Pre-Gaming with Putnam

An average Michigan tailgate

Having come off of the college football season I’m sure many of you have participated in the time honored Midwest/Southern tradition of tailgating. For the few of you who don’t know what tailgating is, it is a party before any major sporting event. Sometimes tailgates happen in the open backs of pick-ups, other times they happen at pregame houses on Hill Street, but wherever you are it is a great social event.

Now you may be asking why is someone blogging about tailgates? Mainly because I believe they are a fantastic method of forming social capital.

Robert Putnam discusses in his essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” there is a decline of old social capital in the world around us, whether it be the declining membership in the (non-collegiate) fraternal organizations, the lack of attendance at church, or fewer bowling leagues. Americans just don’t seem to be as involved in civil society the same way we used to be.

In the article Putnam notes an interesting counter-trend that seemingly goes against the decline of social capital, the increase of mass membership organizations like the Sierra Club and AARP. He goes on to refute these organizations as actual forms of social capital stating that “Few [members] ever attend any meetings of such organizations, and most are unlikely ever (knowingly) to encounter any other member.” I will have to take his word that these organizations don’t seem to form the same type of social bonds or norms as a bowling league or fraternal organizations, since I know very little about mass membership organizations. Given this, I have to disagree with his next line stating, “The bond between any two members of[mass membership] organization is less like the bond between any two members of a gardening club and more like the bond between any two Red Sox fans (…):they root for the same team and they share some of the same interests, but they are unaware of each other’s existence.”

When I first read this I was surprised. How could someone who lived in Ann Arbor and having experienced U of M football, make such a sweeping generalization about sports fanatics? I agree we share the same interests and I may not be aware of all the Michigan fans out there, but I am certainly aware of some.

Enter the tailgate; my family has been tailgating Michigan football games for the past 15 years with the same group of friends. We met these people in Ann Arbor and we don’t have much in common besides the love of Michigan Football and that we have season tickets. Despite this my family has made its closest friends, we have even “foster[ed] sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage[d] the emergence of social trust” that Putnam advocates for in all social capital. My parents recently gave a loan to a family friend’s small business venture, a bakery. My family didn’t really know anything about the bakery business, and only knew of the proposed business plan. Yet this did not matter, because of the social trust we accumulated with them from years of tailgating we were willing to give a small loan and help start their business. While my family certainly wouldn’t do this for any Michigan fan, we did for our small group in which we tailgate with.

I am not trying to debunk Putnam’s entire article with sports fans, because I believe that there is a link between declining social capital and declining civil action. Rather I don’t believe he does sports fans justice because from my experience it seems to be a great form of social capital. It seems that Putnam may have missed the specific underlying groups that come with sports fans, such as tailgaters, and accidentally understated their impact on social capital. Or, maybe I had a unique experience, so I must ask the question; do you think tailgating creates social capital?

If 3:50 isn’t social capital then I don’t know what is.

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2 Comments on “Pre-Gaming with Putnam”

  1. toosoxy Says:

    Tailgating is not just a midwest/southern tradition!

  2. reidmech7892 Says:

    I do believe tailgating contributes to social capital. As you pointed out, it does bring people, who may be of different backgrounds and values, together to share and embrace an interest. With this, specifically with tailgating, it creates a tight circle of people who can gradually become acquainted to friends to best friends. Along the way they build trust, camaraderie, and honor amongst them that allows them all to be considered close. From this you gain social capital: people who are they to support and help you through life, whether it be financially or emotional, solely because of all the time you spent together, that inevitably, forms this relationship. Though I cannot verify if there is a legitimate decline in membership of smaller groups and increase of mass group membership, however, I can honestly say that the smaller groups allow for more interpersonal relationships and social capital to be produced than mass groups. This can be said because it is much harder to get to know people within the context of a large group, such as every single fan at the Big House, as opposed to getting to know everyone in a fraternity house. With this said, small group membership, such as a group of people tailgating, is positively conducive to forming stronger bonds and creating more social capital.

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