Across many of these issues, Putnam's old interest, social capital, features. As he demonstrated in Bowling Alone, social capital has a crucial impact on crime reduction, educational achievement, even life expectancy. His research had exposed steep declines in all forms of social capital across much of the developed world, which he detailed in Bowling Alone with its central image of the end of US bowling leagues, but Putnam maintains he is "optimistic about social capital".
What fascinates him is tracking where the new forms of social capital are developing and why they are successful. One of his key areas of interest is religion - religious affiliations account for half of all US social capital. He cites US megachurches which, typically, attract tens of thousands of members, as "the most interesting social invention of late 20th century."
He identifies the secret of their success: "They have very low barriers to entry - the doors are open, there are folding chairs out on the patio - they make it very easy to surf by. You can leave easily. But then they ramp people up to a huge commitment - at some megachurches, half of all members are tithing [giving a tenth of their income]. How do they get from the low to the high commitment? By a honeycomb structure of thousands of small groups: they have the mountain bikers for God group, the volleyball players for God, the breast cancer survivors for God, the spouses of the breast cancer survivors for God, and so on.
"The intense tie is not to the theology but in the emotional commitment to others in their small group. Most of these people are seeking meaning in their lives but they are also seeking friends. The small groups spend two hours a week together - doing the volleyball or the mountain biking and praying; they become your closest friends," he says.
"These churches form in places of high mobility - people live there for six weeks and the church provides the community connection. When you lose your job, they'll tide you over, when your wife gets ill, they'll bring the chicken soup."
Like I said, interesting. I'm pretty widely studied on small groups in America, and I don't think he's totally got a firm grasp on it in terms of group identification. I'm also somewhat skeptical that most other non-religious organizations will be able to fully utilize a small group structure. Still, a pretty interesting perspective from a very smart outsider.
He has a book coming out this year that I'm really looking forward to.