Rebecca's Reviews > Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam
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's review
Nov 29, 2011

really liked it
Read from November 29 to December 09, 2011

The idea/complaint/gut feeling that motivated this book is one that probably resonates with most Americans today: we're too disconnected from each other, too disengaged from our communities, too uninvolved in politics, too apathetic about helping other people, and too passive and solitary in our choice of hobbies and leisure activities.

Frankly, this book could have marshalled a lot less evidence, been a lot shorter, and used much less fancy sociological analysis, and I still would have bought into the underlying premise, because it just feels so true to me. I think anyone who remembers or at least has heard how things used to be in America, or how things still are in other countries, can share this feeling of there being an emptiness and hollowness to how most Americans spend their time, and a sense that there is a better way to live that isn't quite so lazy and self-centered. So Putnam certainly gets points on tapping into the zeitgeist and articulating something that's important to a lot of people.

This book's main flaw is that Putnam took a very compelling idea and made it drier and more academic than he needed to. The numerous charts and graphs were illuminating, but got a little overwhelming as I got further in the book, and the same applies to his overuse of statistics, percentages, etc. to make his points. A good 1/5 of the book is devoted to appendices and detailed data sets (and I did appreciate him putting all of that stuff outside the main body of the text), but even so, I think even more of his stats could have been shelved in the appendices. His overall argument could have been more concise and compact.

I thought it was good that he had a chapter devoted to the "dark side" of greater community involvement, socializing, association membership, and so on, because if it weren't for that I would accuse him of falling prey to misplaced nostalgia brought on by old age. After all, if you follow his argument logically (and the implicit value judgments within it), more people joining bigoted, intolerant groups like the Ku Klux Klan would be seen as a positive growth in our "social capital" -- the term he uses for our level of social/community ties. The section discussing how the decrease in club-joining and community involvement was happening at the same time as an increase in tolerance in American society (as measured in surveys asking about mixed race marriage, freedom of speech, non-religious people, women in the workplace, etc.) was very interesting and provocative.

I assume the chapter on technology is the most controversial -- he attributes about 25% of our general cultural malaise to the increased use of television and computer-based entertainment, and despite a few funny antiquated terms (like referring to people who surf the internet as "cybernauts" -- the book was written in 1999, after all), his arguments felt spot-on to me. In particular, he compared people who watch TV intentionally (i.e., they only turn on the TV when they have a specific show in mind, and turn it off when that show is over) vs. people who watch TV habitually (just turn it on and leave it on as background noise). He found that people from the pre-Baby Boomer era were much more likely to watch TV intentionally, whereas everyone afterwards was more likely to watch TV habitually. His data points about the detriments of habitual TV viewing were extremely compelling, especially studies showing that most families were unwilling to swear off TV for a month in exchange for $500, even though they reported enjoying TV only about as much as cleaning their house (which together indicates the presence of a national addiction).

I'm certainly no "technology is the cause of all our ills" type of person, but I do think most people watch way too much TV, and that it's sad how often an entire family or group of friends will retreat to their solo electronic devices rather than engaging with each other. As a matter of fact, I was reading Bowling Alone one day in a cafe where I was eating lunch, and I saw an elderly woman eating lunch with a lady who was presumably her granddaughter. I say "with," but since the lady was absorbed in using her smart phone and flipping through a newspaper while ignoring her grandmother, I don't think she was really "there" in any real sense. That sad scene was a perfect example of the sort of endemic distance and alienation from others that Putnam describes in this book.

Somewhat in contradiction to my earlier statement that this book should have been shorter, I would have liked the author to look at a few more avenues relating to this issue. For example, in his chapter on modern time and money constraints on community involvement, one thing that seemed conspicuously missing was the increase in the volume of homework that students at all levels are assigned now compared to 30 years ago, which can have the effect of not only restricting kids' involvement in extracurricular activities, but can also restrict their parents' time if the students are young enough to need regular help with their piles of homework.

Another factor that Putnam didn't mention was whether/how the increase in the U.S. population has played any role in our alienation from each other. It's obviously easier to connect to people in a small town, and that's not because small towns have some inherent property that makes people want to connect, but because there are simply fewer people around, which means you take what you can get. But if you live in a city of 800,000 people (like I do), it's unlikely that you'll ever see the same stranger twice, much less strike up a friendship with them. It seems intuitively true that as the country's population increases, it will get harder and harder to have meaningful relationships with more than a few select people.

In addition to discussing how the suicide rate has changed over the years, with more people committing suicide at younger ages than ever before, it also would have been instructive for Putnam to mention the disintegration and dissolution of the traditional social structure of Native American tribes, leading to the alcoholism, alienation, and suicide in the face of white American culture that many of them contend with today. I think that would have been an interesting case study that would have supported his position that American society is headed in the wrong direction and that we're suffering because of our lack of community and group affiliation.

Overall, the tone and writing style of this book is pretty tedious and academic and not nearly as reader-friendly as the title and cover would have you believe, but I think the author's choice of topic is deeply interesting and his argument is convincing, which makes it worth the somewhat high cost of admission.
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