Robert D. Putnam is America’s preeminent political scientist, and one of the most widely read, cited, and respected social scientists in the world. Author of fourteen books, translated into twenty languages, member of the National Academy of Sciences, and winner of the 2006 Skytte Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize for political science, Putnam has an uncanny knack for asking key questions and for deploying creative empirical designs to unlock answers. As important, he has maintained throughout his career a passion for seeking truth, whether it turns out to be popular or not.
Putnam has focused on the social and cultural substrata beneath the glitter and greasy-pole theater of “high politics.” His interests have spanned nations and ages, and have encompassed both civil society and international relations. He refuses to be limited by artificial or en vogue disciplinary constraints. Putnam’s intellectual ambit includes all the social sciences as well as literature and philosophy, even as his research zeros in on critical policy-relevant quandaries.
Within the manifold of his work there is an abiding thematic unity: Human beings are social animals, a foundational fact for understanding behavior. Well before this meme gained currency in recent years, thanks to genetic and cognitive/neuroscience research, Putnam understood that the character of political life is shaped by social networks, by the social capital they generate, and by the associational ties that both use and reinvest that social capital from generation to generation.
Trust, wrote Putnam in his 1993 landmark book, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, “is an emergent property of the social system, as much as a personal attribute.
Individuals are able to be trusting (and not merely gullible) because of the social norms and networks within which their actions are embedded.”
These insights blossomed, and took on controversial form, in his 2000 best-seller Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. More recently, Putnam has directed his omnivorous curiosity toward other contemporary themes, such as the influence of ethnic and cultural diversity on social cohesion. His prize-winning 2010 coauthored book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, was described by historian David Hollinger as “the most successfully argued sociological study of American religion in more than half a century.” He is now completing a book describing the opportunity gap that increasingly separates rich kids and poor kids in America.
Even amid such a fruitful research portfolio, Putnam has not been content to live as a cloistered scholar. From his professorship at Harvard, where he has taught since 1979, he has brought rigorous scholarship to bear on the problems that America and other societies face. As Putnam once told me in a conversation published in The American Interest (January/February 2008), “Academics have a very cushy life, and the quid pro quo, as I understood when I got into this job, was that we have an obligation to try to bring at least some of our ideas, insights, and findings into a wider societal conversation.”
Putnam has done just that. His work on social capital vaulted him into rarefied company, having been called on to consult with three American presidents, two British prime ministers, a French president, and the Irish taoiseach. Having served on the National Security Council during the Carter administration, Putnam is no stranger to the ways of government or to the challenges of policy science.
Not surprisingly, Putnam has been a joiner. Over the years he has worked with the World Bank, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Political Science Association, among other organizations. He has also been an initiator, having founded both the Harvard/Manchester University Program on Social Change and the Saguaro Seminar, which brought together scholars and policy practitioners—among them a promising young black community organizer from the South Side of Chicago—to troubleshoot and problem solve. A gifted teacher committed to reaching beyond the academy, over the last two decades Putnam has spoken to hundreds of thousands of grassroots community leaders and ordinary citizens around the world.
It has been quite a journey from the small town of Port Clinton, Ohio, where Putnam grew up as son to churchgoing (Methodist) Republican middle-class parents, to first Swarthmore, then Oxford, Yale, the University of Michigan, Harvard, and beyond. On the way, Putnam converted to Judaism to make a loving home with his wife, Rosemary; it was their attendance together to hear John F. Kennedy’s inaugural admonition to “ask what you can do for your country” that moved him to forsake an intended career in the natural sciences for the world of applied social science. And that shift of direction has enriched and forever changed the world of American letters and public policy.
— by Adam Garfinkle