This past Friday there was yet another retirement conference, this time honoring “Mr. Social Capital,” Robert S. Putnam, who is retiring from Harvard’s Kennedy School at age 77. I was not invited, but I know some people who attended, including my sister and brother-in-law, the latter speaking at the dinner as family, the brother of Bob’s wife, Rosemary. As it is, I have known Bob Putnam since before he became Robert S. “Mr. Social Capital” Putnam. That came especially with the publication in the 1990s of his massive hit book, Bowling Alone, in which he presented massive amounts of data and arguments about the idea of social capital. This helped trigger an outright fad among academics and policymakers, including at the World Bank, about the importance of increasing social capital in many nations so as to supposedly improve their economic and social situations. It also led Putnam to become one of the most frequently cited living social scientists (176,000 plus times and counting, according to Google Scholar).
According to him the idea has been floating around in and out of public discourse since it first appeared in a report on education in West Virginia a good century ago. However, it began to pick up serious academic steam starting in the late 1980s when sociologist James Coleman began studying it and writing about it. Putnam’s own background was mostly as an expert on Italian politics, but he picked up on the idea from Coleman in the early 1990s in a famous book he wrote on Italian democracy. For him it became a crucial factor in explaining the much better economic and social (and political) performance of northern Italy compared to southern Italy, albeit with a deep historical background. Whereas substantial portions of northern Italy had been independent city states with long histories of civic engagement in local ruling groups, most of southern Italy spent several centuries ruled by outside and autocratic Spain, which laid the foundation for the rise of the mafia as a countervailing power, which would come to dominate the society of the Mezzogiorno with its secrecy and lying and corruption. For Putnam one finds lots of people engaged in civic group activities in the North, but not in the South, and I even heard him once give a talk in which he claimed that one could explain 90% of the difference in economic growth rates among Italian regions by just looking at the percentage of their populations that belonged to civic choral groups in the 1870s. That correlation is probably correct, even if it has almost nothing to do with causation.