The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America

Peter Urchin:

The title of this blog is a paraphrase of a 1995 article by Robert Putnam, “The Strange Disappearance of Civic America.” Robert Putnam is a political scientist at Harvard who over the last 20 years has been documenting the decline of ‘social capital’ in America.

Putnam has argued, in particular, that last several decades saw lower levels of trust in government, lower levels of civic participation, lower connectedness among ordinary Americans, and lower social cooperation.

This is a puzzling development, because from its inception the American society was characterized, to an unusual degree, by the density of associational ties and an abundance of social capital. Almost 200 years ago that discerning observer of social life, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote about the exceptional ability of Americans to form voluntary associations and, more generally, to cooperate in solving problems that required concerted collective action. This capacity for cooperation apparently lasted into the post-World War II era, but several indicators suggest that during the last 3-4 decades it has been unraveling.

Robert Putnam points to such indicators as the participation rate in voluntary organizations (Masonic lodges, Parent-Teacher Associations, sports clubs and bowling leagues…):