Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Study Guide

Robert Putnam

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Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Context


Cultural Change in the Late 20th Century

Robert Putnam is a scholar of American culture, and his books reflect a concern with changing social norms. Bowling Alone focuses on a decline in what Putnam calls social capital, which he defines as networks, or "fabric," of social connection and mutual trust. In Bowling Alone Putnam describes the history of social capital in the 20th century and discusses how it fell, rose, and fell again. He also explains why social capital matters and what should be done to increase it.

Putnam roots his book in recent history, describing major cultural changes and their impacts on American life. The 20th century was a time of vast social and demographic change in the United States. While immigration, World War I (1914–18), and the Great Depression (1929–39) all had a tremendous impact on American culture, even greater changes occurred after the end of World War II (1939–45). For example:

  • Instead of living in ethnic groups in large cities, many ex-soldiers took advantage of funding through the GI bill to move into brand new suburbs. As a result, many families became more isolated.
  • African-Americans, who had been excluded from many schools, businesses, and opportunities as a result of post-Civil War (1861–65) "Jim Crow" laws gained new civil rights and became more of a political force.
  • With the invention of "the Pill," women were better able to take control of their reproductive choices. "Women's Lib" and the feminist movement changed the relationship between the sexes.

Some of the changes that occurred during the last decades of the 20th century helped to pull communities apart. Young people did not settle near their parents, and so they didn't join the same clubs and civic institutions. Baby boomers (people born just after World War II) didn't have the same connections to their ethnic roots as their parents did. While Putnam doesn't argue these changes are all negative, he does suggest they are an important factor in the loss of social capital.

Criticism of Bowling Alone

When Bowling Alone came out, some reviewers hailed it as an important work. Others, however, criticized Putnam's analysis of American culture. For example, a review in the New York Times noted Putnam was writing about only a select group of organizations such as Rotary Clubs (philanthropic groups with local chapters) and bowling leagues. But, more Americans than ever were joining environmental groups like Greenpeace, giving to charity, and joining online groups.

The New York Times also notes some of the change in volunteerism and civic engagement is the result of women becoming more involved in the workplace. In the 1950s and 1960s relatively few women (especially married women and mothers) were working. Once their children were in school, they had free time to spend in clubs dedicated to playing card games, parent-teacher associations (PTAs), and political involvement. By 2000, however, when over 58 percent of women over age 16 were fully employed according to the Census Bureau, all that had changed.

The Times reviewer argues maybe the change isn't really such a bad thing. She ends her review by saying, "It may be that with women in the paid labor force, we will never enjoy quite the level of associational life we had in the 50s. And in the end that trade-off may be worth it."

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