Individualism and the Crisis of Civic Membership

By Bellah, Robert N.; Madsen, Richard et al. | The Christian Century, May 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Individualism and the Crisis of Civic Membership

Bellah, Robert N., Madsen, Richard, Sullivan, William M., Swidler, Ann, Tipton, Steven M., The Christian Century

THE CONSEQUENCES of radical individualism are more strikingly evident today than they were even a decade ago when Habits of the Heart was published. In Habits we spoke of commitment, of community and of citizenship as useful contrast terms to an alienating individualism. Properly understood, these terms are still valuable for our current understanding. But today we think the phrase "civic membership" brings out something not quite captured by these other terms. While we criticized distorted forms of individualism, we never sought to neglect the central significance of the individual person or failed to sympathize with the difficulties faced by the individual self in our society. "Civic membership" points to that critical intersection of personal identity with social identity. If we face a crisis of civic identity, it is not just a social crisis; it is a personal crisis as well.

One way of characterizing the crisis of civic membership is to speak of declining "social capital." Robert Putnam, who has brought the term to public attention, defines social capital as follows: "By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital--tools and training that enhance individual productivity--'social capital' refers to features of social organization, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefits." There are a number of possible indices of social capital, but the two that Putnam has used most extensively are associational membership and public trust.

Putnam has chosen a stunning image as the title of a recent article: "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" (journal of Democracy, january 1995). He reports that between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. This is not a trivial example: nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once in 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional election and roughly the same as claim to attend church regularly.

For Putnam, people bowling by themselves are a symbol of the decline of associational life, the vigor of which has been seen as the heart of our civic culture ever since Alexis de Tocqueville visited the U.S. in the 1830s.

In the 1970s dramatic declines began to hit the associations typically composed of women, such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters. This has often been explained as the result of the massive entry of women into the work force. In the 1980s falling membership struck typically male associations, such as the Lions, Elks, Masons and Shriners, as well. Union membership has dropped by half since its peak in the middle 1950s. We all know of the continuing decline of the number of eligible voters who actually go to the polls, but Putnam reminds us that the number of Americans who answer yes when asked whether they have attended a public meeting on town or school affairs in the last year has fallen by more than a third since 1973.

Almost the only groups that are growing are support groups, such as 12-step groups. These groups make minimal demands on their members and are oriented primarily to the needs of individuals. Indeed, Robert Wuthnow has characterized them as involving individuals who "focus on themselves in the presence of others"--what we might call being alone together. Putnam argues that paper membership groups, such as the American Association of Retifed Persons, which has grown to gargantuan proportions, have little or no civic consequences because their members, although they may have common interests, have no meaningful interaction with one another.

PUTNAM ALSO WORRIES that the Internet, the electronic town meeting, and other much ballyhooed new technological devices are probably civically vacuous because they do not sustain civic engagement. Talk radio, for instance, mobilizes private 6pinion, not public opinion, and trades on anxiety, anger and distrust, all of which are deadly to civic culture. …

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