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

Bowling Alone by Robert D. Putnam
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's review
Nov 28, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction
Read in March, 2010

I found this book fascinating, and couldn't stop talking about it while I was reading it and for several months afterward. While I found the approach to "social capital" somewhat akin to commoditizing friendships and civic interaction, I found so much richness in Putnam's thoughtful analysis of multiple diverse data sources, with plenty of charts and graphs to enjoy!

Putnam's premise is that our stores of social capital in the U.S. have been making a drastic plummeting curve (in visual terms) since the 60s. As I understand it, by social capital he is referring to the social connections that make a cohesive community, or on a larger scale, a nation. These can include informal measures such as playing cards, bowling leagues or having friends over for dinner, or formal measures such as PTA enrollment, church attendance, and voting. He presents chapters and chapters of evidence to support his observation, and attempts to explore a few possible explanations for this phenomenon. I appreciate that he doesn't pretend to have the answer, and doesn't present one possibility as the culprit. I also appreciate that he takes a look at the "dark side" of social capital--homogeneity and exclusivity. This book was published in 200, so I would love to read an updated look at this topic.

Here are a few examples from the book:
"During the fist two-thirds of the century Americans took a more and more active role in the social and political life of their communities--in churches and union halls, in bowling alleys and clubrooms, around committee tables and card tables and dinner tables. Year by year we gave more generously to charity, we pitched in more often on community projects, and (insofar as we can still find reliable evidence) we behaved in an increasingly trustworthy way toward one another. Then, mysteriously and more or less simultaneously, we began to do all those things less often.
We are still more civically engaged than citizens in many other countries, but compared with our own recent past, we are less connected. We remain interested and critical spectators of the public scene. We kibitz, but we don't play, We maintain a facade of formal affiliation, but we rarely show up. We have invented new ways of expressing our demands that demand less of us. We are less likely to turn out for collective deliberation--whether in the voting booth or the meeting hall--and when we do, we find that discouragingly few of our friends and neighbors have shown up. We are less generous with our money and (with the important exception of senior citizens) with our time, and we are less likely to give strangers the benefit of the doubt. They, of course, return the favor."(183)

"Compared with the citizens of most other countries, Americans have always lived a nomadic existence. Nearly one in five of us move each year and, having done so, are likely to pick up and move again. More than two in five of us expect to move in the next five years. As a result, compared with other peoples, Americans have become accustomed to pitching camp quickly and making friends easily. From our frontier and immigrant past we have learned to plunge into new community institutions when we move.
Nevertheless, for people as for plants, frequent repotting disrupts root systems."(204)

"The car and the commute...are demonstrably bad for community life. In round numbers the evidence suggests that each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10 percent...Strikingly, increased commuting time among the residents of a community lowers average levels of civic involvement even among noncommuters...In other words, this appears to be a classic "synergistic effect," in which the consequences of individual actions spill beyond the individuals in question. In the language of economists, commuting has negative externalities."(213)

"Electronic technology allows us to consume this hand-tailored entertainment in private, even utterly alone...As the poet T.S. Eliot observed early in the television age, "It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome." The artifice of canned laughter reflected both the enduring fact that mirth is enhanced by companionship and the novel fact that companionship could now be simulated electronically."(217)

"Child psychologists speak of a fairly primitive stage of social development called "parallel play"--two kids in a sandbox, each playing with a toy but not really interacting with each other. In healthy development children outgrow parallel play. But the public spectacles of television leave us at that arrested stage of development, rarely moving beyond parallel attentiveness to the same external stimulus."(244)

"With evidence from a single point in time, we cannot distinguish between life cycle and generational effects, but if we follow a given cohort over the years, we can more readily distinguish the two. And the two effects have dramatically different social consequences. Life cycle effects mean that individuals change, but society as a whole does not. Generational effects mean that society changes, even though individuals do not.
So before we can tell whether the ubiquitous age-related differences in civic engagement are truly generational, and thus producing social change, we need to determine whether these differences are attributable to the normal life cycle. With comparable evidence across several decades, we can follow each cohort as its members move through various stages of life. If successive cohorts generally retrace the same ups and downs as they age, we can be reasonably sure that we are observing a life cycle pattern. If not, it is more likely that age-related differences are generational in origin."(248)

"Social scientists have long been concerned about "dilemmas" of collective action. Such dilemmas are ubiquitous, and their dynamics are straightforward. People often might all be better off if they cooperate, with each doing her share. But each individual benefits more by shirking her responsibility, hoping that others will do the work for her. Moreover, even if she is wrong and the others shirk, too, she is still better off than if she had been the only sucker. Obviously if every individual thinks that the others will do the work, nobody will end up taking part, and all will be left worse off than if all had contributed."(288)

"It turns out that in states where citizens view other people as basically honest, tax compliance is higher than in low-social-capital states...Similarly, surveys have found that individual taxpayers who believe that others are dishonest or are distrustful of government are more likely themselves to cheat. My willingness to pay my share depends crucially on my perception that others are doing the same. In effect, in a community rich in social capital, government is 'we,' not 'they.'"(347)
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