What Happened? The Curious Case of Social Change in 20th Century America

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Danielle Haley, ACS 1L Rep

Robert Putnam, famous for his books Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and the more recent Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, has long been studying the continuing individualization and isolation of the American populace. In both those books, he looks at how decreasing civic and community participation occurred after the 1960’s. On October 14, Professor Putnam spoke with the American Constitution Society not about either of those books – but of the next book.

This next book is prompted, he claims, by the nagging “why” that comes to follow these ideas. Why is it that we’ve seen declining civic life? Why is it that we have a stricter meaning of “our kids” than we once did? Why are we so isolated?

Professor Putnam has looked at a composite of social science data to discover a new “We-I” relationship. The name comes from an interesting event revealed when a google frequency counter is used on the words “we” and “I”. After 1968, the frequency of the use of “I” in American writing nearly doubles, and continues to grow. The use of “we’ declines the entire time.

Professor Putnam describes a “We-I” curve which tracts various social factors. Higher incidents of “we” correlate with more civic involvement, more marriages, younger marriages, and higher charitable giving rates. After the apex of the “We” community, the “I” societies tend to focus far less on these communal traits. The We-I curve follows that of the rise and decline of civic involvement, and follows issues discussed in his earlier works.

America is currently at a point of very high “I”-ness. It is the lowest it has been since the early 1920’s. While that is a cause for frustration, Professor Putnam thinks there may be something to be learned there. After 1920, there is a sudden upward leap in civic involvement, community focus, and “we”-ness. If we can discover what lead to that surge, it may be possible to shift back to a we-based society today.

This possible book would focus on this “We-I” curve, and looks at its explanatory power as well as possible explanations for the curve itself. An interesting addition to his previous works, students enthusiastically asked questions about the potential of these new ideas and what they mean for the American attitude.

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