Not Just Economics but Fraying Social Fabric: Robert Putnam and His Reviewer

My first academic book (The Canonization of the Synagogue Service, 1979) was a study of the political process by which the first Jewish prayer book came into being. The book was reviewed positively and is still required reading in the field. Imagine then, my surprise, when, a few years back, an Israeli scholar published a related volume but relegated my book to this single footnote: “Hoffman’s“Hoffman’s book is too foolish to bother including here.”

A similar incident occurred when I wrote Covenant of Blood, a historical but anthropological account of circumcision, that demonstrated, in part, how the ritual functioned in the Middle Ages as a male bonding ritual in which male blood and female blood were juxtaposed as primary symbols of positive and negative valence. Once again, the book was greeted warmly, and once again also, one reviewer unaccountably condemned me – this time, as anti-Semitic.

Such minority reports are often more indicative of the reviewers than the book being reviewed. New perspectives can mistakenly be seen as necessarily negating old ones, when, in fact, they simply widen prior understandings.

Truth is seldom such a zero-sum game: new analyses may add to old truths rather than displace them.

In a recent Facebook posting, I urged people to read Robert Putnam’s recently published Our Kids. Some readers then forwarded to me the review from the New York Review of Books by Nicholas Lehmann (Unhappy Days in America, May 21, 2015) which I had somehow missed. What did I think of it, they wanted to know. Did it change my view of Putnam’s book?

The review is competent, learned, and formidable. But it didn’t change my mind. Here’s why.

Lehmann contrasts Putnam’s work with Thomas Picketty’s recent Capital in the Twentieth Century, a deeply disturbing claim that our economic policies are producing a tiny upper-class “living like feudal lords,” at the expense of an underclass that will be eternally poor. Putnam acknowledges this economic disparity but adds a nuanced sociological understanding to Picketty’s economic one. Most of Our Kids focuses on family life, early childhood development, schools, and neighborhoods — as contributory factors to our emerging two-class phenomenon. These, Lehmann implies, are just subsidiary issues that do not even have proven causal connections to the phenomenon in question.

I am, to paraphrase the prophet Amos, “neither a sociologist nor the son of a sociologist” so I cannot rule on the technical matter of the extent to which the data display clear lines of causality. But Putnam makes no simple causal claims so much as he unveils a set of interlocking factors that combine to magnify each other’s detrimental influence. Both Putnam and Picketty are describing the same phenomenon from diverse points of view: Putnam understands the economics but adds the social factors that make the economic impact even worse than it would be on its own. He expands our purview to see just how insidiously economic privation poisons everything else: families, parenting, schools, and neighborhoods – the very essence of the social fabric that sustains us.

Our Kids should be read as an extension of Putnam’s prior work, Bowling Alone (a 1995 essay expanded into a 2000 book) and even his later American Grace (2010). All three works emphasize the power of social capital, the means by which dense social networks support the kind of mutual engagement that leads people to help one another. If there is a bottom line to Our Kids, it is the fact that the underclass suffers a breakdown in every aspect of social life: not just grinding poverty, but fear of violence that shuts people off from their neighbors; families under stress; parents too tired or strung out to communicate with their children; schools that barely educate, and then phase out extracurricular networking that would provide social capital for its overworked and under prepared students.

None of this necessarily implies that we ignore the underlying economic causes of class disparity. On the contrary, I suspect that Putnam was deliberately understating what everyone knows to be the case anyway, not papering over the need to provide equal economic opportunity, but suggesting important ways in which social realities can be restructured to ameliorate the situation. These social issues are not just Marxist epiphenomena, smoke screens that divert us from attending to the real culprit, the economy. Of course the economic disparities lie at the core of it all; and of course they deserve our attention; but so too do the other issues that Putnam details with such care.

Putnam’s work expands economic analyses with insight into the fraying social fabric that is devastating the subjects of this book, “our kids.”

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