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 | Main Ideas


Social Capital

Bowling Alone was written as a warning and exhortation to Americans at the turn of the 21st century. The author, Robert Putnam, was a major researcher in the field of social science, and he believed the decline in American "social capital" was a serious problem that should be addressed immediately. The book takes the reader through the process of understanding what social capital is, how it has declined, why it is has declined, why it matters, and, finally, how to rebuild social capital for the 21st century.

Social capital, according to Putnam, is a measure of civic and social engagement. Social capital is built through participation in any social activity, from membership in a union to volunteering at the local library. In Bowling Alone Putnam makes the case that social capital is one of the important predictors of personal success and happiness and of national strength and unity.

According to Putnam, the level of most Americans' social capital declined radically during the last quarter of the 20th century. As members of Generation X (those born in the early-to-mid 1960s to the early 1980s) entered the workforce and became adults, the differences between them and their baby-boomer parents became very clear: Gen X'ers are not joiners and they are not socializers—at least not in the way their parents were. As a result, all the great clubs and community organizations found themselves without new members.

The expression "bowling alone" refers to the fact that while American used to bowl in social leagues, they now come alone to the lanes. This phenomenon has expanded to the point where organizations such as bowling leagues are almost extinct. A decline in social capital, says Putnam, has resulted in a huge range of problems. Among them: a decline in participation in the political process, a decrease in physical and emotional wellness, and a decrease in philanthropic thought and action.

The Power of Information Technology

Putnam explores several possible reasons why social capital has declined. After rejecting many possible ideas based on research and statistical analysis, he zeros in on television as one of the top culprits. Television, he says, steals time and "encourages lethargy and passivity." It's also habit forming and is associated with poor health, financial insecurity, and low education. Worse, from Putnam's point of view, television lowers people's interest and engagement in social and civic life—leading to a rapid decline in social capital.

Putnam points to what was, at the time, the younger generation and says that, unlike their parents and grandparents, they are increasingly a generation of television watchers. Even when they are out and about—theoretically increasing their social capital—their eyes are glued to television screens. Rather than interacting with one another, they are passively receiving content intended to amuse rather than engage, inform, or connect.

But even as Putnam describes television and video watchers as passive and detached, he also sees the Internet as a source of hope for the future. In fact, he says, "If we are to reverse the adverse trends of the last three decades ... the electronic entertainment and telecommunications industry must become a big part of the solution." He challenges game and social media developers to "create new forms of entertainment that draw the viewer off the couch and into his community." In the long run, he suggests the Internet can actually strengthen democracy and civic involvement. "The key," he says, "is to find ways in which Internet technology can reinforce rather than supplant place-based, face-to-face, enduring social networks."

The Past Points the Way to the Future

Putnam discusses the history of social capital in America during the 19th and 20th centuries, showing how it was at a low ebb during the Industrial Revolution and the Gilded Age. But even during its lowest ebb, says Putnam, Americans were working to revive social capital through the creation of strong participatory organizations and groups.

Between 1870 and 1920, as American society was going through traumatic change, groups worked together to form some of the greatest civic societies in the nation. He points to organizations such as the Rotary Club, the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and the American Red Cross—all of which have positively impacted social capital for millions of people. He quotes historian Richard McCormick who describes these community institutions as rising from hard times and changing the face of America. If Americans could achieve this in a time of massive upheaval, grinding poverty, and complex social issues, Putnam claims, they can surely do so again.

In the last chapter, Putnam says, in essence, that Americans have rebuilt social capital in the past and should take action to do so again. He lays out a set of imperatives for action, and hopes his book will inspire Americans to move forward with his agenda. Specifically, he suggests younger Americans should take up the challenge to reinvigorate civic and religious institutions, build on communication technology, improve urban design to eliminate sprawl, thus bringing back social capital and Americans' ability to connect with one another, their government, and their institutions.

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