James Panichi: So Generation X is less involved socially than the baby boomers before it?
Robert Putnam: That’s right. Now of course that’s not the end of the story, and in fact that generational engine which has been running to kind of drive American social capital down for 30 or 40 years, actually recently reversed and so actually I’m a little more optimistic right now. But when I wrote Bowling Alone that engine of generational arithmetic, every year the most civically engaged Americans leaving the population by death, adding another slice of people at the bottom of the age are people who are much less civically engaged, that was inexorably driving down various measures of social connection….” [See “Still Bowling Alone?“]
James Panichi: Is there a dark side to social capital?…[L]let me give you an Australian example. There are the old school networks of people who’ve been to private schools; there’s Masonic Lodges, there are social clubs which the old establishment social clubs in both Melbourne and Sydney which are more or less anti-semitic, I mean there are real institutions which a lot of Australians would have problems with, and who they would say, ‘Look this is an example of social capital that is not necessarily good, it’s about people doing deals behind closed doors’.
Robert Putnam: I don’t disagree with that at all. I don’t disagree with that at all, I mean after all, I’ve not said all networks are good, I just said networks are very powerful and they can have powerful positive effects and powerful negative effects. But all the examples you used of what I would call bonding social capital, and this is a very clear distinction made in the literature, bonding social capital refers to my ties to people like me, so my ties to other white, elderly, male, professors, that’s my bonding social capital, and bridging social capital are my ties to people unlike me, to people of a different generation, race, a different religion, different ethnicity, I’m not saying always bridging good, bonding bad, but in general examples that you used are negatively used social capital; social capital is used to the detriment of other people, are mostly bonding social capital within the upper class, and one of the things we’re currently working on actually in America, is the apparent discovery that while social capital is rising among kids from upper middle class backgrounds, my grandchildren are connected… but they’re connected with other people and they’re dressed for success, they’re going to do just fine. But our research shows that working class kids or kids from lower classes, white and black, this is not a matter of race, kids from lower class backgrounds, increasingly in America, are isolated, they’re less likely to go to church than working class kids used to, they’re less likely to belong to organisations like the Scouts than working class kids used to be. They spend less time with their parents, they have fewer friends at school, they’re much lower in social trust, trust in their environment, they are in short, increasingly socially isolated. Actually that’s the problem here that I’m most concerned about at the moment, because I think after 9/11 there was kind of a burst of social capital, or interest in civic life among American young people. I think the basic Bowling Alone trend has now begun to turn, but in a way it’s begun to turn in the worst possible way in the sense that it’s the upper class kids from upper class backgrounds who are more connected and working class kids are really left entirely on their own, and that’s a serious problem.
Listen to Robert Putnam interview with James Panichi on the “National Interest” ABC Radio International “Healthy, wealthy and happy“