A question on the UW President’s Medal Candidate application

Let’s ponder this for a minute. “Did you participate in professional or service organizations?” Doesn’t that question remind you of something?

To me, that question reminds me of Robert Putnam’s (2010) seminal article, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” That article is a reflection of elitist fears that America’s social capital is declining. I’m going to unpack that here.

“Social capital” are “features of social organization such as networks, norms and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (136). The fabric of social organization facilitates access not only to affect and belonging, but to economic resources as well.

“Civic engagement” means membership in “associations” of many kinds that facilitate the formation of strong social bonds within each community. Civic engagement is important because it facilitates the strengthening of social capital. An critical part of civic engagement is regular, face-to-face interaction with fellow members of a civic association.

“Associations” are social or professional organizations centered around a specific interest or industry. According to Putnam:

Church-related groups constitute the most common type of organization joined by Americans; they are especially popular with women. Other types of organizations frequently joined by women include school-service groups (mostly parent-teacher associations), sports groups, professional societies, and literary societies. Among men, sports clubs, labor unions, professional societies, fraternal groups, veterans’ groups, and service clubs are all relatively popular. (ibid 137)

Putnam argues that the declining participation in associations erodes social capital. There’s a whole set of statistics Putnam provides that I’ll link in a version of the article below. But the killer metric that Putnam talked about is participation in bowling leagues:

…more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent…The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital. (138)

Why the emphasis on civic associations, professional organizations, service organizations, or whatever else you want to call it? It all goes back to the pizza and alcohol. Alcohol in particular facilitates social interactions and relationship building. If you ever go to frat parties (or any other party, for that matter), you know that alcohol is the centerpiece of social interaction. Alcohol is a depressant. It makes people laid back and ripe for social interactions. No wonder you find it on almost any function you go to. It’s not just frat parties that have the alcohol. Social functions, formals, fundraisers, dinners, even networking events…these are all the things that professional, civic and service organizations do.

To bring in another point of Putnam:

In the established democracies, ironically, growing numbers of citizens are questioning the effectiveness of their public institutions at the very moment when liberal democracy has swept the battlefield, both ideologically and geopolitically. In America, at least, there is reason to suspect that this democratic disarray may be linked to a broad and continuing erosion of civic engagement that began a quarter-century ago. (142)

Basically, what Putnam wants say here is that civic engagement is tied to the strength and well-being of a democratic society. But I argue that it’s a very obsolete way of looking at things. If you consider the colonial history of democracies, individual rights and free markets, you know that not everyone had a stake in shaping the democratic society we know of today. At the dawn of modern human rights discourse, most of Africa didn’t shape the initial United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which focused on the fundamental rights that make democracies work. Much of the Latin American democracies inherited familiar structures of police violence because of U.S. intervention during the Cold War. So when you tie civic engagement to democracy, you’re privileging specific kinds of social interactions that uphold structures of elitism and Eurocentrism.

I personally don’t have a beef against professional or service organizations, or people who participate in them for that matter. But the reason I wrote this is because I was selected as a potential candidate for the University of Washington President’s Medal and got asked “Did you participate in professional or service organizations?” I’m still going to answer in the negative, but know that if I don’t get the President’s medal this year, it would be because I didn’t have that one characteristic of elitism that the Honors committee apparently privileges.

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