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  • Dan Connors

Bowling Alone- The collapse and revival of American community.

Updated: May 25, 2022

Bowling Alone: Revised and Updated: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Robert D. Putnam 2001, 2020 (revised edition)

Bowling Alone originally came out in 2001, and it captured a disturbing trend better than any other book - the decline of social capital. Capital is usually thought of in terms of money. If you have money in the bank you have financial capital that can be used later on. There is also educational capital (knowledge), working capital (equipment and buildings), and human capital (skills and know-how). But the type of capital that gets forgotten many times is social capital, or the large number of relationships and connections that make a society run smoothly.

Robert Putnam is a political scientist and professor at Harvard, and this is his most famous book. The title refers to the big decline in bowling leagues in the late 20th century. Fewer people bowling in groups is just one of many examples of how social capital has declined as more people strike out on their own and walk away from clubs, families, groups, and organizations.

Putnam looks at six main areas where there used to be a robust network of social connections, now there are much smaller groups of fanatics and huge swaths of disconnected, lonely people. The book is rich with charts and graphs, and the author obviously did his homework in compiling this depressing trend. According to the book America was awash in participation and socialization up until things changed around 1960. From 1960 to 2000, when the book was published, there was a steady and undeniable decline in participation rates everywhere. The effect this can have on mental health is staggering to contemplate.

1- Putnam starts by detailing the decline in political participation. Even though registration became easier as the 20th century concluded, voting rates declined. Turnout dropped from 63% in 1960 to 49% in 1996. People across the board showed less interest in attending civic meetings, working on campaigns, signing petitions, and running for office. (2020 has proven this wrong with a 65% turnout rate, but that rate may turn out to be an aberration because of the candidates involved)

2- Participation in civic groups has plummeted since 1950, and that decline has continued through to 2020. Groups like the Rotary, Elks, League of Women Voters, Boy Scouts, Optimists, PTA, and labor unions have all seen precipitous declines in membership. The only groups that are gaining members are ones that don't require attendance at meetings like AARP, or most political groups like the NRA and Sierra Club. The effect of the loss of these groups is hard to assess, but many were forums for discussion of important local issues, places to meet others in the community, and breeding grounds for future political and economic leaders.

3- The decline of organized religion has been bemoaned for its moral and theological impacts, but in terms of social capital, churches are vital especially for small communities. Church is where many relationships are forged, and were many civic skills and norms are generated. Church attendance has declined up to 50% in many areas, and the impact here is also hard to assess. Churches had been active in volunteering to help needy populations, erect schools, and support sports leagues. According to Putnam the only churches that grew in the late 20th century were evangelical ones, and they have tended to be more internally focused and less likely to reach out to the community at large.

4- In the workplace, social capital has taken a hit as well. People stayed at the same job for less time, more of them worked part-time, and more were converted to temporary or gig workers. That, plus the huge declines in union membership have made the workplace a more "survival of the fittest, every man for himself" kind of atmosphere. Union membership is down to less than 12% of workers, from 35% at their peak, and their lack of strength gives management much more power to control the work environment, while workers struggle to keep their wages and benefits.

5- Putnam looks at how even informal social connections have been hit by this trend. Bowling leagues were once popular activities for groups, and now bowling alleys survive barely with the occasional traffic that lone or small groups of bowlers provide. The same can be said of bridge clubs, golf outings, and softball leagues to some extent. The rise of the internet and our addiction to screen time plays a big role here since 2000, with family dinners and neighborhood parties taking a big hit. We spend much less time doing sports and outdoor activities, and more time watching them. The rise of fast food restaurants has also cut down the "schmoozing" time that helped create social capital, and people get in and out of place like McDonalds much faster than they used to at the corner diner, where once the staff actually knew your name.

6- Finally, the book looks at volunteering and philanthropy. We are less likely to give to charity now than we used to be, and the ones who do give to charity are generally the wealthy who want something out of it. Volunteering has actually dropped more since the publication of the book, with rates nearing 25% after being over 30% in the 1990's. Many blame lack of time for this decline, but after reading this book I think the decline of social capital is more to blame. Not only do more people feel no responsibility for their community, many actively distrust and fear their fellow citizens. (Positive responses to the poll question "Do you think people lead as good lives- honest and moral- as they used to?" fell from 50% to 27% in the last half of the 20th century)

After presenting all of this depressing data, Putnam turns to the question of why is this happening? He comes up with many possible villains- time, economic downturns, urban sprawl, family structural changes, more working mothers, economic structural changes, and mass media. Somehow, he comes up with this formula, which is purely his opinion, though he backs it up with solid arguments.

- 10% of the decline is due to time and money pressures

- 10% is due to urban sprawl and more time commuting to work

- 25% is because of technology and mass media (primarily television because the internet was just taking off when this book was published)

- 50% of the change is caused by generational shifts. The people of the greatest generation (born 1910-1940) who built up the social capital had different life experiences than generations that followed. Different early life experiences made them value community more than other generations.

(My own take on the culprits- is that 75% of the cause of the decline of social capital is television, the internet, and other mass media. The other 25% could be a mixture of all the above, but the generational thing is way off in my opinion).

So why do we need social capital and what should we do about it? It turns out that social capital is vital to the transmission of ideas, solving of problems, and completion of projects. Part of the reason lawyers are so powerful in ages of low social capital is that no one trusts anyone else, and contracts have to account for any and all negative possibilities to keep both sides honest. Civic pride and connection has been proven to improve mental and physical health as well as community prosperity.

There is actually a social capital map of the United States, presented in this book, that shows where people like and trust each other and where they don't. States with high numbers of Scandinavian descendants like Minnesota, North Dakota, and Vermont have high levels of social connection, while states where slavery was prevalent- Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi rank low. In areas where there is an active municipal life like New England there is more social capital and cooperation, while in areas where people are more ruggedly individualistic- like Alaska- people are pretty much on their own. Looking at a political map of the US in 2020, this explains a lot of the current divisions that we see.

Putnam points to social capital as a vital resource when it comes to improving education and child welfare, and children are less likely to fall through the cracks when more adults are on the lookout for problems. Crime is also less of a problem in high social capital areas, especially in cohesive neighborhoods where people know each other and look out for their neighbors. Social bonds are shown to help with general health because there is a bigger safety net for those who get sick, there are more healthy norms (like exercise, proper diet, and mask-wearing in pandemics) that are observed by more people, and just the fact that humans are social creatures and tend to do worse in isolation than in groups.

In the world of politics, the loss of community has led to more polarization, as the most involved partisans are generally more at the extremes of any debate. Politicians cater to extremists because they can be counted on to donate and vote. Politics has become more nationalized and less local, and people join groups that tell them what to think about issues, rather than the reverse. In a true democratic system communities would have thoughtful deliberations and high participation levels. What passes for debates these days is more like yelling past each other. The "otherization" of people who disagree with us has made constructive debate almost impossible.

Putnam puts some historical context that shows how social capital rose during the first half of the 20th century, and points briefly at the Progressive Era for many reforms that helped. His latest book, The Upswing, covers this trend and its resultant downturn, with an interesting proposition that another upswing in social capital is on the horizon. He notes that for many the 1950's and 1960's were less than ideal, and many of the civic groups now in decline were once homes of the racial and sexual discrimination of their times. Women and minorities weren't even allowed as members in many of the older civic groups.

There are trade-offs with building up social capital and building relationships with others, and a big one is learning how to compromise and occasionally conform to the expectations of others. (For anybody who's ever been married or lived with another person for a point of time- you all know exactly what kind of compromises have to be made, but there are also many benefits.)

In the revised edition there is a chapter that was written in 2020, mostly about the internet and what it's done to society. Putnam says the record is mixed, but there is plenty of damage done when people relate to screens more than to fellow humans. The interesting point that the book makes is that online social capital is not enough- people have to interact in real life too. Online contact allows us to meet people we normally would never meet, but in order to make the relationship real and meaningful it needs to be what Putnam calls an alloy relationship- both online and real. Online only relationships are vulnerable to algorithms, anonymity, transience, and curated fakeness that sabotages authentic ties.

In the 2001 edition the author sets some very ambitious goals to accomplish by 2010 that didn't happen. Putnam writes:

"we need to create new structures and policies (public and private) to facilitate renewed civic engagement. Leaders and activists in every sphere of American life must seek innovative ways to respond to the eroding effectiveness of the civic institutions and practices that we inherited."

The agenda for the 21st century as he saw it when it first began included:

- designing cities to enhance interactions and communications

- improving civic education and instilling those values in youth and schools

- making democracy more of an active pursuit and getting more voter and citizen participation in decision making

- re-thinking the workplace to make it more conducive to long-lasting relationships

- re-imagining religious institutions to make them more relevant to communities

- making arts, culture, mass media, and sports more participatory and inclusive rather than passive, isolating, and depressing.

There has been some progress since 2001 in these areas, but it feels like we went backwards, especially in the political and media areas. Still, Putnam has done a masterful job identifying these trends, and his work still holds up 20 years later.

This book gave me much to think on. As a baby boomer, I've seen the erosion of community from my own perspective. My old workplace used to sponsor a softball league, and now those are long gone. The civic organization that I belong to, the Granite City Optimists, has dropped from over 30 members to just a handful. Most disturbingly, rampant individualism has taken over the political sphere to the point where we have created an everyone for themselves country where freedom to be a billionaire is valued over any community concerns like health care, climate change, and income inequality.

As a lifelong introvert, I tend to want to be an isolationist. But another part of me wants to feel a part of something meaningful that's beyond myself. As with anything else, there is a delicate balance between selfishness and selflessness, and this book portrays a pendulum that has swung way over to the selfish end. The Progressive Era of 1890-1920 was a pendulum swing that raised social capital, and this book and its sequel, The Upswing (which I will review later) gives me hope that things may be about to change again.

Is history just a bunch of pendulum swings that we all follow along with, or are we creating history with our choices? Can a society thrive when individualism overshadows social capital? Stay tuned to the 21st century and find out.

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