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Together Again
Robert Putnam

Robert Putnam

      . . . political scientist. Bowling Alone vaulted Dr. Putnam into the national conversation. Now he has joined forces in Better Together to address what to do about the malaise he described in his best-seller.  Dr. Putnam looks internationally in Democracies in Flux. In addition to other books and articles in the popular and scholarly press, Dr. Putnam is the Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard and founder of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement. His degrees are from Swarthmore College, Oxford and Yale Universities.

Excerpts3:42 secs

 People need to feel connected to flourish and everybody suffers when we don’t. Robert Putnam made that famously clear in Bowling Alone. Now he’s back with samples of antidotes to decades of decline in “social capital” in the industrialized world, especially in America, in Better Together.

But first, he wants to assure us that it is not bizarre that old ways of being connected disintegrate. Institutions become obsolete. Now, a whole range of people are hard at work creating new connections, in ways that make sense for how we live today. We did it the last time that social, economic and technological changes disconnected us as people moved from the farm to industrialized cities.  It’s time to do it again, he says.

Social capital doesn’t just happen, it has to be created, Dr. Putnam reminds us. We need to create connections that both bond (connections with people like us) and bridge (connections with those who are different.)  In a diverse society like America, the needs for “bridging social capital” are especially great, he says. How? Look for ways to bond with people who are unlike you, he prescribes, and offers a wide range of stories which show how it’s being done, right now.

A sense of genuine reciprocity is vital in reweaving our society, Dr. Putnam is convinced. Why? Because it’s key to building trust among people. He’s not talking about the kind of childishness that demands immediate and direct rewards for any good deed, but a more generalized reciprocity, a sense that we will take care of each other without any expectation of direct personal gain. He’s found living proof that it is working in communities across America.

Dr. Putnam champions stories as the vehicle by which we can recreate the much needed sense of togetherness. They link us. (“I” and “We” stories are both great, but steer clear of “They” stories which usually put people at odds.) In fact, Dr. Putnam discovered, political actions -- which he assures us we urgently need to address many of society’s woes -- are often best accomplished when they are the result of people who have found other reasons to be connected, rather than as the starting point. And he is heartened that once linked, there’s no end to how much good we can do.

Start small, he says. It’s easier to make connections and easier to build trust in small groups, whether schools or classes or firms or towns. But bigger is better when you want to get something done, so find a good balance between the two. Reach out to those like you and unlike you. Listen hard to their stories and tell your own. Together, you’ll create a recipe that works in everyday life and that helps to identify the ingredients needed for creating the new kinds of connections that our changing times require of us. It was little daily lessons that once taught us the value of togetherness. They can do it again. Let’s get started.

[This Program was recorded October 16, 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Robert Putnam summarizes the importance of social connections/isolation in conversation with Paula Gordon and Bill Russell and considers our ambivalence toward both conditions.

Conversation 1 RealAudio7:56 secs

Conversation 2

Equating “social capital” to “connections,” Dr. Putnam compares it to other kinds of “capital.”  He remembers how his academic work furthered his personal interest in trends in America’s social connectedness. He tells a series of stories about the impact of the Great Depression and World War Two on Americans’ sense of community, then compares those experiences to current events, including “9/11,” when America seems to have missed a teachable moment.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:33 secs

Conversation 3

While reluctant to be a cultural grouch, Dr. Putnam does quips that most Americans watch “Friends” instead of having them. He considers the impact of television, two-career families, urban sprawl, the passage of the World War Two generation, a focus on material instead of social well-being and other factors that have contributed to America’s trend away from social connections. He considers how people now are reweaving the fabric of community in ways that fit the way we have come to live. He gives examples, stressing the importance of listening to each other.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:30 secs

Conversation 4

America has been relatively low on social capital before, Dr. Putnam says, then describes how the country rebuilt social connections in early 1900s, building major new community institutions when social, technological and economic change had rendered obsolete an earlier set of ways to connect. He illustrates how you can create real, genuine community, right now. He links feeling connected to solving political problems, then gives examples.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:22 secs

Conversation 5

Trust is really important, Dr. Putnam says, and it’s both a prerequisite for and a consequence of connecting with other people. He expands, suggesting a variety of ways to build trust. Story-telling is powerful, Dr. Putnam says, and generalized reciprocity -- not favor-trading -- is key.  He amplifies. These problems won’t solve themselves, but we do go through these periods and they are not bizarre, Dr. Putnam reassures us, expanding the story to other countries.

Conversation 1 RealAudio12:45 secs

Conversation 6

Both “bonding” and “bridging” social capital are vital, Dr. Putnam has found. He gives examples of both, and shows how telling and hearing the right kind of stories can build both.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:51 secs


We admire Dr. Putnam’s work and are appreciative of the extra effort he made to join us in Conversation. It was a particular delight to Paula to find that she and Dr. Putnam had both been enriched by knowing the great John Lewis, PhD., the long-time head of the Government Department at Oberlin College. Our stories do, indeed, bind us together.

Karena Cronin, who supports the work both of Dr. Putnam and of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, went out of her way to be helpful when airlines weren’t.  We thank her.

Susan Fensten at Oxford University Press made it possible for us to “do our homework” by making sure we had Democracies in Flux in hand. Continuing appreciation to her!

Related Links:
Better Together:  Restoring the American Community and Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community are published by Simon and Schuster. Democracies in Flux:  The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society is published by Oxford University Press.

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