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Rereading Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and thinking about its legacy

posted on 08 Sep 2016

Rereading Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and thinking about its legacy

As the period of the last Labour government slips further into history there is a danger that some of the ideas generated in the early, more optimistic years of that regime and which have helped shape our current attitudes are getting lost behind the toxic fog of Blair’s war adventures. It’s easy to forget the sad state Britain was in when Labour swept to power in 1997 – admittedly the country was showing signs of recovering from the vicious recession of the early 90s but that intangible thing we might call ‘the social fabric’ really was shot to tatters.

One of the big ideas the incoming Labour Party prioritised was the ‘regeneration of communities’ –  something it envisaged achieving through the expansion of volunteering and the  ‘professionalisation’ of the voluntary and community sector in the hope that this might produce a greater range of service providers who are ‘closer to their clients’. Much of this agenda had its origins in work done in the USA on the issue of ‘social capital’ – something that became a buzzword of the late 90s and early 2000s mainly on the strength of the work done by the sociologist Robert Putnam.

Putnam’s seminal work was Bowling Alone. In this book he set out what he saw as conclusive evidence for the increasing disconnectedness of modern Western society. His primary evidence for this assertion was his analysis of membership of US bowling clubs which he believed could be viewed as a bell-weather of a society’s cohesion and well-being.  Putnam believed that the precipitous decline in membership of after-work bowling clubs in small town America mirrored a wider withdrawal from collective behaviour and that this disconnection could be traced through family, friends, church-going and political engagement – weak ‘social capital’, Putnam argues, lies at the heart of the so-called democratic deficit.

Putnam argued for a return to collective community action as a way of regenerating communities – something that could not be achieved through rebuilding environments and capital investment alone. He envisaged social capital as the building of networks based on the concept of reciprocity, where you would do things to help your neighbour, not in the expectation of payment or immediate reward but because, in the future, you just might need their help. He talked about the building of different types of this social capital -  ‘bonding’ which brought people together and , more importantly, ‘bridging’ that would help one group reach out to another and build links.

For a short time at least Putnam had access to the British policy-making machinery and the influence of these arguments can be found in plenty of government and non-governmental documents of the time. However, by the middle of the second term in office Labour politicians were ready to move on to something else and social capital was a concept we heard less and less from ( although it can be argued that it made a rather forlorn attempt to climb back into relevance under the guise of David Cameron’s Big Society half a dozen years later).

Of course, Putnam’s work also came under greater scrutiny from a range of critics on the left and right of the political spectrum. Even those who were broadly sympathetic to the analysis were critical of the lack of a convincing programme to address the problems he identifies – simply stating that people should be more communal isn’t necessarily going to make them behave in that way. For me, however, and much more importantly, Putnam failed to factor the impact of  neoliberist economic hegemony into his thinking. At the same time as the Labour Party were bemoaning the lack of community or communal action, they were championing the power of individuality and individual choice and seemed oblivious to the  inevitable atomisation it bought with it.

Putnam was not the first to use the term ‘social capital’ but his was a very American interpretation of that concept. Where he saw social capital as the building of supportive networks others – especially European commentators - saw the creation of privilege and old boys networks. The French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had previously characterised social capital as a key component of the way in social class privileges are created and perpetuated and the vehicle by which the Establishment ensures the ‘right’ people benefit from their largesse.

Rereading Bowling Alone a decade after I first encountered it makes me realise how much the political debate has changed but also just how much the core issues have remained the same. What Putnam saw as the creation of a disconnected society was, I think, simply a portrait of a society in transition; a society that was changing the terms of what we mean by connectedness in the light of a dominant economic model that prioritises the notion of the competitive individual and an emerging technological revolution that would redefine what it means to be permanently connected  to a network of people we might never meet.

For all that, it’s still I think a fascinating and essential read for anyone interested in these issues and the power of the book is impressive – it’s easy to see why this demands a place alongside Anthony Gidden’s The Third Way as key texts in the recent history of British politics.

 

Terry Potter

September 2016