Despite its useful elements, Bowling Alone reminds me why I spend very little time reading sociology. Putnam offers a clear and reasonably compelling argument that civic involvement (in numerous forms--political, religious, social in both formal and informal manifestations) has declined steadily since the middle 1960s. He advances a notion of "social capital"--a measurement of the resources available to individuals in communities distinct from financial capital and human capital.
He has some useful insights into some of the causes, the most important of which are: 1) the emergence of television, which draws people into individual circumstances, and reducing the number of situations in which there's critical mass for group activities; 2) the change from the generation formed by World War II, which emerged with a strong commitment to civic involvement. Putnam's reasonably careful to avoid lamentation as a rhetorical mode, and he provides copious evidence to support his assertions.
Having said that, I'm really really glad I'm done with the book and don't have to read anymore of it tomorrow. His method typifies academic sociology at its most mind-numbing. Lots and lots of graphs which say more or less the same thing. (Yes, I understand why we want real evidence). That's just dull. More problematic is the way that he parrots the sociological claim that it's possible to normalize the statistics--holding numerous variables equal in order to isolate a single variable. I'm more than slightly dubious that he's done anything of the kind. While I agree in my non (social) scientific way with his argument, I'm absolutely unconvinced that one can separate human, financial and social capital as cleanly as he claims to have done.
My final grousing is that the final segment of the book in which he looks back to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era as analogs for the contemporary problems left me absolutely cold. I'd skip it.
A final observation--one he couldn't do anything about since the book was published in 2000--is that it would be interesting to see how the explosion of the internet and various other communications technologies has effected the patterns he identifies. Everyone reading this is probably aware that I'm a card-carrying technophobe (not quite a luddite or you wouldn't be reading this here), but I'm also aware that there are real possibilities for connecting via the net, etc. I'll check in on Putnam's website to see what he has to say about the view from 2012.
The above review is probably a bit harsh. I did learn from Bowling Alone and I'll be using bits of it in a class this semester. But, as stated previously, I'm glad that I've finished it.