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

Robert Putnam

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Course Hero. (2018, February 6). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 17, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bowling-Alone-The-Collapse-and-Revival-of-American-Community/

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Course Hero. "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Study Guide." February 6, 2018. Accessed June 17, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bowling-Alone-The-Collapse-and-Revival-of-American-Community/.

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Course Hero, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Study Guide," February 6, 2018, accessed June 17, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Bowling-Alone-The-Collapse-and-Revival-of-American-Community/.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Section 1, Chapter 1 : Introduction (Thinking About Social Change in America) | Summary

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Summary

Putnam starts this first chapter with an emotional story of the breakup of a bridge club: "No one is left from the Glenn Valley, Pennsylvania, Bridge Club who can tell us ... why the group broke up." He goes on to say that during the 1960s and 1970s, very large numbers of adults were involved with civic life. Both women and men were members of political, philanthropic, social, and recreational organizations and clubs. But by the end of the 1990s, participation had dwindled to the point where many groups simply collapsed.

Putnam describes this downturn in public participation as a decline in "social capital," which he defines on his website, BowlingAlone.com, as "the very fabric of our connections with each other." Social capital is both a public and a private good. People who participate in their communities earn personal good will and support. At the same time, strong public organizations help to create a sense of "mutual obligations and responsibility for action" within the community as a whole.

Social capital can lead to "bonding," meaning strong connections within a single group. This isn't always a positive thing: in some cases organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan can be founded for the purposes of exclusion or even for the purpose of doing harm. On the other hand, social capital can also lead to "bridging" between communities that, while very different from one another, have interests in common. One such bridge was the Knights of Columbus which, Putnam says, was created specifically to "bridge cleavages among different ethnic communities" while also creating bonds among religious and gender groups.

Analysis

Putnam tells numerous stories about vanished social groups. In addition to the bridge club with which he begins the chapter, he describes a volunteer society in Arizona, a political group in Virginia, and a veterans' group in Illinois that have all disappeared. The descriptions evoke a sense of loss and nostalgia. He uses the metaphor of bowling alone to tug at the reader's heart: what was once a group activity that involved leagues and friendships is now a solo experience.

Putnam builds on the reader's sense of nostalgia to introduce what he calls an American loss of "social capital." From Putnam's point of view, the end of so many social organizations is a sign something is wrong with our society. He shows readers, however, that while a similar decline did occur around the beginning of the 20th century, the damage was undone over time. American society can undo the damage again, if people so choose.

Putnam next lays out his plan for the rest of the book. He explains he will review trends in social capital and civic engagement and then explore reasons for those trends and possible ways of repairing their damage to America's social networks. While he says "it is important to avoid simple nostalgia," he looks to the past for models of more robust social and civic involvement.

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