I have finally, after meaning to for years, begun reading Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. It chronicles the decline of social capital in America, represented by our weakening ties to each other and our communities. It also attempts to examine the causes of that decline, albeit much less effectively. Social capital was – when this book came out nearly fifteen years ago – quite the trendy topic in political science. So the book is dated, both in academic terms but also in more concrete terms. Putnam dwells a great deal on TV, and I suspect that a contemporary study of the same topic would have to much more seriously engage with the Internet.
However, to my surprise the book is no less relevant. Few of the trends Putnam highlights – decreasing social/community engagement, activism, and general social capital – have turned around. On the bright side, political participation has rebounded – it reached a low point in 2000, right before he published the book. Speculation warning: I suspect this has more to do with increasingly effective political mobilization engines than a resurgence in social capital. Americans today are no less isolated than when Putnam published this, and the decline in American social capital remains concerning.
The real question, for me, is what could be done to reverse this. In the age of “disruption”, we are used to thinking of technological fixes for problems. Indeed, as a political scientist who follows technology, I am very tired of hearing about apps that aim to increase political involvement and engagement. The mechanisms that build social capital are technologies of a sort – the clubs and organizations that bring us into closer contact with each other. But they are not technologies that a team or entrepreneur can easily emulate, because they are ineffective without the norm of participation that encourages others to join. Rebuilding social capital is primarily a project of instilling participatory norms. “Social entrepreneurship” is all the rage these days, and I think the biggest social entrepreneurship project out there is designing organizations – even just social clubs – that effectively pull people in and keep them involved.