Social Institutions Bowling Alone Putnam Lawler Term Paper

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¶ … National character studies were all the rage in the 1940s and 1950s. They arose during World War II, when anthropologists could not travel to their usual research haunts. They were therefore left either studying culture at a distance, through a variety of what a post-modernist would call "texts," or writing about their own culture as if it were foreign to them. One of the most popular, and enduring of these national character studies was Margaret Mead's and Keep Your Powder Dry, her 1942 ethnography of the United States. It was a celebration -- although not an uncritical one -- of what we think about ourselves as Americans. The book portrayed the national character as brave and fierce and fundamentally independent.

Today Mead's book, along with other national character stories like Ruth Benedict's the Sword and the Chrysanthemum, an overview of Japanese psychology, is looked at as a quaint relic from an era in which it was thought possible to say something profound and fundamentally true about millions of people who shared little in common with each other except for legal citizenship or at least proximity of residence.

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And yet the temptation remains to try to explain the motivations, the culture, the psychology of a whole people. And when one reads books like Robert Wuthnow's American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short or Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Communities or Edward Lawler's Social Commitments in a Depersonalized World one can feel the attraction to such studies. They seem to explain so much.

Each of these books explores what it means to be American in this new millennium. And while the emphasis has shifted from the studies of three generations ago -- when cultures were defined more in opposition to other cultures -- there remains a certain glibness in the discussions. Certainly, these researchers provide us with insights into the ways in which Americans organize -- and segregate -- themselves.

Term Paper on Social Institutions Bowling Alone Putnam Lawler Assignment

This paper examines the models each of the authors puts forward as a way of explaining what is happening to America -- and more specifically, what is wrong with America, and how we can make things better. Each of these books contains important truths in them. How enduring and how universally American these truths are may not be determinable until there is some historical distance between these works and the reader.

Loosening Ties, Failing Safety Nets

Putnam's Bowling Alone in America accrued a great deal of attention when it came out almost a decade ago. It seemed to catch hold of something that many Americans had felt but had not been able to pin down. He seemed to explain -- to reverse paraphrase Ronald Reagan -- how it was that it was no longer morning in America. Putnam created a portrait of a nation in which there were fewer and weaker connections amongst Americans. We were becoming increasingly unknown to each other and, as a result, to ourselves as well.

Putnam's depiction of America is a portrait (almost) of a nation of ghosts, a people who have a constant (and growing) degree of social-capital deficit. It is a place in which the kinds of conditions that are needed to encourage people to act morally are absent. There are simply too few institutions that we belong to with other people and too many conflicting values. The Elks Lodges are empty most of the time, he writes, as are the PTA meetings and the church picnics. We don't all contribute to the United Way anymore, or stand and pledge allegiance at the same time.

But even worse than this, Putnam argues, is that we as Americans make too little time in their lives to spend with friends and family members. While it might be understandable (he argues) that we do not feel the need to become involved in the public discourse, it is far less comprehensible that we should not be to find time to spend with people with whom we share opinions, experiences, DNA -- or some combination of these. Our (American) increasing isolation -- which he writes arises from the increasingly deep roots of television in our everyday lives, from families where all adults have at least one job, and often two, the high degree of inter-generational geographic mobility, and other changes in society and culture have unfortunate -- and sometimes even dangerous -- consequences.

Among the detrimental consequences of our increasing isolation, he argues, are less functional schools, more crime in everyone's neighborhoods, the economic system -- especially the equitable distribution of wealth -- and the functioning of the polity.

Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values -- these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.

Putnam backs up his model of increasing isolation (and social and political dysfunction) with lots of numbers, and it is this careful research that makes his research compelling.

Among the statistics that he offers his readers: In 1960, almost 63% of Americans of voting age cast a ballot in that year's presidential elections, but by 1996, the percentage had dropped to just under 49%. Church attendance is down -- depending on how one measures it -- between one-quarter and one-half since the middle of the last century, and the percentage of Americans who attend public meetings -- from the schoolboard, to the city council, to the water board, etc. -- went down about 40% between the early 1970s and the early 1990s.

Do We Need Organizations to Play Nicely With Each Other?

Key to Putnam's argument is that it is not that these particular behaviors (e.g. going to church, voting, participating in public education) are slipping but that without organizational support, people simply don't know how to make significant connections to each other beyond the most minimal family unit. This is an essentially functionalist interpretation of how culture works: Institutions exist and endure because they have a particular purpose that is generally agreed upon by most people.

The only way to remedy what is currently wrong with the country is to create new social institutions and conventions that will write new (albeit similar) rules that will help us get along with each other. This may sound cynical, but Putnam is clearly in many ways an idealist. He thinks that certain structures and behavioral patterns have to exist to maintain civil society and that many of these structures and patterns are now missing. However, he also believes that it is possible for us to recreate the conditions that once allowed Americans to live together more peaceably and more functionally.

We should be more conscious, he argues, of whether we are participating in inclusive or exclusive forms of connection:

"Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogenous groups. Examples of bonding social capital include ethnic fraternal organizations, church-based women's reading groups, and fashionable country clubs. Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages. Examples of bridging social capital include the civil rights movement, many youth service groups, and ecumenical religious organizations.

Although Putnam is talking about culture and society in general, he often frames his arguments in economic terms. This can lead to a certain reductionism in his argument:

Bonding social capital is good for undergirding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity. Dense networks in ethnic enclaves, for example, provide crucial social and psychological support for less fortunate members of their community, while furnishing start-up financing, markets, and reliable labor for local entrepreneurs. Bridging networks, by contrast, are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion.

Economic sociologist Mark Granovetter has pointed out that when seeking jobs - or political allies - the "weak" ties that link me to distant acquaintances who move in different circles from mine are actually more valuable than the "strong" ties that link me to relatives and intimate friends whose sociological niche is very like my own. Bonding social capital is, as Xavier de Souza Briggs put it, good for "getting by," but bridging social capital is crucial for "getting ahead." (p. 22)

This all makes perfect sense. Except that there is something just slightly mechanical about Putnam's proscriptions. Reading his book I kept hearing the cinematic refrain, "If you build it they will come." While that may work well in movies about baseball teams, it is less likely -- as Lawler, Thye, & Yoon suggest when discussing Major League Baseball --… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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