‘It’s up to you’: Renowned social scientist Robert Putnam discusses democracy, society at Notre Dame Forum event

Author: Notre Dame News

As part of the 2023-24 Notre Dame Forum on the “Future of Democracy,” more than 370 people filled the Jordan Auditorium at the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday (Feb. 21) for an exclusive screening of “Join or Die,” a film about renowned social scientist Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking research on why you should join a club and why your personal health and the fate of America depend on it.

Fr. Bob Dowd stands at a podium. In the background is a blue screen with the Notre Dame logo in it.
President-elect Rev. Robert A. Dowd, C.S.C. (Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

In welcoming those gathered, University President-elect Rev. Robert A. Dowd, C.S.C. stated, “At a time when many scholars focus on narrow questions, Professor Putnam has made a career of tackling big issues. His research on the importance of civic engagement, social connections and strong communities to the survival of democracy has been influential around the world.”

The film details Putnam’s research on social capital – the networks of connections among individuals and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them – and its impact on democracy.

The film chronicles how Putnam’s study of regional governments in Italy in the 1990s ultimately led to the publication of his groundbreaking book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” Putnam asserts that choosing to engage in activities individually rather than communally diminishes America's capacity to build social capital and undermines its national character. His research also suggests that people who join clubs or other social networks live longer, healthier lives, and correlates the decline in civic involvement to some of democracy’s biggest challenges today, particularly the lack of trust in government leaders.

Following the film, Putnam entertained questions from the audience about the impact of social media and artificial intelligence, and how to bolster the sense of community in our nation and around the world.

Putnam encouraged those in attendance to extend their campus engagement beyond the university to have a positive societal impact. “If you don’t do it, nobody will do it,” he said. “What this country needs is a moral reawakening … a period in which everybody comes together to realize that we all look out for each other. It’s the Golden Rule. What I’m trying to say is, it’s up to you.”

Jaimie Bleck, associate professor of political science, opened the event and later moderated the post-film discussion with Putnam and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy and the newly named director of the University’s Democracy Initiative, who is also a former student, co-author, and research collaborator of Putnam.

The event was co-sponsored by the Notre Dame Democracy Initiative, the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy and the Department of Political Science. A recording of the conversation portion of the event is available on the Forum website.