Film on Robert Putnam’s work wins film festival award

Robert Putnam, as featured in the documentary

Robert Putnam, as featured in the documentary "Join or Die." COURTESY PHOTO—

By ASHLEY SAARI

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 10-04-2023 2:00 PM

“Join or Die,” a documentary film exploring the research of social scientist, Harvard professor and Jaffrey resident Bob Putnam’s concept of “social capital,” was honored with the Jonathan Daniels Award during the Monadnock International Film Festival last weekend.

The Jonathan Daniels Award is given to filmmakers whose film demonstrates both artistic excellence and awareness around a social justice issue. The award is named for Keene resident Jonathan Daniels, a civil rights activist killed in 1965 in Hayneville, Ala., during efforts to integrate public places and register Black voters.

Co-producers and directors, siblings Pete Davis and Rebecca Davis, joined together for their first film to explore what makes democracy work, why American democracy is in crisis and what can be done about it.

Pete Davis, a former student of Putnam, is the co-founder of the Democracy Policy Network, focused on raising ideas that deepen democracy, and was interested in Putnam’s concept of social capital. He paired with his sister, a former senior producer with NBC News who has produced for HBO, VICE, A&E and for the Netflix show “Explained.”

One of the solutions, as suggested by Putnam’s research – join more clubs.

“Everyone who has connections benefits from them. Inequality in connections is, in a way, the worst form of inequality there is,” Putnam said. “Social networks have value – that's why it’s called social capital. They have value for the people in the networks, and they have benefits for bystanders in the community.”

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Putnam rose to national prominence in the 1990s, after the release of his book “Bowling Alone,” which detailed his research on the levels of American community connections and their decline over the past 50 years. The title was an acknowledgment that while more people than ever were bowling, bowling leagues and teams were plummeting.

In 2012, President Barack Obama presented Putnam the National Humanities Medal, the highest honor for contributions to the humanities in the United States.

He also wrote, along with Shaylyn Romney-Garrett, “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again,” which they spoke about at the Amos Fortune Forum in Jaffrey last year.

Putnam’s research has shown that those with larger social networks live longer and benefit in their work life, and that communities with active social networks have a better distribution of income and are nicer to live in.

Putnam said the title of the film is a reference not only to the health benefits of being socially connected, but to the political woodcut using the same slogan, created by Benjamin Franklin in 1754, encouraging the uniting of the American colonies at the start of the French and Indian War.

There have been decreases in social engagement in various ways since the 1950s, Putnam explained, from individuals joining or leading organizations, to non-organized activities such as going to dinner parties or picnics. He said this gap is also growing faster among economic groups, with wealthier individuals more likely to do activities such as attend church. He pointed to aspects such as pay-to-play sports growing as a model to contributing to that inequality.

“I think this is just awful, the degree that one set of kids is benefiting from increasing social capital, but another group – just as talented and smart – are not going to be getting those same social benefits,” Putnam said.

Putnam said he has only seen the problem of social isolation and division worsen over the years.

“We have almost never been as polarized and isolated as we are now,” he said.

Putnam said that over the past decades, people have been making fewer connections, and participation in social clubs is decreasing. He said, in part, the film is a call to action, particularly to young people.

“This is a real problem, and it needs to be addressed,” Putnam said. “Their objective was to try to contribute to fixing the problems we have right now, by reaching the audience that’s the most crucial and telling them the story of social capital.”

Alongside Putnam, the film also features interviews with scholars and political figures, including Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, Princeton religion expert Eddie Glaude Jr., Harvard economist Raj Chetty and author Priya Parker.

“Join or Die” is expected to have a reprise showing at the Jaffrey Park Theatre before the end of the year, with the date to be announced. The showing will be announced on the theater’s website,

Ashley Saari can be reached at 603-924-7172, Ext. 244, or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on X @AshleySaariMLT.