Will we See an Upswing in America’s Social Capital?

Social trust in America is at all time lows, but can this be reversed?

The Covid-19 Pandemic, and Capitol-Hill Insurrection following President Biden’s election victory seem to indicate that America is more socially disconnected and politically divided than ever.

In Bowling Alone (1995), Robert Putnam famously argued that levels of trust and social capital had been declining in American society since the 1960s and recent events seem to suggest that this trend has just continued towards new lows.

Social capital refers to the amount of connections we have outside of the family and work – Bowling alone being a metaphor the decreasing amount of shared social activities people engaged in.

A strongly related concept is Trust, which is something the PEW research centre measures regularly, and the latest stats suggest very low levels of trust among younger people in particular in America:

However, despite this 60 year decline, there is hope that we can turn this around and move to a more connected society again.

in Recent publication by Robert Putnam: The UpSwing he investigated the levels of social capital in America over a longer time frame, more than a century in this case, using four indicators to measure social capital…

  • Political polarisation – how wide apart our political opinions and voting patterns are
  • Economic inequality – how big is the gap between the richest and poorest
  • Social isolation – how much interaction is there outside of the family and work
  • cultural intolerance – to what extent to we accept cultural diversity?

Back at the turn of the century, in 1900 social capital (measured by the above four indicators) had been as low as it is today, but around 1910, the American society turned a corner and began an ‘upswing’. They started to move towards a society which was more connected, more economically equal and more focussed on what brought them together rather than on what divided them.

Back in the early 20th century there was a big focus on social darwinism, most people believed in ‘individual salvation’, but this was replaced gradually with the idea of social obligation to others, and in this upswing, increasing social capital came first at the grass roots, last in Washington.

So maybe if they’ve done it before, The United States can learn lessons from the past and once again start to move towards being a more connected society?

Problems with the last upswing

Putnam suggests that that old ‘we’ was a racist – it didn’t extend to non-whites and the rise of individualism from the 1960s coincides with the rise of Civil Rights and the backlash against this.

So there was a lot of ‘agreeing about things’ and ‘working together’ at the grass-roots level, but there was also an underbelly of racism which resulted in a gradual increase in more visible individualism and social division.

Putnam also points out that ‘too much we can be bad’ As in the 1950s…. with McCarthyism and too much conformity.

So is there hope for a more connected America?

The Pandemic has shown us that there are some things which cannot be tackled if you just focus on your self, which may spur America towards a more socially connected future.

HOWEVER, the issue of Race in America is huge, and it’s hard to see just how this going to be resolve itself into a ‘diverse-we’ from the current situation.

And the sheer level of economic inequality can’t help things either.

I’m kind of left wondering if this isn’t an old-man Putnam just trying to be optimistic in his old age and at least give the next generation some kind of (false?) hope that life might get better?

Signposting and Sources

This post should be of interest to students studying Functionalist Theory as part of the Theory and Methods module in the second year of A-level sociology.

To my mind it can best be used as a criticism of the concept that society’s today are characterised by social integration. Despite Putnam’s optimism I’m not convinced the USA will now start to move towards more social integration.

This is a summary of this Thinking Allowed Podcast.

Robert D Putnam is the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University

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