Since the 1960s and 1970s, Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard University, has observed the decline in what he calls ‘Social Capital’: features of social organization, networks, norms, and trust, that increase the ability of people in a society to work together and achieve common goals. Social capital, he argues, is an integral part of trust and participation in society’s social, economic, and political institutions. It is an immaterial notion, unlike physical capital, but one that is vitally important to society. Social capital is also a vast idea, inclusive of civil organizations and family dinners, political parties and college friends.
Many political scientists have worried about the decline in active citizenship in America and other post-industrial states since the 1960s, even in basic civic exercises as voting. Trust in government has decreased to startling levels, with 75% of Americans reporting high levels of mistrust in Washington (1992). Putnam has connected this decline in political participation and trust with the decline of social capital, namely the participation in civil society.
In his publication, Bowling Alone, Putnam reported a decline in Americans who attended church, were labor union members, participated in Parent Teacher Associations, and were members of civic or fraternal organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, Rotary Club, or Red Cross. However the area of research that was surprisingly indicative and from which the publication gained its name, was in the trends of bowlers. Putnam found that despite a growth of 10 percent in the number of American bowlers between 1980 and 1993, league bowling decreased by 40 percent. While a whimsical example, it was not a trivial one. He explains that, “nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly. Even after the 1980s’ plunge in league bowling, nearly three percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.” This evidence points to an increasingly withdrawn society, not only from politics, but from all areas of social life.
The social changes in the last fifty years have been many, and Putnam has attempted to isolate the primary cause of decline in social engagement among a number of possible factors. He explores, among others, residential mobility, the movement of women into the labor force, and political scandals such as Watergate and Vietnam that lead to mass disillusionment in politics. Despite examination of dramatic demographic shifts in the past fifty years, Putnam ultimately blames technology for the privatization of leisure, and in particular, television, for the overall decline in American social capital.
While new technology has enhanced the ability to maintain social networks across the world, television has radically ‘individualized’ leisure time and disrupted opportunities for social-capital forming activities. Watching television, he argues, creates more shallow community connections. The time displaced by watching television replaces time spent in social activities outside the home. It effects the outlooks of viewers, who poll as being much more suspicious of people, for example overestimating crime rates. Finally, television now occupies an extraordinary role in the development of American children, who on average spend 40 hours per week watching television. Perhaps unlike other technologies, television privatizes our lives and inhibits social connections.
Putnam’s argued impact of television reaches into many aspects of social capital, affecting informal social interaction to participation in political organizations. Despite the proliferation of news and information, civil engagement suffers and trust in the government, the economy,and society at large is on the decline. While perhaps not exclusive in its influence, the role of new technology has had a transformative impact on society, changing how we receive information and how we interact with the world.