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 | Summary



Bowling Alone is a work of non-fiction written in five sections. Its purpose is to define the concept of social capital, explain how it declined during the last quarter of the 20th century, explore reasons for its decline, and explain why and how social capital is needed for the future.

Section 1: Introduction

Section 1 contains a single chapter, the introduction, entitled "Thinking About Social Change in America." In this section Putnam defines social capital and previews the next four sections of the book, providing the reader with a road map for its direction and destination.

Section 2: Trends in Civic Engagement and Social Capital

This section, which contains eight chapters, lays out the changes that occurred in civic engagement in the United States during the last quarter of the 20th century. Putnam uses statistics and research to show American participation in many areas declined between 1975 and 2000. Chapters 2 through 8 review declines in participation in the areas of:

  • Political participation
  • Civic participation
  • Religious participation
  • Connections in the workplace
  • Informal social connections
  • Altruism, volunteering, and philanthropy
  • Reciprocity, honesty, and trust

Chapter 9 looks at certain trends that seem to go in a different direction. Participation in small groups, social movements, and the Internet are all on the rise.

Section 3: Why?

In Section 3 Putnam takes the reader through a process of finding the reasons behind the decline in American social capital. Chapter 10 introduces the importance of understanding why we have lost so much social capital. He presents the question as a mystery or puzzle to be solved, and explains he will explore all the possibilities to solve the mystery.

Chapters 11–14 explore a number of possible answers to the puzzle. Putnam uses in-depth discussion of demographics and research to show the most significant explanations for loss of social capital are not pressures of time and money or increased numbers of women in the workplace. Instead, he says in Chapter 15, loss of social capital is a result of:

  • Mobility and sprawl
  • Technology and mass media
  • Generational change

Section 4: So What?

Section 4 starts with an introduction in Chapter 16, in which Putnam explains social capital is of enormous importance to America and Americans. He then shows, in detail, how social capital improves lives. Chapters 17–21 focus on the importance of social capital for:

  • Education and children's welfare
  • Safe and productive neighborhoods
  • Economic prosperity
  • Health and happiness
  • Democracy

In Chapter 22 Putnam provides a glimpse at the "dark side" of social capital. He explores the ways in which organizations and associations can exclude individuals or groups and lead to extremism and other social evils.

Section 5: What Is to Be Done?

Chapter 24 is dedicated to a comparison between the end of the 20st century and the period between the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. In many ways, says Putnam, the present era is similar to the Gilded Age. At that time, society was going through radical change. Social capital was declining. But at the same time Americans were starting to rebuild social capital with tremendous and innovative results.

In Chapter 25 Putnam presents his agenda for the future. He challenges readers to begin rebuilding social capital in America and provides suggestions for specific types of actions that will help make a positive change.

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