For the last several months, a large trophy has sat in front of our fireplace.  My husband bowls through a league set up by his last employer that allows current and former employees to compete; he has participated for over 20 years.  He currently serves as the secretary for “The Shots” who won the league championship last spring.  That trophy will now sit in our family room until the end of this season – unless the team wins again.  Why am I discussing bowling in a blog about Tocqueville?  Because another scholar has connected his ideas to the value of participating in a bowling league.

From my vantage point as a political scientist, I can conceive of few stronger thought connections than those between Tocqueville and the work of Robert Putnam.  As a well-known scholar within the field of political science, Putnam’s contributions have shaped important ideas over course of the last three decades.  His work has not only made significant contributions to political science, but to other related fields as well.  Beyond his continuous attention to this issue, he has been heartily involved in efforts to make the fruits of his work – how we can make democracy work, and work better – useful to practitioners in government and the larger society.

Among his many contributions, Putnam is perhaps most associated with the term “social capital’ – a term that has revolutionized our understanding of the relationship between social and political systems.  This term refers to the “trust, norms and networks” that people develop as a result of ongoing civic interactions (aka longer term social involvement).[1] Although Putnam did not coin the idea of “social capital” his work has made it relevant to a broad audience, building on the work of James Coleman and Glenn Loury, connecting the sociological term to its influence on the well-being of our political system.  His first book Making Democracy Work, identified the ways in which governments in Northern and Southern Italy differed based on variations in their civil society – how people relate to each other in their day to day lives.  He found that those areas with more healthy civic sectors had stronger communities and more democratic political structures.

Although his research on the relevance of social capital to effective democracies began abroad, Putnam is most known for his assessment of this relationship within the American context in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In this text, his earliest work on American civil society, Putnam noted that the participation in bowling leagues has declined, reducing the opportunities for people to develop their relationships as they have played individual games of bowling more frequently.  As a neo-Tocquevillean – someone who has applied his ideas in current times – Putnam seizes on a key insight related to civic engagement, particularly the role that civic associations have played in moving people from their focus as individuals, to a more communal orientation. In other words, a common good.

The American system, imperfect in its execution, has long focused on twin – and sometimes competing – ideals of freedom and equality.  Tocqueville discusses the tendency for the political equality within democracy to produce an emphasis on individualism which, if too widespread, can weaken our pursuit of common goals.[2] However, we also have the ability to counter these effects.  Civic associations provide a way to build bonds between individuals for collective purposes, as we need to work together to achieve ends because of minimal individual power.[3] In his time in America, Tocqueville was sincerely taken with the extent of civil associations and the ways that they helped people learn to cooperate for personal and communal reasons – this ability to cooperate and contribute to the common good promotes a strong backbone in our democracy.

The research of Putnam, and the tens of thousands of scholarly works that have, in turn, cited his work have demonstrated the enduring goods that come from civic engagement and the resulting social capital, such as strong political engagement, as well as the lackluster results when societies, including ours, lack them.  The central lesson is that the extent to which we are regularly involved with various organizations – and not simply by giving money – the more connected we become with one another; the more connected we are, the more likely we are to trust and cooperate.  Moreover, Putnam has not only made a splash in our way of thinking about healthy society, but in how government responds.  He founded the Better Together Initiative and the Saguaro Seminar, which have generated best practices for social and political decision-making.  He has even testified before Congress to make recommendations on how to generate social capital.  I encourage you to look into these resources and think about ways in which you can begin or continue to connect in your own communities.

Joining a bowling league – goofy shoes and all – provides an opportunity to connect regularly with the same people and build relationships over time.  In the time that my husband, a somewhat introverted individual, has been involved with his team and league, I have seen an illustration of these general trends first hand.  (I have also seen them in my own connections, but we are going with the bowling theme here.)  Just recently, another former member of the team, who had retired and moved out of the area, passed away after a long illness. My husband and his teammates have made annual visits to see him every year, and will make this last journey of several hours out to and back from the services, even amidst a busy time at work and preparing for the upcoming holiday.  That willingness to do so is social capital.  It may look different in practice than during the time of Tocqueville’s visit, but the social and political benefits still remain.

[1] Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 167.

[2] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. (New York, NY: Penguin Putnam, 2001), Book II Section 26.

[3] Ibid, Book II Section 29.

Comments

1 Comment so far

  1. Amy on December 20, 2019 2:56 am

    As much as I would like to believe the central lesson as truth, I find the idea somewhat idealistic. This may be due to my own experience of having felt that I belonged to a community but ultimately found I was not a true member. The connection I felt, I learned, was only one-sided and never became reciprocated as time went on. Whether you mean “organization” such as Rotary club, which is by, of and ultimately for the community in which it is started, or “organization” as in a small bowling club, not all members will experience the connection, trust and cooperation the longer they are a member.

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