Bowling Alone’s Robert Putnam discusses economic segregation

Caroline Kehrli, Staff Writer


The University and Lewisburg communities came together for the Ralph Spielman Memorial Lecture on April 10, delivered in the ELC Forum by Robert D. Putnam. Professor Ralph Spielman served as the Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University from 1958 to 1972 and remained an active member of the faculty until his death in 1978. Relatives, colleagues, students, and friends of Spielman established the Ralph Spielman Memorial Lectureship to honor his memory and the immense contributions he made to the intellectual life of the University. 

This year’s speaker, Putnam, is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Jennifer Silva, who introduced Putnam alongside Associate Provost for Diversity Bridget Newell, worked with Putnam at Harvard for her Postdoctoral Fellowship.

In regards to her work with Putnam, Silva conducted in-depth interviews with families across the United States.

“These interviews allowed us to observe how parental social class background shapes kids’ chances in life—from where they live, to what schools they attend, to whether they can play sports,” Silva said. 

The work conducted by Putnam and Silva contributed enormously to Putnam’s most recent publication.

Putnam is a decorated scholar who has been recognized internationally for his contributions to the humanities. He received the 2006 Johan Skytte Prize, which is the international community’s highest accolade for Political Science, as well as the National Humanities Medal in 2012, which is the highest honor received by a scholar in the humanities in the United States. His book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” is world-renowned for its immense impact on modern social science. 

Putnam’s presentation focused on his newest book “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” which highlights the widening opportunity gap between rich and poor kids in the United States. His five-year project focused on the effects that economic segregation has on family institutions, specifically on children.

Since the 1970s, the distribution of income in the United States has become skewed, resulting in stark economic polarization on the basis of income and education. Putnam’s work investigates how this economic polarity affects children specifically.

Using his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio as a microcosm for American society, Putnam anecdotally told the story of two descendants of Port Clinton—Miriam, his successful, college-educated granddaughter, and Mary Sue, a young woman suffering from a life of poverty and abuse. As expressed by Putnam, the only major difference between them was the level of education attained by their parents, a factor completely out of their control.

“The story painted a realistic image of income inequality, and Putnam’s personal connection to the anecdote resonated with me. However, since Putnam ended the lecture optimistically, it would have been helpful to hear all possible ways that Mary Sue could have alleviated her situation. Her upbringing was unavoidable … But, was there really no hope for her?” Danielle Rothenberg ’18 said.


Despite the grave situation Putnam presented, he is optimistic the problem can be solved, citing the 1890s in America as a time plagued with similar inequality and economic segregation. Putnam argued that progress can be made to level the playing field if it is done at the local level and not necessarily the federal level.

Associate Professor of Political Science Michael James said that he agreed that oftentimes reforms begin at the local level and, historically, that’s been the case as well. But, he expressed his concern that Putnam’s vision of how things work at the local level is “also a little bit depoliticized.”

“I applaud Putnam for his work and I have respected his work for years … [T]his is in no way to disparage the work he is doing; it is really valuable work. But I worry about trying to soften the political and partisan dynamics of the type of reforms that probably need to be done,” James said. 

Putnam hopes the stories presented in his book will attract attention and encourage people to create change.

“I hope that the community thinks seriously about what they can do to close the growing opportunity gap on the local level,” Silva said.

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