A longer and much improved version of Putnam’s controversial 1995 Journal of Democracy article of the same name, this is an important work that is likely to be the center of much debate.
Books of sociological insight as readable and significant as David Reisman’s Lonely Crowd and C. Wright Mills’s Power Elite come along seldom. Putnam’s work belongs in their company. This is partly because Putnam (Making Democracy Work, not reviewed) avoids the language of academic sociology and writes prose that most readers will find appealing. But, more importantly, Putnam’s ideas have a weight and carry implications that will resonate with scholars and laymen alike. Putnam is concerned with “social capital” (i.e., the institutions, practices, behavior, and attitudes that create and sustain human communities). The evidence that he has amassed—from surveys of bowling leagues and book groups to data on religious and civic participation—shows without doubt that American social capital has recently fallen far, and that the bonds connecting Americans to one another have eroded sharply in the last half-century. For all the book’s likely impact, however, Putnam is stronger at discovering reality than explaining it. He doesn’t tell us why he and other social thinkers believe that being connected is better than going it alone. He also fails to explore the possibility that the causes of social disconnectedness lie as much in changing personal cultural attitudes (the subject of social psychology) as in external practices and institutions (the stuff of sociology). And Putnam’s inspiring and brave call for renewed civic inventiveness, while appealing, can be no substitute for solid ideas as to what social policies should be enacted and what individuals might do to recreate social capital. Nevertheless, all those who were previously skeptical of Putnam’s claims will now have to confront the overwhelming force of this exhaustive and carefully argued study.
A major work of social research.