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

Robert Putnam

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Course Hero, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Study Guide," February 6, 2018, accessed September 20, 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 2, Chapter 8 : Trends in Civic Engagement and Social Capital (Reciprocity, Honesty, and Trust) | Summary

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Summary

Putnam explores changes that have occurred in Americans' trust in one another. Citing the golden rule (do unto others as you would have others do unto you), he describes the idea of "generalized reciprocity." People who believe in generalized reciprocity, he explains, are willing to help out another person with the assumption that, at some point, that person will probably help them in some way. This trust in others' willingness to return a favor results in many positive outcomes for society. For example, members of a trusting society are healthier, more efficient, and often happier. According to Putnam, "Honesty and trust lubricate the inevitable frictions of social life."

The question "How trustful are Americans?" has been asked by pollsters for decades. As a result, Putnam is able to compare levels of social trust and honesty as they have changed over the 20th century. He uses charts and statistics to show social trust rose from the mid-1940s, peaked in the mid-1960s, and has been dropping ever since. The reason for the drop, he says, is generational. Even though the generation that grew up prior to the 1960s continues to be trustful, that generation is dying out. Younger generations, meanwhile, are increasingly distrustful of one another.

Putnam describes two levels of trust: thin and thick trust. Thick trust is the trust that is earned over time through experience of a personal relationship. Thin trust, which is crucial to social relationships, is generalized trust in other peoples' goodwill and honesty. It is thin trust that allows individuals to make agreements based on a handshake, or to believe another person will do the right thing. As levels of thin trust drop, Americans are more reliant on legal documents such as contracts to establish trust. The outcome, according to Putnam, is "we are forced to rely increasingly ... on the law ... to accomplish what we used to accomplish through informal networks."

Analysis

Putnam is not advocating for blind trust in everyone no matter who they are. He acknowledges trust isn't always appropriate—but he seems to mourn the loss of generalized trust, which existed during the middle of the 20th century. If only we trusted one another more, he suggests, our society would run more smoothly and we would spend far less time and money on legal counsel, which he terms "artificial trust."

For Putnam trust and reciprocity are symbols of social capital—the basic social bonds that tie people together. If these are lost, he suggests, society becomes nothing more than a collection of self-interested individuals. In this chapter he shares his concern that simple handshakes and other signs of thin trust are disappearing.

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