Civic Engagement in a Changing World
A Lecture by Dr Robert Putnam

Date 15 April 2007 Venue Chan Centre for the Performing Arts

Reviewer Patricia Fleming

Hosted by the Dalai Lama Centre for Peace and Education, and sponsored by the Vancouver Board of Trade, and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Dr Robert Putnam’s Saturday evening talk at the Chan Center, was introduced by Evan Alderson, one of the Trustees of The Dalai Lama Centre. Mr Alderson thought Dr Putnam a great example of a representative from the “moral community” who could engage members of the community at large with both their heads and their hearts.

John Haliwell, a UBC Professor, who has done studies on trying to explain the differences in the happiness of people in about fifty different countries, in four different periods, introduced his friend and colleague and advised that Dr Putnam is one of the greatest scholars in the social sciences.

Dr Putnam, author of the book Bowling Alone, a somewhat controversial book about crisis in the United States community, had a very relaxed and amusing manner and was here to talk about “social capital” and its relevance. His latest book is Better Together: Restoring the American Community, a study of promising new forms of social connectedness and was available for book signing in the foyer. He warmed up the audience by getting us to sing along to a Raffi song (first introduced in Stockholm, which he jokingly referred to as the social capital of the world). Dr Putnam wanted to talk about four items: What has been happening in the past 30 years in the US and how we are all a lot less connected. Why are we less connected? Does it matter? And if it does matter - what do we do?

The core idea of social capital is that it takes different forms: (1) with people like ourselves we form social networks which he calls bonding networks. (2) With people unlike us we form bridging networks. Societies need both but bridging networks are harder to build.

Dr Putnam showed us many slides and we saw that membership in the Boy Scouts, Rotary Clubs, going to Church and even going on picnics (he has a thing about picnics) other civic organizations peaked in the 1950s and have been in decline every since. It was determined that a Vancouver audience was a very high-minded and very civic-minded lot as most of us had been to a meetings, signed a petition, or even run for office in the last twelve months, according to the show of hands.

The only club that's truly growing in membership is AA, people are eating alone at home in front of the TV and entertaining a lot less than they did forty years ago and of course, there is the Internet. That potential highway of social isolation. His slide about Trust was a good one. Do we trust people the way people did forty or fifty years ago? The answer is no and we seek “synthetic trust” by hiring lawyers to do our trusting for us. Questions were asked by the audience and there was discussion regarding the causes of the decline in social capital included Suburbia, women working out of the home, television, the Internet. He was asked if you can build bridging at the same time as bonding and you can, but it’s hard.

In summary, the evening’s message was that social capital has eroded (exactly as it did a century ago when people discovered the phone, and the car, and Quilting Bees and barn-raising were thus on their way out) and what is needed is a few very good ideas about bridging social capital - some new forms. There was no real time for discussion about the “how,” but perhaps he will return to talk about that subject at a later date.

© 2007 Patricia Fleming