“I recently went bowling and, contrary to another popular but misguided idea, no one there was alone.” – Mark J. Penn, Microtrends
As academics go, Professor Robert Putnam is unusually well known. While Bowling Alone may not exactly have been the talk of bars and clubs across the world for the last 11 years, if you’ve either been studying a social science degree or developing a government policy related to ‘communities’ in the US or the UK, you probably will have come across either the book or the central arguments made within it.
Putnam’s specialist subject is social capital. His talk at yesterday’s Respublica event, The Community of Faith: Religion and Social Capital in the 21st Century, started with the simple definition ‘social capital is social networks’ but the Bowling Alone website has a slightly fuller explanation of how social capital works:
“The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and – at least sometimes – for bystanders as well.”
and provides some examples:
“When a group of neighbors informally keep an eye on one another’s homes, that’s social capital in action. When a tightly knit community of Hassidic Jews trade diamonds without having to test each gem for purity, that’s social capital in action. Barn-raising on the frontier was social capital in action, and so too are e-mail exchanges among members of a cancer support group. Social capital can be found in friendship networks, neighborhoods, churches, schools, bridge clubs, civic associations, and even bars. The motto in Cheers “where everybody knows your name” captures one important aspect of social capital.”
Contrary to Mark J. Penn’s suggestion above, and slightly contrary to the catchy title of the book, Bowling Alone didn’t actually argue that increasing numbers of Americans were literally going bowling on their own. Instead, it noted the significant decline in Americans taking part in organised bowling leagues – and took this a symbol of the wider decline in participation in organised community activities.
The result, here in the UK at least, was that social capital became the holy grail of post-2000 community regeneration policies (in particular). This was partly (although obviously not entirely) because the New Labour government was very keen on the idea – not specifically suggested by Professor Putnam – that you could bring about as much change in deprived communities by encouraging local people to talk to each other as you could by providing expensive public services to tackle the social problems faced by those communities.
With our economic and social structures collapsing around their ears, now is probably a good time for Putnam to put out a hard-hitting sequel. He has. It’s called American Grace and, amidst other arguments about the role of religion in American society, it reinforces the message about social capital by telling us where to find it. In church.
Putnam’s done the research and, as he explained yesterday: “We have pretty good evidence that religious people are nicer.” That is, religious people give more money to charity (secular as well as religious charities), they’re more likely to volunteer and more likely to go on protest marches (while the ‘Christian Right’ is a well known political force in the US, churchgoers are also more likely to attend left-wing protests that non churchgoers). This is true in the UK as well as in the US.
According to Putnam, it is the ‘going’ in churchgoer that’s important. The high social capital shown by churchgoers is not significantly affected by denomination* or someone’s perceived strength of faith. In fact, someone who strongly believes in God but doesn’t attend church regularly will have less social capital than someone who doesn’t believe in God but does attend church regularly. It’s having what Putnam describes as ‘church friends’ – social networks of people within your church – that makes the difference.
The obvious question, raised by last night’s chair, Dr David Halpern, Head of the Behavioural Insight Team at the Cabinet Office, was “if religion is ‘super social capital’ what do we do about it?”. It’s a particularly tough question here in the UK as, while accurate figures are hard to come by, in 2007 only around 7.6 million out of 60 million of us (about 15%) were going to church at least once a month. In the US, it’s more than 40%. Aside from the impractical and offensive option of encourage the faking of religious devotion, is it possible to generate churchgoing levels of social capital through secular activities?
Professor Putnam didn’t offer an answer to that. Neither could he answer the question of what specifically it is about churchgoing or ‘church friends’ that generates greater social capital. Obviously, I don’t know either but it’s possible that this situation suggests a role for the social enterprise movement. I’m certainly not advocating that the social enterprise movement starts to regard itself as a religious movement (or if it already does so, I actively encourage it to stop) but, as with churches, there’s definitely a role for social entrepreneurs and social enterprises in promoting the idea of living and working in a way that contributes to a greater good – as opposed to just delivered good services and/or material prosperity.
To what extent, if at all, can social enterprises or socially entrepreneurial activities fill the big empty space (in many local areas) for politically non-aligned goodness that really matters to those taking part in it?
*Putnam’s research takes in different branches of Christianity. His research shows similar trends also apply to adherents to Judaism. Putnam believes, but has not investigated, that the same results may apply for adherents to other faiths.