CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, APR. 28, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Is modern society destined to an ever-increasing individualism? Last month Robert D. Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, visited England to promote the publishing there of his book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”
This book argues that people in America have become disconnected from their friends, neighbors and social structures, resulting in a dramatic decline of social capital.
Putnam´s thesis became famous after he published an academic article in 1995 expressing his ideas about the breakdown of community ties. The book is a much more detailed look at the issue and a reply to his critics. The title invokes the image of the decline of traditional social groups, such as bowling clubs, which were once the backbone of community life.
He distinguishes different types of social capital. For example, there is bridging, which facilitates reciprocity between groups, and bonding, which reinforces links between limited numbers of people. Putnam argues that civic bonds in America have drastically weakened in recent decades.
This is not just nostalgia for the good old days, his opening chapter argues, but is based on a detailed sociological analysis, supported by 80 pages of appendices and notes.
Putnam is not the first to take up this subject. A few years ago communitarianism enjoyed a brief moment of fame. Its most famous proponent, Amitai Etzioni (“The Spirit of Community,” 1993), became a favorite at the White House during Bill Clinton´s first term. And before him was Robert Bellah, whose “Habits of the Heart” (1985) examined how individualism was damaging the capacity for commitment to community.
A March 25 article in The Sunday Times focused on Putnam. He was born in Port Clinton, Ohio (population 5,000). As a boy he was a member of a bowling league, and his parents were active in local groups and civic life. He considers the 1950s the high point of social capital in the United States.
Organized bowling in leagues has plunged by two-thirds in the last quarter of a century, Putnam observed in a March 25 article for the Observer. More importantly, Americans today are far less likely to participate in community meetings, join local organizations, attend church, vote, contribute to charities or fulfill other civic responsibilities compared to just a few decades ago.
Putnam explained that even within families, social isolation is growing. Today, families “are about a third less likely to eat dinner together, take holidays together or even to watch television together,” he wrote. “Not surprisingly, as our connections with one another have declined, so too has our trust in one another. We are losing an essential lubricant for social cooperation.”
Europe is following the trend
The Harvard scholar thinks the evidence suggests that Europe may be about to follow the American pattern. Almost all industrialized nations, political parties, unions and churches have experienced declining participation over the last decade or two, “roughly 20 years after the comparable American slumps began,” Putnam commented.
In his opinion the last time so many countries faced a social-capital crisis of this magnitude was in the period following the onset of the Industrial Revolution, as large numbers of people migrated from villages to factory towns, leaving behind their friends and communities.
This deficit was overcome by a generation of social reform, with the creation of voluntary institutions, unions and other social groups that from the late 19th century onward built up social capital.
In his book Putnam offers a number of ways to restore civic bonds. He insists on the need to educate youths to participate more actively in social activities, from team sports to community service. In the workplace, Putnam urges that employees be given more flexibility to attend to family and civic duties.
He also calls for a spiritual awakening, noting that religion in the past has played a key role in the creation of social capital. His preference is for religions that are ecumenical and “socially engaged.”
In his Observer article, Putnam welcomed President George W. Bush´s new initiative to support faith-based social-action programs. “Faith-based organizations have a proven ability to reweave the fabric of distressed communities and they deserve support from government and foundations,” he said.
How to cure individualism
In its Spring 2001 review of “Bowling Alone,” the journal The Public Interest concluded that Putnam has produced solid and compelling data to support his argument of a precipitous collapse of civic engagement. In that sense the work is “a landmark with which any future writer on the subject of community will have to contend.”
The review considers, however, that while social science has been useful in the identification of the problem, social capital cannot be rebuilt on the basis of sociological analyses offered by contemporary academics.
In fact, Putnam´s book is stronger on the description of the phenomenon than on its remedy. This could be due to the limitations of a sociological viewpoint, which considers the external consequences of behavior and lacks the instruments to analyze the fundamental motivations of human acts. Putnam even hints at this in his concluding words of “Bowling Alone” when he exhorts us to rebuild community life not because it will be good for America, “but because it will be good for us.”
John Paul II has frequently commented on the inner or moral dimension of civic activity, under the term of solidarity. In No. 26 of his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, the Pope speaks of a “radical interdependence,” but also of the need to transfer this solidarity “to the moral plane.”
The interdependence between people is not just a social matter, explains the Pope, but needs to be elevated to a moral category. In this sense solidarity can be considered as a virtue (see No. 38). It consists in “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”
Therefore the common good is based upon recognizing others as persons, not just as objects to be used. The next step involves a personalization of the common good, so that an individual seeks fulfillment not just in taking from others, but includes the common good as part of his personal goals.
Achieving this behavior is not something that can be created by public policy measures. As No. 40 of the encyclical explains, solidarity is a virtue related to the Christian concepts of “total gratuity, forgiveness and reconciliation.” Our neighbor must be loved in a genuinely Christian way, and the model for solidarity is the unity demonstrated in the bonds linking the three persons of the Holy Trinity.
Solving the problem of individualism is therefore related to personal conversion and the practice of the virtues. It´s a complicated and demanding task, but is the only way to solve social problems at their roots.