Kicking in Groups

Just as intriguing as Robert Putnam's theory that we are "bowling alone"--that the bonds of civic association are dissolving--is how readily the theory hasbeen accepted

Notes & Comment --

Kicking in Groups



IN 1958 Edward Banfield published The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, a study of underdevelopment in a village at the southern tip of Italy--"the extreme poverty and backwardness of which," he wrote, "is to be explained largely (but not entirely) by the inability of the villagers to act together for their common good." Banfield called the prevailing ethos of the village "amoral familism": "Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise." The best way to improve the village's economic condition, he said, would be for "the southern peasant to acquire the ways of the north."


notes1 picture Ten years later, in The Unheavenly City, Banfield applied a similar line of argument to American inner-city black ghettos, without benefit of the kind of firsthand research he had done in Italy. This time he identified "present-mindedness" as the quality that caused the communities' problems. Whereas The Moral Basis of a Backward Society had been respectfully received, The Unheavenly City was so controversial that for years Banfield required police protection when he spoke in public. The lesson seems to be that studying the difference between northern and southern Italy is a safe way of addressing a question still very much on Americans' minds: Why is there such a wide variation in the social and economic health of our neighborhoods and ethnic groups and, for that matter, of different societies all over the world?

Robert Putnam, a professor of government at Harvard, has to decide whether to confront just this issue. In 1993 Putnam published a book called Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Though its main text is only 185 pages long, Making Democracy Work is the fruit of immense labor. In 1970 Italy created local governments in its twenty regions and turned over many of the functions of the central government to them. Putnam and a team of colleagues almost immediately embarked on a study of the new governments' performance, covering the entire nation and focusing particularly on a few localities, including a town quite near the one where Banfield researched his book.

The finding that leaped out at Putnam was that the governments in the prosperous north of Italy outperformed the ones in the benighted south. Through a variety of statistical exercises he tried to demonstrate that their success was not simply a case of the rich getting richer. For example, he showed that regional government officials are less well educated in the north than in the south, and that in the northern provinces economic-development levels are not especially predictive of government performance. He found the north's secret to be a quality that Machiavelli called virtu civile ("civic virtue")--an ingrained tendency to form small-scale associations that create a fertile ground for political and economic development, even if (especially if, Putnam would probably say) the associations are not themselves political or economic. "Good government in Italy is a by-product of singing groups and soccer clubs," he wrote. Civic virtue both expresses and builds trust and cooperation in the citizenry, and it is these qualities--which Putnam called "social capital," borrowing a phrase from Jane Jacobs--that make everything else go well.

Putnam was arguing against the conventional wisdom in the social sciences, which holds that civic virtue is an appurtenance of a traditional society--"an atavism destined to disappear" with modernization, which replaces small organizations that operate by custom with big ones that operate by rules. Instead, he said, even the biggest and most modern societies can't function well if the local civic dimension is weak. He hinted here and there that it was actually the large bureaucratic overlay that was going to wind up being obsolete.

What causes some societies to become more civic-minded than others? In Italy, Putnam said, the north-south difference dates from the 1100s, when the Normans established a centralized, autocratic regime in the south, and a series of autonomous republics arose in the north. The southern system stressed what Putnam called "vertical bonds": it was rigidly hierarchical, with those at the bottom dependent on the patronage of landowners and officials rather than on one another. In the north small organizations such as guilds and credit associations generated "horizontal bonds," fostering a sense of mutual trust that doesn't exist in the south. Putnam continually stressed the "astonishing constancy" of the north-south difference: it survived the demise of the independent northern republics in the seventeenth century and the Risorgimento in the nineteenth. "The southern territories once ruled by the Norman kings," he wrote, "constitute exactly the seven least civic regions in the 1970s." We shouldn't expect the situation to change anytime soon, because "where institution building . . . is concerned, time is measured in decades."

Social science has become a statistical art, overwhelmingly concerned with using correlation coefficients to express the effect of one thing on another--or, to use the jargon, to discover and isolate the independent variable that has the greatest influence on the dependent variable. Civic virtue can be understood as Putnam's contribution to an ongoing quest for the magic independent variable that will explain economic development; he belongs to an intellectual tradition that tries to locate it in intrinsic cultural tendencies. In this sense civic virtue is a descendant of Max Weber's Protestant ethic, and is the opposite of Oscar Lewis's culture of poverty and Banfield's amoral familism. The venerability of the tradition and its powerful commonsense appeal shouldn't obscure the fact that all such independent variables are, necessarily, artificial constructs. Civic virtue is measured (to three decimal places!) by cobbling together such indices as newspaper-readership figures, voter turnout, and the abundance of sports clubs, and is not, as Putnam admitted, all-powerful as a predictor. Even in parts of northern Italy "the actual administrative performance of most of the new governments"--the subject under study, after all--"has been problematical."

. . .

Nonetheless, when Putnam tentatively brought his theory home to the United States, it created a sensation--of exactly the opposite kind from the one Banfield created a quarter century ago with The Unheavenly City. An article called "Bowling Alone," which Putnam published in the January, 1995, issue of the Journal of Democracy, had an impact far, far beyond the usual for academic writing. In the wake of "Bowling Alone," Putnam has been invited to Camp David to consult with President Bill Clinton. His terminology has heavily influenced the past two State of the Union addresses; Making Democracy Work, initially ignored by the general-interest press, was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review; Putnam was prominently mentioned in the musings of Senator Bill Bradley about his disillusionment with politics; and, unlikeliest of all, he was the subject of a profile in People magazine.

Presented by

Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

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