Entertaining Putnam on Social Capital

As part of the MatchPoints seminar this week, the world’s most cited social science researcher Robert Putnam is visiting Aarhus University. On Tuesday he gave a riveting talk on social capital at the Department of Political Science and Government.

Despite the jet lag after the long journey from Harvard University, Robert Putnam was in fine shape when he took to the podium at the Department of Political Science and Government on Tuesday afternoon. He was participating in an internal seminar and gave an inspiring talk about social capital followed by questions and a reception with choral singing.

Robert Putnam talked about social capital on the basis of his book ‘Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy’, published in 1993. Why is it that Italy’s administrative regions, which on paper possessed the same competencies, were in fact extremely different in terms of the levels of efficiency and satisfaction? Robert Putnam’s popularised answer was that it was down to the closeness of choral societies. Using choral societies as a metaphor for voluntary organisations, his studies showed that participating in this kind of social network was essential for a well-functioning society.

- Going to meetings is good for your stress level

Based on the results from Italy and new analyses, Robert Putnam concludes that even though there are exceptions – such as the Ku Klux Klan – membership of voluntary organisations is generally good for both society and the individual. In his view, it is therefore a serious problem that, in the USA, social capital has been declining since the 1960s.

Robert Putnam encouraged his audience to join social networks and humorously banged home the point that ‘going to meetings is good for your stress level’. In other words, you live a longer and happier life if you are a member of a choir, football club, card club etc., while being socially isolated has the same impact on your life expectancy as smoking.

- Success in life depends on which parents you choose

Robert Putnam held his audience captivated for an hour without a break or notes. He included small anecdotal stories from his own life, and the audience was given an insight into the influence he has in the USA, where he has consulted both Barack Obama and George W. Bush Jr. on the challenges facing the country, for example the growing inequality between rich and poor, one of his current focus areas.

With humour and incisiveness, Robert Putnam said that a child’s choice of parents was crucial to its chances in life. While well-educated middle-class parents are spending more time with their children than previously, the opposite is true for working and lower-class children. Uneducated and often single parents simply do not have the energy required to involve themselves in their children’s lives, which has unfortunate consequences in both the short and long term.

Choir singers with lots of social capital

After the talk there was time for questions, followed by a reception in the staff lounge. This provided the opportunity to talk with Robert Putnam in more informal surroundings. Very aptly, the reception ended with choral singing by the Aarhus University choir, and when asked whether singing in a choir had increased their social capital, the answer from the singers was a resounding ‘Yes!’.

View images from the event

Watch the video of the choir singing


Related articles:
Articles about Robert D. Putnam (in Danish only)
'Laboratory Denmark' by Gert Tinggaard Svendsen

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