This week my critical thinking classes read and discussed Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" (the Journal of Democracy article, not the book). I had the students write an essay on it.
A number of students chose to weigh Putnam's explanations for the declining social capital in the US. Some speculated that since voter turn-out in the last two national elections had gone up, social capital's decline has been halted (which I think unlikely!). Others considered his explanation that the reason is the amount of time people spend watching TV and tried to extend that explanation to new media technologies. They were split on whether social networking sites (like Facebook) really create and maintain social networks.
There's one explanation which Putnam did not include which is prominent in my own mind--namely, whether there are cultural changes that have undermined Americans' interest in building social capital (and, especially, the kind of social capital that bridges demographic groups).
I can hypothesize that the reason that Putnam doesn't consider culture is that, as a certain kind of social scientist, he does not consider beliefs and values to be "real" or, at least, to be causally potent. I can see this reasoning--because it seems like if there is a change in beliefs, then that change is caused by something which can eventually be connected to a change that is not itself a belief. And yet, I think explanations that help themselves to words about beliefs can be quite enlightening.
For instance, it seems possible to me that a decline in social capital could be due to an increase in perceived threats, whether that is the threat of an economic downturn or the kind of amorphous threat that wartime brings. I would also like to consider whether people feel like there is more competition now than in the 1950s, and that they are competing over goods that are zero-sum. Just to take an example, there has certainly been a change in college applications and admissions.