans gained more power in Washington after 1980. In the 1990s, conservative Republicans managed to reform cash welfare, forcing most mothers on welfare to work. The reform succeeded in sharply raising working rates and reducing welfare uptake among poor blacks, yet most black leaders and advocates now oppose it. Since the 1960s, no reform can be defended if it seems motivated by race, even if it is successful.

A similar paralysis has followed the sharp increase in immigration to the United States that began in the mid-1960s. A century ago, most immigrants came from Europe and were not that different from the nation's older migrant population. But after the immigration rules were liberalized in 1965, they came mostly from Latin America and Asia, and were much more distinct. Assimilation became tougher. Hispanics also suffered from family breakdown and social problems second only to those of blacks. But as in the black case, frank discussion of personal problems has been barred by exaggerated fears of racism: We must pretend that all immigrants are no different from the native-born.

More recently, family structure has also deteriorated among less-educated whites. But these problems have spurred much more critical comment by observers than the far worse trends among non-whites. The establishment has no qualms about telling irresponsible whites to shape up, but only them. To be held personally responsible for good behavior is a burden that only whites are now deemed strong enough to bear.

The sudden salience of race may be a better explanation than any of those offered in Bowling Alone for why younger Americans have largely withdrawn from civic involvement. Race issues often dominate politics at all levels, yet whites have lost all standing to talk candidly about them. They will be held responsible for solutions, but they can expect nothing in return from the poor and near-poor groups that would benefit. As a result, large numbers have withdrawn from civic involvement and retreated into private life.

Putnam's own work in subsequent years pointed in this general direction. In this work, he made an honest effort to reckon with mainstream society's disillusionment with politics. One prominent effort, which came to be called the Saguaro Seminar, was led by Putnam himself. Its members were mostly other academics and intellectuals, along with community leaders interested in the problem. The seminar produced a report strongly endorsing Putnam's contention that social capital is essential to a democratic society.

The seminar also commissioned a national survey in 2000 to identify more rigorously the conditions associated with high and low social capital. The results shattered any notion that a strong instinct for community was the natural American norm, as it might have seemed during the uniquely civically engaged decades before 1960. To the contrary, growing racial or ethnic diversity tended to undermine solidarity by making people more distrustful of other races, one's neighbors, and even one's own race. In response, people "hunker[ed] down" and withdrew. The survey's findings were the same for every demographic group or generation. The effect seemed to be driven chiefly not by racism, but by pluralism itself.

In 2006, Putnam won the Skytte Prize — a major international award — for his achievements in political science. But in his award lecture, he boldly announced the disappointing results of the Saguaro survey. There appeared to be no easy way back to the supportive community of the original Port Clinton. One can only admire his candor and humility.


As he continued working to explore the causes of the decline in civic life, Putnam launched another body of work to consider its effects, with a particular focus on poor children. Here he raised another new question. Bowling Alone had asked about the true extent of and trends in civic cooperation. With regard to children in poverty, Putnam looked into just how much their fortunes depended on the civic strength of their community — a novel question given that research on poverty has long been dominated by economists, who typically explain poverty entirely in terms of measurable economic and social conditions. They say next to nothing about the interpersonal environment in which children grow up.

Putnam's project was much more concrete. It paired children of well-off families with poor children of various races living in localities around the country. In each case, he asked which child received the most support from his or her setting. The difference might seem to involve only impersonal social resources: For instance, the better-off children typically had stronger families and thus achieved more in school and avoided social problems. But these children also benefited from better schools, stronger churches, a local economy paying middle-class wages, and other adults who helped them land jobs and various opportunities. In contrast, low-income children attended lower-performing schools and had fewer extracurricular opportunities and other resources. Rather than offsetting the inequality generated by the economy, the local community confirmed it.

On this basis, one could imagine overcoming poverty simply by spending more on community resources. But the more important scarcities of the poor children are really interpersonal. In the higher-income community, adults radiate "cognitive efficacy," trust in neighbors, and the ability to get things done. In the poor community, adults often focus mostly on their own struggles and do not have much capacity to help youth with their needs. In fact, the roles are often reversed, with children tending to their own troubled parents. Gone is the sense found in the old Port Clinton that residents must take care of "our kids" (the title of Putnam's 2015 book). The belief then was that all children, regardless of background, were entitled to community attention and support.

Putnam proposes various programs and services that would help the poor families cope. But his recommendations are surprisingly modest. The evaluations of such programs, he admits, suggest only marginal impacts. His stories imply that what has deteriorated most from the old days is not the community, but the family. The fundamental change is that rates of marital breakup and unwed pregnancy are both dramatically higher than those of decades before — first in the parents, and then, too often, in their children. How these declines in familial stability relate to the disappearance of the factories is unclear. And although the problems are most common among minority groups, they have recently increased among less-educated whites. Lacking self-command, such children are much harder for the wider community to identify with than the youth of yesteryear. They no longer qualify as "our kids."


Such findings could easily lead a social scientist to despair. But in Putnam's case, the absence of answers led him to search for models and examples. Had there ever been a time in our history when a collapse in social capital had been reversed? Were there examples of our society amassing such capital on a large scale, rather than just expending it?

In his next work, titled The Upswing, Putnam teamed up with Shaylyn Garrett to explore one potential analogy to our time. They ask what the Progressive era of a century ago suggests about the potential to revive American civic commitment today. Few scholars of social policy today have any comparable sense of how history might inspire current efforts.

The authors show that during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, capitalism ran to excess. An individualist culture had forgotten the community, producing inequality and hardship for many. But this generated widespread revulsion. In response government, led by reformers of both parties, embarked on regulating industrialism and crafting benefit programs that formed the germ of an American welfare state. Then and later, popular civic organizations of all kinds proliferated, creating the sort of broad involvement in public life that marked the old Port Clinton. The authors believe that a second Gilded Age in recent decades has reversed some of those gains, leading once again to runaway inequality and hardship. We need another era of progressive reform to tame individualism and restore community.

They also address the roles of race and gender more fully than in Bowling Alone. They show that both blacks and women made substantial progress toward social equality during the mid-20th century. These groups' income, education, and health status had risen toward the social norm, even before the civil-rights and feminist movements. But then during the reform era of the 1960s and 1970s, progress for both groups slowed, especially for blacks. The authors surmise that the nation had taken its "foot off the gas." Social commitment to advance the fortunes of black Americans had ebbed, they believe, in part due to a backlash as whites resisted federal policies promoting blacks.

This implies the conventional liberal belief that progress for out-groups depends chiefly on special programs and spending at the federal level. Advancement is something the nation must transfer from the more fortunate to the less so. But this presumption conflicts with Putnam's own earlier findings. In the old Port Clinton, community commitment certainly helped "our kids" get ahead. But children progressed mostly by avoiding trouble and getting through school and into careers on their own. There already was an opportunity structure that allowed this, but it assumed a functioning citizenry. Transfers of any kind were secondary. This was well before the enormous growth of anti-poverty programs and benefits from the 1960s on.

Since the 1960s, there has been no rolling back of earlier reforms. The war on poverty endures. Cuts in social spending during Ronald Reagan's presidency were mostly small and transient. Policymakers in both parties still struggle to craft education and training programs that will show more impact. The greater change is that from the 1960s onward, the poor became much harder to help due to declining familial stability, along with rising crime rates and other social problems. Among lower-income Americans, social functioning fell off a cliff. No rightward change in the political mood can explain this.

Maybe the key to the Progressive era was not that a robust civil society achieved social progress, but the opposite: A functioning society generated civic activity. Reformers gained the support they needed to tame industrialism because they had an army of strong citizens and families behind them. Conversely, politics turned conservative after the 1960s and 1970s not primarily because free-market ideology returned to favor, but because serious social problems undermined confidence in traditional government solutions.

The book's vision of a new progressive movement is also belied by the Saguaro findings that rising pluralism has defeated the popular will to organize for civic purposes. The ban on candor about race stands like a lion in the path. The Upswing can only express the faith that diversity will ultimately become an American strength rather than a weakness. That is a hope we can all share, but it is not social science.


What would real progress look like? What does Putnam's own work suggest regarding potential reversals of the sorry trends he has so effectively revealed?

A revived civic project is surely imaginable, but its point of departure must be the facts of family disarray that now render real progress so difficult. Putnam ought to pose another new question, the one that flows naturally out of Our Kids: How does society turn back the collapse of marriage and rising unwed pregnancy that now block progress among the less fortunate? The question is immensely sensitive, of course. But it is crucial.

Additional services and benefits will not solve the problem. As Putnam notes, programs meant to promote stronger marriages among lower-income Americans have failed. But neither will cutting back anti-poverty efforts achieve anything. Even without any public programs, a disorganized poor population can persist because there are many ways to survive in a society as rich as ours. But mere survival is well short of the traditional American goal of pursuing life, liberty, and happiness.

What's needed is a more directive kind of program that tells poor youth and families more explicitly what success demands. Such programs have begun to appear in early childhood education and in the most effective charter schools and youth-training programs. The model here is the military, which has developed ways to train disadvantaged recruits. These programs are not transfers in any simple sense. There is no entitlement involved; government is not giving people anything based simply on need. But neither is government absent. Instead, these programs combine "help and hassle" in a way that both gives and demands.

What it gives is staff who set standards. What it demands is that clients accept these standards and take responsibility for fulfilling them. This is what effective parents teach their children. Indeed, directive programs amount to a kind of re-parenting of the young — instilling them with the confidence but also the self-command necessary to progress in a free yet competitive society.

The children of poor families typically avoid responsibility. They grow up in chaotic settings where they seldom see adults achieve any goal, so they cannot imagine that they could do so. But in directive programs, they encounter mentors who believe that they can accomplish something, direct them to try, and praise them when they do. The mood is both bracing and positive. The children learn what they can in fact do. First steps lead to further challenges, then further achievements, for as far as one can go. At the end of the road lies the middle class. Such is the true nature of freedom in America — not simple opportunity, nor a gift from society, but a life of meaningful effort. The true basis of freedom is obligation. Such is the way back to the old Port Clinton.

Robert Putnam has not undertaken this last inquiry — how to conceive such programs and then take them to scale. But his odyssey remains invaluable. By following its steps, we can discover the true nature of the American social problem. And even if a long quest remains, we can imagine its solution.

Lawrence M. Mead is a professor of politics at New York University and author of Burdens of Freedom.


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