Putnam was born in 1941 in Rochester, New York, and grew up in Port Clinton, Ohio, where he participated in a competitive bowling league as a teenager. Putnam graduated from Swarthmore College in 1963 where he won a Fulbright Fellowship to study at Balliol College, Oxford, and went on to earn master's and doctorate degrees from Yale University, the latter in 1970. He taught at the University of Michigan until going to Harvard in 1979, where he has held a variety of positions, including Dean of the Kennedy School, and is currently the Malkin Professor of Public Policy. Putnam was raised as a religiously observant Methodist. In 1963, Putnam married his wife Rosemary, a special education teacher and French horn player. Around the time of his marriage, he converted to Judaism, his wife's religion.
His first work in the area of social capital was Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, a comparative study of regional governments in Italy which drew great scholarly attention for its argument that the success of democracies depends in large part on the horizontal bonds that make up social capital. Putnam writes that northern Italy's history of community, guilds, clubs, and choral societies led to greater civic involvement and greater economic prosperity. Meanwhile, the agrarian society of Southern Italy is less prosperous economically and democratically because of less social capital. Social capital, which Putnam defines as "networks and norms of civic engagement," allows members of a community to trust one another. When community members trust one another, trade, money-lending, and democracy flourish.
In 1995 he published '"Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" in the Journal of Democracy. The article was widely read and garnered much attention for Putnam, including an invitation to meet with then-President Bill Clinton and a spot in the pages of People. Some critics argued that Putnam was ignoring new organizations and forms of social capital; others argued that many of the included organizations were responsible for the suppression of civil rights movements and the reinforcement of anti-egalitarian social norms[Who?]. Over the last decade and a half, the United States had seen an increase in bowlers but a decrease in bowling leagues.
In 2000, he published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, a book-length expansion of the original argument, adding new evidence and answering many of his critics. Though he measured the decline of social capital with data of many varieties, his most striking point was that many traditional civic, social and fraternal organizations — typified by bowling leagues — had undergone a massive decline in membership while the number of people bowling had increased dramatically.
Putnam makes a distinction between two kinds of social capital: bonding capital and bridging capital. Bonding occurs when you are socializing with people who are like you: same age, same race, same religion, and so on. But in order to create peaceful societies in a diverse multi-ethnic country, one needs to have a second kind of social capital: bridging. Bridging is what you do when you make friends with people who are not like you, like supporters of another football team. Putnam argues that those two kinds of social capital, bonding and bridging, do strengthen each other. Consequently, with the decline of the bonding capital mentioned above inevitably comes the decline of the bridging capital leading to greater ethnic tensions.
In 2016, Putnam explained his inspiration for the book, by saying, "We’ve [Americans] been able to run a different kind of society. A less statist society, a more free-market society, because we had real strength in the area of social capital and we had relatively high levels of social trust. We sort of did trust one another, not perfectly, of course, but we did. Not compared to other countries. And all that is declining, and I began to worry, 'Well, gee, isn’t that going to be a problem, if our system is built for one kind of people and one kind of community, and now we’ve got a different one. Maybe it’s not going to work so well.'"
Critics such as sociologist Claude Fischer argue that (a) Putnam concentrates on organizational forms of social capital, and pays much less attention to networks of interpersonal social capital; (b) Putnam neglects the emergence of new forms of supportive organizations on and off the Internet; and (c) the 1960s are a misleading baseline because the era had an unusually high number of traditional organizations.
Since the publication of Bowling Alone, Putnam has worked on efforts to revive American social capital, notably through the Saguaro Seminar, a series of meetings among academics, civil society leaders, commentators, and politicians to discuss strategies to re-connect Americans with their communities. These resulted in the publication of the book and website, Better Together, which provides case studies of vibrant and new forms of social capital building in the United States
In recent years, Putnam has been engaged in a comprehensive study of the relationship between trust within communities and their ethnic diversity. His conclusion based on over 40 cases and 30,000 people within the United States is that, other things being equal, more diversity in a community is associated with less trust both between and within ethnic groups. Although limited to American data, it puts into question both the contact hypothesis and conflict theory in inter-ethnic relations. According to conflict theory, distrust between the ethnic groups will rise with diversity, but not within a group. In contrast, contact theory proposes that distrust will decline as members of different ethnic groups get to know and interact with each other. Putnam describes people of all races, sex, socioeconomic statuses, and ages as "hunkering down," avoiding engagement with their local community—both among different ethnic groups and within their own ethnic group. Even when controlling for income inequality and crime rates, two factors which conflict theory states should be the prime causal factors in declining inter-ethnic group trust, more diversity is still associated with less communal trust.
Lowered trust in areas with high diversity is also associated with:Lower confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news media.
Lower political efficacy – that is, confidence in one's own influence.
Lower frequency of registering to vote, but more interest and knowledge about politics and more participation in protest marches and social reform groups.
Higher political advocacy, but lower expectations that it will bring about a desirable result.
Less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action (e.g., voluntary conservation to ease a water or energy shortage).
Less likelihood of working on a community project.
Less likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering.
Fewer close friends and confidants.
Less happiness and lower perceived quality of life.
More time spent watching television and more agreement that "television is my most important form of entertainment".
Putnam published his data set from this study in 2001 and subsequently published the full paper in 2007.
Putnam has been criticized for the lag between his initial study and his publication of his article. In 2006, Putnam was quoted in the Financial Times as saying he had delayed publishing the article until he could "develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity" (quote from John Lloyd of Financial Times). In 2007, writing in City Journal, John Leo questioned whether this suppression of publication was ethical behavior for a scholar, noting that "Academics aren’t supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings." On the other hand, Putnam did release the data in 2001 and publicized this fact. The proposals that the paper contains are located in a section called "Becoming Comfortable with Diversity" at the end of his article. This section has been criticizedfor lacking the rigor of the preceding sections. According to Ilana Mercer "Putnam concludes the gloomy facts with a stern pep talk".
In 2007 he briefly met Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to discuss the role of civil society in the Libyan political context.
He has been a member of Phi Beta Kappa since 1963, the International Institute of Strategic Studies since 1986, the American Philosophical Society since 2005 and the National Academy of Sciences since 2001. He has been a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1980 and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy from 2001 and was a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration, 1989 – 2006 and Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 1974–75 and 1988-89. Other fellowships included the Guggenheim 1988-89; the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars 1977 and 1979; Fulbright 1964-65 and 1977; SSRC-ACLS 1966-68; Ford Foundation, 1970; German Marshall Fund, 1979; SSRC-Fulbright, 1982; SSRC-Foreign Policy Studies, 1988–89 and was made a Harold Lasswell Fellow by the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Robert Putnam was a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations 1977-1978 and a member since 1981. He was a member of the Trilateral Commission from 1990 to 1998. He was the President of the American Political Science Association (2001–2002). He had been Vice-President 1997-98.
In 2004 the President of the Italian Republic made him a Commendatore of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity. He was awarded the Johan Skytte Prize in Political Science in 2006 and a Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal by the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 2003, He was a Marshall Lecturer at the University of Cambridge in 1999 and was honored with the Ithiel de Sola Pool Award and Lectureship of the American Political Science Association.
He has received honorary degrees from Stockholm University (in 1993), Ohio State University (2000), University of Antwerp (also 2000), University of Edinburgh (2003) LUISS Guido Carli University (2011).
In 2013, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama for "deepening our understanding of community in America."
In 2015, he was awarded the University of Bologna, ISA Medal for Science for research activities characterized by excellence and scientific value.The Beliefs of Politicians: Ideology, Conflict, and Democracy in Britain and Italy New Haven: Yale University Press, (1973)
The Comparative Study of Political Elites Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, (1976)
Bureaucrats and Politicians in Western Democracies (with Joel D. Aberbach and Bert A. Rockman, 1981)
Hanging Together: Cooperation and Conflict in the Seven-Power Summits (with Nicholas Bayne, 1984; revised 1987)
Staying together: the G8 summit confronts the 21st century. (2005, Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7546-4267-1; OCLC 217979297)
"Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games". International Organization. 42 (Summer 1988): 427-460.
Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Nanetti, 1993)
Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) ISBN 9780743203043
Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society (Edited by Robert D. Putnam), Oxford University Press, (2002)
Better Together: Restoring the American Community (with Lewis M. Feldstein, 2003) ISBN 9781439106884
Putnam, Robert D. (June 2007). "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and community in the twenty-first century". Scandinavian Political Studies. Wiley. 30 (2): 137–174. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9477.2007.00176.x. The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture.
Age of Obama (co-written with Tom Clark and Edward Fieldhouse), Manchester University Press (2010)
w/ David E. Campbell (co-author) (21 February 2012). American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4165-6673-1.
Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Simon & Schuster. 10 March 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-6991-2.