The Upswing by Robert D Putnam: Charting social capital in US over 125 years

Book review: An ambitious and meticulously researched look at how the US can return to more altruistic version of early-20th century

Author and Harvard professor Robert Putnam with former US president Barack Obama in 2015. Photograph: ISP Pool Images/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Author and Harvard professor Robert Putnam with former US president Barack Obama in 2015. Photograph: ISP Pool Images/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Celebrity social scientists are a rare species. Harvard professor Robert D Putnam described himself as an “obscure academic” until his scholarly paper on the decline of social capital in the United States was published in 1995. His elevation to celebrity status was confirmed when he was “invited to Camp David, lionised by talk-show hosts and pictured with his wife, Rosemary, on the pages of People”.

Putnam’s political guru credentials have since been recognised by, among others, former US presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama, and by our own former taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. His bestseller Bowling Alone, published in 2000, put on record the disappearance of social capital from the lives of American citizens. The proposition that ordinary citizens can create added social value from the raw material of their everyday relationships had never been so clearly expressed before. Social capital quickly became a panacea for all the ills of our times.

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