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Unformatted text preview: 1 AP: Robert D. Putnam: "The Strange Disa p pearance of Civic America," Winter, 1996 http://www.prospect.org/archives/ 24/24putn.html I S S U E 2 4 W i n t e r 1 9 9 6 The Strange Disappearance of Civic Ame r ica Robert D. Putnam A more extended version of this article, co m plete with references, appears in the Winter 1995 issue of PS, a publication of the Amer i can Political Science Association. This work, originally delivered as the inaugural Ithiel de Sola Pool Lecture, builds on Putnam's earlier articles, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy (Jan u ary 1995) and "The Prosperous Community," TAP (Spring 1993). For American Prospect subscriptions and bulk reprints, call 1-800-872-0162. For the last year or so, I have been wrestling with a dif¡cult mystery. It is a classic brai n teaser, with a corpus delicti, a crime scene strewn with clues, and many potential su s pects. As in all good detective stories, ho w ever, some plausible miscreants turn out to have impeccable alibis, and some important clues hint at portentous developments that o c curred before the curtain rose. The mystery concerns the strange disappea r ance of social capital and civic engagement in America. By "social capital," I mean features of social life--networks, norms, and trust--that enable participants to act together more effe c tively to pursue shared objectives. (Whether or not their shared goals are praiseworthy is, of course, entirely another matter.) I use the term "civic engagement" to refer to people's co n nections with the life of their communities, not only with politics. Although I am not yet sure that I have solved the mystery, I have assembled evidence that clari¡es what happened. An important clue, as we shall see, involves differences among ge n erations. Americans who came of age during the Depression and World War II have been far more deeply engaged in the life of their communities than the generations that have followed them. The passing of this "long civic generation" appears to be an important prox i mate cause of the decline of our civic life. This discovery does not in itself crack the case, but when combined with other data it points strongly to one suspect against whom I shall pre s ently bring an indictment. Evidence for the decline of social capital and civic engagement comes from a number of i n dependent sources. Surveys of average Amer i cans in 1965, 1975, and 1985, in which they recorded every single activity during a day--so-called "time-budget" studies--indicate that since 1965 time spent on informal socializing and visiting is down (perhaps by one-quarter) and time devoted to clubs and organizations is down even more sharply (by roughly half). Membership records of such diverse organiz a tions as the PTA, the Elks club, the League of Women Voters, the Red Cross, labor unions, and even bowling leagues show that particip a tion in many conventional voluntary associ a tions has declined by roughly 25 percent to 50 percent over the last...
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