University of Rochester

Research Project Will Examine Why We've Lost Trust in Government and American Society and How We Can Restore Civic Vitality

December 26, 1995

Gerald Gamm, assistant professor of political science at the University of Rochester, and Robert D. Putnam, professor of government and Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University, have received a $75,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. They will investigate how Americans a century ago revitalized a crumbling civic life and restored the social connectedness that is crucial to democratic government.

Gamm and Putnam see a parallel between the intense dissatisfaction that Americans express toward politics today and attitudes at the turn of the century. After the Civil War, urbanization, industrialization, and massive waves of migration disrupted face-to-face contacts and trampled over traditional social bonds. Though a few amassed great fortunes in this era, many urban dwellers lived in slums. Ordinary Americans had little faith in government's ability to address the problems that mattered most to them.

Yet during this period of disillusionment and social upheaval, Americans regenerated civic vitality in a blossoming of new affinity groups. Around 1890-1910, dozens of organizations sprouted up: PTAs, labor unions, church sodalities, temple sisterhoods, Boy Scouts, Urban League, NAACP and YWCA, to name a few.

These groups undergirded efforts at political reform that culminated in the Progressive Era, Gamm and Putnam believe. In their research project, they will test the hypothesis that a dense civic life generates social trust and political organization, and can lead to effective political reform.

"Almost exactly a century ago, with enlightened leadership, systematic inquiry, and a renewed sense of civic engagement, Americans changed the way we managed our collective affairs," Gamm and Putnam wrote in their research proposal. "We can do so again, even in this pessimistic and cynical age, if we are sufficiently bold and far-sighted. This research project is a building block of that national effort."

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