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 5, Chapter 23 : What Is to Be Done? (Lessons of History: The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era) | Summary



Putnam asks whether "a variety of social, economic, and technological changes" have made American social capital obsolete. Could the effects of television, urban sprawl, and changing values mean we can't return to civic engagement?

He answers the question through analogy by looking at the events of the Gilded Age (about 1870–1915). The Gilded Age coincided with the Industrial Revolution and vast related changes in American culture. Millions of immigrants arrived to work in American factories while many Americans left their farms for better wages in cities. Poverty and crime increased and social capital fell. Meanwhile, says Putnam, "the average American saw the almost unimaginable new wealth of the robber barons—Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, and their ilk."

"But even as these problems were erupting," says Putnam, "Americans were beginning to fix them." Within a short period of time, social capital was higher than ever.

Putnam describes a "boom" in the number of civic organizations, starting during the middle of the Gilded Age. More and more people joined philanthropic groups, labor unions, college fraternities and sororities, church groups, and clubs. By 1920 he says, "Civic inventiveness reached a crescendo unmatched in American history." Among the organizations founded at the beginning of the 20th century are the Red Cross, the NAACP, the PTA, the Sierra Club, the Teamsters, and the League of Women Voters.

Putnam then goes on to describe, in detail, many of the social movements that emerged during the same period including progressivism, the labor movement, social entrepreneurialism. While some of the outcomes from these movements were very positive, others were developed specifically to maintain control over the working class, African-Americans, women, and other disenfranchised groups.

Putnam concludes by noting that while the solutions of the past may no longer be relevant, "the practical enthusiastic idealism of that era—and its achievements—should inspire us."


The end of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th were a period of tremendous turmoil in the United States and Europe. It's important to carefully review the experiences of different groups during that era to better understand the impact of social capital (or the lack of it) on different communities. As Putnam notes, movements like progressivism were very positive for some but created a wide range of problems for others.

In addition to the social and economic changes of the era described in this chapter, it's also important to look at the political events of the time. Just a few of the most important events included the imposition of income tax on the wealthy, passage of women's right to vote, Prohibition and its repeal, World War I, and the Great Depression. All of these events changed the way Americans spent both their time and their money.

Putnam uses examples from the past to build his case that loss of social capital can be reversed, just as it was during and after the Gilded Age. From Putnam's point of view, progressivism—the movement that created many of the social institutions of the 20th century—is a good model for the 21st century. While "the specific reforms of the Progressive Era are no longer appropriate for our time," he says, and we should resist the urge to create social capital that is exclusive rather than inclusive, the lessons of the past can lead the way to the future.

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