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 | Section 2, Chapter 3 : Trends in Civic Engagement and Social Capital (Civic Participation) | Summary



Civic organizations, says Putnam, are associations that can be broken into three groups: community-based, church-based, and work-based. Americans, he argues, have always been very interested in joining such groups. Even in the early 19th century, he notes, French writer Alexis de Tocqueville noted that "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations." Between 1960 and 1990, the number of such groups tripled. Strangely, however, while the number of organizations increased, the number of participants decreased significantly.

Putnam explains it's possible to have more organizations with fewer members because few organizations have local chapters where members meet. Instead, they are located near national and state capitals where they can lobby for support using funds from members and political action groups. Thus, the American Association for Retired People (AARP) had over 33 million members in the mid-1990s—but membership in AARP requires nothing more than sending in a check for dues. AARP lobbies for policy that will benefit seniors but offers no opportunities for seniors to participate in its activities.

While non-participatory organizations grow, Putnam points out, participatory organizations shrink. He points to the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) and quotes a study that says membership is declining from a high in the early 1960s. The result, he says, is "many Americans nowadays are less involved with their kids' education."

Between the decline of participatory organizations and the increase in "dues-only" organizations, says Putnam, civic participation has dropped dramatically. "In short," he says, "Americans have been dropping out in droves ... from organized community life." As the number of local chapters declines, the number of people involved with political action declines.


Participation in civic organizations is one way to make a meaningful impact on areas of importance to the individual or community. As more power is handed to centralized organizations with professional staff and no local chapters, citizens lose the ability to make direct change. Putnam argues there is less interest among Americans in joining together to take responsibility for local and national policies. As a result, he worries, Americans are losing social capital.

To support his points, Putnam includes several charts showing trends over time. For example, one chart shows that membership rate in thirty-two chapter-based associations was lower in 2000 than at any point since the Great Depression. Such charts are visually compelling, but it is difficult to know exactly why this decline occurred, or what its significance is. Putnam explores these questions in some depth, often making somewhat vague statements such as "behind each of these membership declines are scores of individual tales of leadership success and failure, organizational tenacity and strategic blunders, and the vicissitudes of social life and politics."

Digging deeper into the question of why and how civic decline has occurred, Putnam focuses specifically on the PTA (Parent Teacher Association). He spends several paragraphs describing the decline of the organization, but then admits that "some part of the decline in rates of membership in the PTA is an optical illusion." In fact, as it turns out, many PTAs were replaced by less politically charged PTOs (Parent Teacher Organization chapters). At the end of several pages, Putnam finally concludes that "it is reasonably clear that parental participation ... suffered a substantial decline in the decades after 1960 ... many Americans nowadays are less involved with their kids' education." Readers might see a dubious leap here in equating declining parental involvement in an organization with declining interest in a child's education.

In short, though Putnam has collected a great deal of information about the rise and decline of the PTA, he is only reasonably certain that Americans are less involved with their children's education—and his only reason for believing in this decline seems to be that marginally fewer people are members of a PTA or PTO. Could parents have become more involved in other ways (through homeschooling or involvement in enrichment activities for example)? Putnam doesn't address this question.

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