The New Statesman Profile - Robert Putnam

His firm belief that bowling leagues can save democracy has taken America by storm. Now, No 10 is al

Once upon a time, economists advised governments; today, political scientists do. From J M Keynes after the war to Milton Friedman in the Eighties, economists were in and out of Downing Street and the White House. By contrast, both George W Bush and Tony Blair seem to prefer the company of "polisci" specialists. And there is no political scientist in the world today more celebrated than the professor of public policy at the University of Harvard, Robert D Putnam.

Later this month, Putnam is descending on London to promote the UK publication of his book Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community, and the centre-left is rolling out the red carpet. The schedule includes a seminar at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), a lecture at the London School of Economics, and a starring role at that most Blairite of rituals - the working breakfast at No 10. This is little short of a state visit. Seldom has an academic been so internationally feted.

Putnam's celebrity lies in his work on "social capital", a theory of civic renewal that has made him irresistible to politicians around the world. In one neat phrase, it addresses all the social and political problems of the postmodern age - from voter apathy to collapsing communities.

While it was the sociologist James Coleman who invented the term, it is Putnam who has packaged and developed the theory. Social capital, according to Putnam, means "features of social life - networks, norms, and trust - that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives". It is the elixir that thickens civil society, creating strong reciprocal relationships and energetic communities. The best indicator and generator of social capital is involvement in a voluntary association - a choir, a political party, or a football league.

Now while this may be of interest at a postgraduate sociology seminar, it is not enough to get you through the doors of the White House. Putnam's genius was to correlate levels of social capital with traditional public policy concerns over crime, health and education. His research shows that areas with strong social capital enjoy good educational performance, reduced crime levels and a higher neighbourhood quality of life. Communities with less social capital have lower educational performance and more teenage pregnancy, child suicide and prenatal mortality. Social capital can even save your life. As he told Bill Clinton during one of his many appearances at the Oval Office: "Your chances of dying over the next year are cut in half by joining one group. Cut in a quarter by joining two groups."

Putnam began his work looking not at the social health of a community, but at its democratic vibrancy. In a study of Italian politics, Making Democracy Work, he contrasted the flourishing democracy of northern Italy with the collapse of politics in the south. Putnam looked back into Italian history and found in the self-governing city republics of the north a strong tradition of voluntary association, trust and civic engagement. The result was a flourishing economy and a healthy polity. The south, by contrast, was riddled by mutual distrust and defection, a Mafia culture of exploitation with little history of voluntary association. In the absence of strong social capital, democracy fell apart and economic growth was hindered.

What elevated Putnam from the groves of academic respectability to round-table discussions with the president was his application of this model to modern America. Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville lauded American civil society in Democracy in America (1835), the United States has been inordinately proud of its tradition of civic engagement. In New England, de Tocqueville found a bustling world of churches, societies and voluntary association. He argued that this was essential for the strength of democracy. "An association for political, commercial or manufacturing purposes, or even for those of science and literature, is a powerful and enlightened member of the community."

One hundred and sixty years later, Putnam took up the same theme with an article in the obscure, academic Journal of Democracy. The thesis was simple. Forty years ago, Americans went bowling in leagues; today they bowl alone. Or, more accurately, they go bowling informally with friends or work colleagues. The point is they no longer build up the social capital inherent in the structure of bowling leagues - its rules, organisation and general effort. The trust, networks and systems of reciprocity that such leagues foster have collapsed.

Putnam expanded the theme into a book charting the collapse of American social capital across a range of indicators. Bowling Alone, published in America last June, showed a public increasingly detached from family, friends and social structures - from the PTA to the political party to the bowling league. The frequency with which US families ate dinner together declined by one-third over 25 years; the number of times friends entertained each other in their homes fell by 45 per cent; and participation in clubs collapsed by a staggering 50 per cent. The consequence: a weakening democracy, with lower voter turnout and collapsing civic engagement in the face of a political system surrendered to professional lobbyists and career politicians.

Bowling Alone brilliantly articulated the unease many Americans instinctively felt about the state of their communities. Putnam had provided them with the numerical evidence and the impact was sensational. "I was invited to Camp David, lionised by talk-show hosts and [the secular equivalent of canonisation in contemporary America] pictured with my wife, Rosemary, on the pages of People [magazine]." Though Putnam may be ironically detached about his public notoriety, and he is a famously self-effacing and modest man, the celebrity serves him well. For he is determined to see his political science implemented as public policy. According to Dr Simon Szreter, one of Britain's leading authorities on social capital: "Putnam is a first-rate academic who has also become a formidable political force."

Now approaching 60, Putnam is at the peak of his academic powers. From a small-town upbringing in the industrial Midwest (where he gained his passion for bowling), Putnam careered through the Anglo-American university establishment, with spells at Oxford and Yale. There he took his PhD, before settling in Boston's liberal enclave, with his librarian wife and two children, and teaching politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Putnam's charm and rigour has helped build up an army of loyal followers at Harvard and around the world.

Putnam remains optimistic about the future. He sees deep parallels between the turn of the 20th century and the turn of the 21st. Americans were then, as now, suffering from major technological, economic and social changes that were destroying their stock of social capital. But they fixed it. Between 1890 and 1910, all the major American civic institutions of the 20th century - from the Urban League to the Knights of Columbus - were invented. Putnam is convinced America could do the same again. At Harvard, he has established the Saguaro Seminar to encourage a new wave of voluntary association to "rebuild bonds of civic trust among Americans".

Does any of this relate to the British experience? From the Women's Institute to the Cubs to working men's clubs, Britain has always had a strong record of voluntary association and social capital. The latest research, carried out by the Harvard academic Peter Hall, reveals that we "still manage to maintain levels of sociability and community involvement commensurate with those of the late 1950s". Yet, at the same time, we are trusting people less, our faith in politics is declining and the kinds of associations we join have more to do with private needs than civic involvement. Joining the AA is not the same as organising a bring-and-buy sale. We still have a long way to go to rebuild postwar levels of trust and co-operation. And the battle over how precisely to achieve that is becoming increasingly politicised, for both left and right have starkly different visions of how to revitalise civil society.

George W Bush and William Hague regard churches as the most effective generators of social capital. Interestingly, evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches are among the few institutions to have enjoyed rising membership and involvement over the past few decades. In the "compassionate conservative" vision, faith-based groups, dependent upon voluntary help, would increasingly take over the function of social services.

The challenge for progressives, according to Matthew Taylor of the IPPR, "is to claim Putnam's work for the left". They are talking his language. In a recent speech, David Blunkett explained how Labour must go beyond the economic argument and help people "build up reservoirs of social capital". The centre-left agenda is to use the secular voluntary sector to build up that capital. Gordon Brown has called for a new era of "civic patriotism", and in January announced more funding for voluntary, community and charitable organisations, the so-called "Third Sector". To help usher in the "Giving Age", new Labour has provided tax breaks for social capital. In social policy, the Sure Start programme and the New Deal for Communities are heavily dependent for funding on evidence of local involvement. (See also Tom Bentley, page 25.)

However, many on the left view the politics of social capital and civic renewal as a classic new Labour diversion from the traditional priorities of social democracy. What, one might ask, does a Saguaro seminar have to offer Moss Side? Putnam's significance to the left lies in his capacity, as Taylor puts it, "to align the politics of social justice with the new politics of civic renewal". At the heart of his work lies a commitment to tackling social inequality. "Across time, across space, across the American states, there's a very strong, positive relationship between the degree of economic equality and the degree of social capital." Social capital is a complement, not an alternative, to the egalitarian fundamentals of social democracy.

Perhaps we shouldn't get too excited. New Labour has a history of courting glamorous US academics with fix-all solutions. Who now remembers Amitai Etzioni and his unsettling creed of communitarianism?