Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s book The Upswing examines a long arc of history and the oscillation between what they call the ‘I’ and ‘We’ societies. The network discussion focused on familiar themes: is the story told in the book true? It also surfaced a theme missing in previous network discussions (and curiously absent from most conversations about what might be called relational social policy), namely that ‘we’ can be negative as well as positive -viz the recent assault on democracy in the U.S.A.

Three points on the policy implications

What is the direction of change? The Upswing argues that social and moral shifts in society (as happened between 1920 and 1930) lead to reductions in economic inequality and not the other way around.

How far will the pendulum swing? We might imagine that it has gone as far as it can. The insurrection in the U.S. The fragmenting of the U.K. Surely there cannot be more to come? The Upswing argues that pendulum can swing further. That it will take active intervention to stop its flow.

What will turn the pendulum? In essence The Upswing says it will be civil society. The civil society that sparked civil and later gay rights; that fought for universal suffrage; that made marriage equality a reality; that forces climate change to the top of the political agenda. This is a civil society that works against and with the state, and is much more than a series of not-for-profits that deliver contracts on behalf of public systems.

Three points on learning

In phase one of our work, we reflected on the scant use of historical sources, despite the fact that many of us are repeating what others have tried in the past. The Upswing is a different kind of history. It is the linking of multiple survey data over extended periods of time. The approach is common in the U.S.A. but not here in the U.K., but it speaks strongly to matters that bother contemporary U.K. policy makers such as levelling up, racial equity, and gender inequality.

The book is a great illustration for how to figure out direction of change. The pattern of ‘we’ and ‘I’ map onto the pattern of economic inequality. One of our member expressed her surprise at my surprise that Putnam and Romney Garrett find that social and moral shifts in society cause shifts in economic inequality, and not the other way around. The ‘one of our members’ really understands civil society in a way that I don’t, and ignorance leads to assumptions about direction, to placing the chicken ahead of the egg. Being wrong about direction is one of the commonest errors in reading evidence.

What are the outcomes here? They are not about individual well being. They are relational outcomes. A ‘we’ society is born of connection, trust, belonging, pride in place. In all probability, vital intermediaries for individual well being.

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Here is the crib sheet for those who want to replicate the network discussions about The Upswing.