Robert D. Putnam
Bestselling Author, "Bowling Alone" | Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy, Harvard University
Robert D. Putnam is a political scientist best known for his research on social capital and its impact on society. Named "the most influential academic in the world today" by The London Sunday Times, Putnam is the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University and the author of several influential and bestselling books, including Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Both Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone are among the most cited publications in the social sciences worldwide in the last half century.
Putnam’s research on social capital, which can be defined as networks of engagement that enable members of a community to trust one another, is most famously detailed in the wildly popular bestseller Bowling Alone. He finds that societies with strong social networks are happier, healthier, safer, and more engaged in civic duties. The opposite, however, is also true, and the decline in American social capital beginning in the 1960s is responsible for many of the social ills we're experiencing today. These findings are the subject of fellow Leigh Bureau speaker Pete Davis’s documentary Join or Die, which premiered at SXSW in 2023. Join or Die is a call-to-action that follows the throughline of Putnam’s life work in advocating for community connectedness for the sake of our democracy as well as our individual and collective social and physical health.
To answer the questions brought up by Bowling Alone about America’s declining social capital, Putnam co-founded the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard, bringing together leading thinkers and practitioners to develop actionable ideas for fostering civic engagement in America. The result was the book Better Together which provides case studies of inventive and effective forms of social capital building in the United States.
Putnam's 15 critically acclaimed and bestselling books have been translated into twenty languages. His most recent, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again, addresses the mirrors between the individualistic polarization of the present moment with that of the Gilded Age, and offers solutions to how we can readopt the more cooperative, community-focused society of the early 20th century. The New York Times bestseller, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, is a groundbreaking examination of the growing opportunity gap among American young people and the implications it has for social mobility. American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us won the American Political Science Association’s 2011 Woodrow Wilson Foundation Award for the best book on government, politics, or international affairs. Making Democracy Work was praised by The Economist as "a great work of social science, worthy to rank alongside de Tocqueville, Pareto and Weber."
Robert Putnam is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the British Academy, and past president of the American Political Science Association. In 2006, Putnam received the Skytte Prize, the world’s highest accolade for a political scientist. President Barack Obama awarded him the 2012 National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to the humanities, for "deepening our understanding of community in America." In 2018, the International Political Science Association awarded him the Karl Deutsch Award for cross-disciplinary research. He has received sixteen honorary degrees from institutions in eight countries worldwide, including the University of Oxford. He consults widely with national leaders, including U.S. Presidents Carter, Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama, as well as prime ministers from the UK, Ireland, Finland, South Korea, and Singapore.
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