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 4, Chapter 22 : So What? (The Dark Side of Social Capital) | Summary



In this chapter, Putnam addresses the "dark side" of social capital by quoting from the book Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis. Written during the 1950s, Babbitt is about a "doltish, narrow-minded, materialistic, snobbish, glad-handing, bigoted, middle-class joiner." Says Putnam, "Figures like George Babbitt give social capital a bad name."

Putnam goes on to describe several notorious movements that were built around social capital and resulted in social problems or even social chaos. Specifically, he mentions the French Revolution, which was built on the concept of fraternity or brotherhood. The Ku Klux Klan, which exists exclusively for the purpose of enforcing white supremacy through violence and threat, is built on social capital.

Based on these examples, Putnam asks, "Is social capital at war with liberty and tolerance?" He answers this question with a definite "no," suggesting examples like Babbitt are exceptions to the rule. In fact, he says, research shows "individuals who are more engaged with their communities are generally more tolerant than their stay-at-home neighbors."

Putnam then asks, "Is social capital at war with equality?" He points to the reality that social clubs reinforce "social stratification."

Upon examination, Putnam finds in many cases "community and equality are mutually reinforcing, not mutually incompatible." In fact, he says, "Both across space and across time, equality and fraternity are strongly positively correlated." But on the other hand, he notes, there are many situations in which social groups are at odds with one another.

He concludes this chapter by saying social capital is a positive force but that it will be critically important to build bridges between social groups to avoid "fraternity versus fraternity" conflicts.


The character of Babbitt was drawn from real life during a time when joining civic organizations was almost required of people in the American middle class. In many cases, groups such as the PTA or the Masons could be very exclusive, and quite a few organizations of the time, such as country clubs, were "restricted." Restricted clubs had by-laws making it against the rules to include African-Americans, Jews, and other ethnic groups. At the same time segregation laws made it illegal for African-Americans to use pools, drinking fountains, restaurants, or other public facilities used by whites.

While few of these restrictions and laws were still in place by 2000, when the book was written, it was also clear the attitudes were still part of American culture. Yet, says Putnam, "Without a doubt America in the 1990s was a more tolerant place than American in the 1950's or even the 1970's." There is more support for interracial and same-sex marriage; less support for book banning; more support for women's rights; more support for civil rights in general. This is a confusing trend, as greater tolerance should, in theory, go along with greater social capital—but tolerance is increasing as social capital is shrinking.

Putnam explores the question of how it is possible for tolerance to improve while social capital shrinks. He asks "must we in some fundamental sense choose between community and equality?" His answer to the question, not surprisingly, is "no;" despite some evidence to the contrary he finally argues the case that social capital supports equality. He supports this idea with several statistical charts with the captions "Social Capital and Economic Equality Go Together" and "Social Capital and Civic Equality Go Together."

Toward the end of the chapter, Putnam finally pulls out the argument that social capital can divide communities and cause inequality—but only certain kinds of social capital. The important goal, then, is not merely to increase social capital in general but rather to increase "bridging" social capital—that is, social capital that brings together groups that include individuals from differing backgrounds rather than creating "siloes."

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