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 October 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 2, Chapter 9 : Trends in Civic Engagement and Social Capital (Against the Tide? Small Groups, Social Movements, and the Net) | Summary

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Summary

Putnam examines three types of social organizations that actually increased in number during the last quarter of the 20th century. These include:

  • Small, informal groups ranging from reading groups to support groups and self-help groups;
  • Very large social "movements" such as the civil rights movement and the women's movement;
  • Online virtual communities

In his examination of these groups he asks, "How do small groups, social movements, and telecommunications qualify our judgment about declining social connectedness and civic engagement?"

Small, informal groups are examined and found to have several interesting qualities. On the one hand, says Putnam, they are useful in that they can help people avoid isolation. This is particularly important for people who are sometimes considered to be "deviant" as a result of their sexual preferences, addictive behaviors, or other issues. They also, in some cases, expand their mission to become more like traditional civic organizations. But overall, he says, "Membership in self-help groups is completely unrelated to any other form of group affiliation." In other words overall growth in the number of small, informal groups in the United States has little overall impact on social capital.

Social movements both require and create social capital. Pre-existing social ties draw people to become involved with social movements. Involvement with the movements creates social capital for members. But Putnam then points to the professionalization of social movements through organizations like Greenpeace and the Moral Majority. Such professional "social movement organizations" allow citizens to participate in a movement without actually taking part in any group activity or activism. These organizations, says Putnam, are a sign "not of the presence of grassroots engagement, but of its absence."

Putnam examines the impact of telecommunications on social capital by starting with a look at how the telephone changed the way people interact. He concludes "the telephone both gives and takes away" by reducing "both loneliness and face-to-face socializing." He then turns to an examination of the Internet, which he describes as providing "virtual social capital." Though Putnam sees many challenges to the Internet as a source of increased social capital, he is optimistic: "it is hard to imagine solving our contemporary civic dilemmas without computer-mediated communication."

Analysis

Putnam was writing at the end of the 20th century. He and his generational peers had lived through major social movements and taken part in huge social upheavals. For Putnam the civil rights, women's liberation, moral majority, and gay rights movements were all relatively recent history. In fact, Putnam was unwilling to put these movements in historic context because it wasn't yet clear what impact these movements would have on society as a whole.

The Internet has evolved radically since 2000. When Bowling Alone was written, Putnam could describe "new filtering technologies" and wonder whether and when enough bandwidth would be available to allow general sharing of video. These technologies have developed at a fast pace, as have social networks Putnam could not even have dreamt of.

Despite the fact that Bowling Alone is outdated in many ways, however, some of Putnam's thoughts remain very relevant. In concluding, he asks the still-important question, "How can we make the Internet a part of the solution?" Can the Internet help to rebuild America's fading interest in civic and social engagement?

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