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Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Paperback – August 7, 2001
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Richard Flacks Los Angeles Times Putnam styles himself as a kind of sociological detective....The reader experiences the suspense that can happen in both detective fiction and science.
Wendy Rahn The Washington Post This is a very important book; it's the de Tocqueville of our generation. And you don't often hear an academic like me say those sorts of things.
Alan Ehrenhalt The Wall Street Journal A powerful argument...presented in a lucid and readable way.
Julia Keller Chicago Tribune A learned and clearly focused snapshot of a crucial moment in American history.
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Bowling Along describes this shift and makes efforts to offer the reasons why, one of the heaviest being the arrival and dispersion of Television. He states: “I need to make clear at the outset that I have not entirely solved the mystery, so I invite your help in sifting clues.”
Putnam does not delve into the politics of the era only that the citizen has become detached from the sense of participation. This review offers another explanation, following the wisdom and publications of Sheldon S. Wolin a political philosopher who describes the same process in a very different manner.
Part of the change is in style of presentation. Putnam’s approach is under the sway of the behavioralist revolution, which emphasized the quantitative analysis of data rather than political ideas as a way to explain political behavior, in his case “SOCIAL CAPITAL”.
Wolin sees the same shifting from communal involvement to individualism and a following drop in the role of active government beginning in the 1970’s, but this was an engineered change with its roots in the formation of a small group, the Mont Pelerin Society (named after the Swiss spa where they first met) in 1947, with Friedrich von Hayek, Ludvig von Mises, and the economist Milton Friedman as recognized contributors. They felt the world was headed toward a centralized highly managed regulated existence threading Freedom and Individual Rights as they saw it.
In America this was the Post-Depression, Post-War, FDR creation with Keynesian anti-cyclical intervention, anti-trust and social overhead dimensions, characterized today as our period of ‘Welfare Liberalism,’ all features they hoped to destroy. (Putnam handles this period as one of extensive interpersonal relationships.)
Those believes had been sold by individuals like Lewis F. Powell Jr. who in 1971 issued a call to the US Chamber of Commerce, and other conservative organizations and think-tanks such as
The Business Roundtable, The Heritage Foundation, The Cato Institution, Accuracy in Academia and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research to counter criticism of the free enterprise system.
At the University of Chicago Milton Freedom was spreading the word. Powell was to be appointed to the Supreme Court by President Nixon. A formidable array of power and influence.
David Harvey in A Brief History of Neoliberalism details their impacts and views it as ‘Class Action’ a dangerous tack for an academic but now in 2018 when “1%ters” has entered the common vocabulary likely raises few eyebrows.
It is a long shot from Reagan’s ‘Government is not the solution but the problem’ to the neoliberal existence prevalent today, the point is just that Putnam’s Bowling Alone concerns may have very different causes and therefore very different solutions.
The book is very complete but tedious and Wolin’s thesis of “Democracy Incorporated” definitely seems more relevant. Sheldon S. Wolin was professor Political Science Berkeley and Princeton, Robert D. Putnam was Dena of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Perhaps the Millianians generation can put us back together someday, that would please both.
I see this book cited continually in articles and books in a wide variety of fields that attempt to understand contemporary America. As I watch the Trump phenomenon unfolding, I am wondering when someone will astutely draw the connection between the phenomena Putnam analyzes and the current political scene.
It's a classic, and you need to read it if you have not.
The book is 540 pages and the author, Prof. Robert Putnam, is a professor. The cover notes the book was a best seller. That astounded me. I absolutely can't understand it.
It’s now realized that the social scientists praising this book, in all probability, did such because they enjoyed one of the conclusions. Whether riding from coast to coast on a motorcycle, sitting by a beach, or under an old oak tree I have generally consumed books within 3 to 8 days. Unfortunately, this work was very difficult to plow through. I struggled for over three weeks. There was a desire to mail the book to a buddy (he’s a sociologist).
I don't know why the author engages in writing. Is it a publish or perish issue? God bless him if that's what he likes to do. However, it seemed as though he just went into cyberspace, threw things down and added ingredients to the cognitive nutriments. Often I had the feeling much of the writing did not relate to the subject at hand.
A principal tone of this work is that past folks had greater reciprocity than those in our age. One of the keys for opening up this book’s door is the concept of social capital. It appears several times. Generally really good authors throw in some humor. The only humor I found was about Yogi Berra. Yogi said, “If you don't go to somebody's funeral they won't come to yours.”
Putnam stopped to gas up his social capital tank at a weird stop. He has a strange reference to a guy by the name of Timothy McVay. He had bombed a federal building and the author indicates this was possible because of his network of friends. He goes through a few pages about that guy and includes the catch phase “Ku Klux Klan.” I thought this was very odd. I've been in the US for years and never ever heard anybody other than MSM refer to them. He flips the coin and tells us what everyone already knows; mainly, social capital can mostly have positive effects. He says the black church, for example, brings together people across class lines. Nearly everything he writes simply seems to be common sense. So again I wondered what's the big fuss?
In one place he tells us it’s not his view that community bonds have weakened. He thinks it's a matter of ups and downs, of collapse and renewal. As noted, I kept placing the book aside. This was one of those places.
For some reason he informs about a black fellow who donated a kidney. The recipient was white. This indicated apparently that, “We Americans need to reconnect.” (p. 28) This evidently meant that we have disconnected. After this, he goes into political participation. He tells us who voted in 1960 and 1996. He wants us to know that Afro-Americans and some poor whites were disenfranchised because of literacy tests and other factors. I thought kids knew this?
It seems that one of the foundations for his social capital theme is the South. He writes a lot about politics and the region of the old Confederacy. He refers to Jim Crow. Seems the South is in decline within America’s electorate. He expands and says that the average college graduate today knows little more about government than the average high schooler in the 1940s. I now reside in the South, know blacks from a recreational area. No one has ever mentioned Jim Crow. He’s like ancient history; he’s the bird that flew away, half a century ago.
He wants readers to know there’s less political participation, but funds have skyrocketed (compared to the past). It’s because of mass marketing. Money had replaced time and participation. Also in the 1990s roughly three out of every four Americans didn't trust their government. (p. 47) Is that not the same today? Is that not why, when a politician speaks about the Deep State, he has a huge cheering of crowds? Well?
Going from politics, he wants us to know that membership in other groups has declined. He has an entire session pertaining to civic participation. As for trust, at the same time there was a collapse in the American family structure. I noticed that, after having spent several years outside the US. Despite the breakdown, he wants us to realize not everything was negative. For example, they were new housing programs like the Habitat for Humanity and (2) black churches in America were still social institutions.
As for religion, although masses were not attending church they affirmed a belief in God. While the Catholic population increased, the Protestant and Jewish populations decreased. (p. 73) This brings us to his informal social connections. We learned that in Yiddish there's a word for informal communication, schmoozers. (p. 93) He tells us that in that language there's a word for people who invest time in organizations and it’s machers. He uses these two words extensively and emphasizes machers were generally male. BTW Yiddish is not a dead language. There are still enclaves and small communities all over Mother Earth, including NY.
In case you don't know, he informs that single people spend more energy schmoozing and (2) marriage increases time at home. (p. 94) The book is full of this type of common sense and it doesn't need to be repeatedly recorded into studies. We read that there's been a decline in the number of families that eat or vacation together. (pp. 100 -101) On the other side of the coin, there’s been more neighborhood watch groups than ever before. I remember attending a mass media conference in Warsaw, Poland and being shown graphs in which journalists discussed a way of getting people to believe what was desired. This was by presenting poll results. This study is loaded with poll info. Polls can be more than dubious. They have always been for open-ended discussion.
By the time we hit chapter 8 (Reciprocity, Honesty and Trust) the readership is told those three items lubricate the fractions in life. (p. 135) People who believe others are honest are less likely to lie, steal and cheat. It’s written that “have nots” are less trusting than the “haves.” When people tell posters that most people can't be trusted, they are not hallucinating, they are merely reporting their life experiences. We are told that most people today believe they are living in a less trustworthy society than did their parents. In 1970 they were 3% less lawyers than doctors. By 1995 they were 34% more lawyers than doctors. The increase in divorce is part of the trust story.
Prof. Putnam ventures into the arena of black, gay, and student protest movements. We read about a person stating that he had pertinent news, “Dante is dead and it’s time that we stop the study of his inferno and turn our attention to our own.” (p. 149) I thought that was the most fascinating part of the book. It was original and not a redundancy of common sense.
For continued verification of less interaction and trust, the author refers to phones, and again organizations and voting. In the past about half of all phone calls were within a 2 mile radius. We read that the telephone facilitated schmoozing. Regarding interaction, now, in the age of the Internet, there are 500 places where a person can pray virtually on a site that forwards email prayers that can be placed within the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem. (p. 170) As for organizations, he uses Green Peace is an example. It increased its membership X3 in barely 5 years. It went from 800,000 in 1985 to 2,350,000 in 1995. It then lost 85% of its membership in the next eight years. Many memberships in organizations are as phony as a three dollar bill, consisting of mailing lists. Often national organizations do not even have local offices.
Putnam then pulls in interest by mentioning Bill Gates. Voting, trusting, volunteering, meeting and visiting were all in decline when Gates was in school. I believe much of that had to do with the new electro- gadget age. In 1996 only 10% of American adults were on the Internet. Since then the figures have skyrocketed.
Dr. Putnam informs us that cyberspace is not responsible for the decline in social trust. He then mentions cyber apartheid, eye contact and gestures. Face-to-face encounters provide plenty that can not be comparable in cyberspace. (p. 175) These are good common sense points.
In short, cyberspace is not the same as personal interaction. For some reason he wants us to know that as early as 1995 it was reported that 27,000 were on a homosexual news group. (p. 173) That site averaged 75,000 emails a day. Four pages later we read that the most disconnected groups are racial minorities, female headed households, and the rural poor. Makes one wonder about the disparity gab.
We read that today more and more Americans Kibitz. We are also less likely to give strangers the benefit of a doubt. They, in turn, return the favor.
This second half of this book
About midway through the book it becomes much more readable and entertaining. Here, we read that levels of social engagement differ. The author deems that by the 1960s -70s American community life begin to unravel.
Gaps are formed by education, income, race and family structure. The gaps are widening. The author then emphasizes that education has little effect on informal social connecting, schmoozing. (p. 186)
Putnam then breaks all this down into time and money. People have less time for others than in the past. This seems to be another redundant example of exploiting common sense. We read that two career parents are spending more time at work than past couples. The movement of mothers from their children and home to the factory/office has had a devastating effect.
The author wants us to know that women who work full-time are less likely to visit others for entertainment or to volunteer. (p. 201) The chapter is summed up by noting that pressures associated with two career parents are part of the explanation for declining connectiveness. Nearly cemented to all this is the idea of mobility and the sprawl of communities.
As we all know, those in small towns are more connected with neighbors. Putnam wants his readers to know that suburbs contributed to segregations. The author even mentions gated communities. No need to comment on what that function implies. Suburbs also contributed to more time being spent in cars. Social disengagement was becoming an undeniable fact.
Technology also separated people. For example, TV steals time. In 1970 only 6% of sixth graders had a TV in their room. By 1999 that number had escalated to 77%. Husbands and wives spent more time watching TV than interaction with each other.
The author goes over prior themes in discussing the destruction of civil engagement. The loosening of family bonds along with divorce played a major part in the eradication of positive civil interaction. In 1974 about 75% of children had married parents. In 1998 the figure had fallen to 56%. Putnam notes that these factors were not all inclusive. For example, he refers to it having just about no affect on NAACP membership. He insists that this is because race is such a fundamental feature in American social history. He wonders if it’s perhaps possible it might have somehow played a role in the erosion of social capital (p. 279) We read that after all, the erosion of social capital began just after the greatest accomplishments in civil rights.
Dr. Putnam states if racial prejudice were responsible for civil disengagement, it would be especially pronounced among the most bigoted generations. But it’s not. He noticed government policies might be responsible in someway. But, it’s hard to see which policies might be responsible for the decline. (p. 281) A rehash centered on time, money, urbanization, electronic entertainment and generational changes.
Putnam refers to an ancient era in US history, slavery. He notes it was a system designed to destroy social capital. He also writes that states such as Vermont, Nebraska and North Dakota have healthy civic adults and well adjusted kids. On the other hand, those in the South face challenges in both adult and young populations. Social capital is associated with these factors. Common sense verifies that a state’s rate of single parent households can certainly be part of an equation in solving problems of social capital.
We read of a study pertaining to inner-city children. They were less depressed when they had high levels of social capital. (p. 299) He talks about SAT scores, but I see no reason to rehash that. We read about some American cities and how high murder rates have become basically accepted. He informs that it's an old age puzzle as to why states in the old Confederacy have more violence than many other states. (p. 309)
Conclusio- Putnam seems to contradict himself about his noted northern factors by mentioning Chicago and Philadelphia. He wants us to know that many problems are due to poverty. When speaking about inner cities he noticed there's a lack of social capital but most residents work and are not on welfare. Also, most teenagers attend school. On the other hand, there’s a rising number of single woman with children who are on public assistance. We learn one of the reasons for all the alleged turmoil is because of low levels of trust.
In many instances policing a community doesn't seem to reduce disorder and crime. For some reason, after referring to the above, he wants readers to know that much of his evidence is from other studies. That's baffling.
Discussing regions, he moves on to places such as Silicon Valley. Skeptics have argued that there’s employer racism there. Also perhaps certain ethnic groups dominate. He skips around and refers to Singapore and Detroit. We even read about a community in Mississippi. It was one of the poorest in the country and today it prospers.
One wonders if the author had some sort of a degree in political science. The reason for this is an entire chapter pertaining to how wonderful our democracy is. He even refers to President Madison. He wants us to know that everything is not perfect and there has been long-standing inattention and even alienated factors concerning the disadvantaged.
For some strange reason the author mentions there's also a dark side of social capital. He refers to a movie that is concerned with such things as being provincial and racist. Sometimes social capital can be at war with liberty and tolerance. Sometimes it objects to community ties. (p. 351) We read that in 1956 half of white Americans thought that they should be allowed to send their kids to separate schools. Putnam tells us that in 1995 only 4% thought this.
According to Prof. Putnam, in 1963 45% of white Americans said that they would move out of their neighborhood if blacks moved in. In 1997 only 1% said that. (p. 352) We read that community mongers, in the past, fostered intolerance.
While readers absorb all this, they see that at the end of the 20th century there remains a big gap between the rich and the poor. The author doesn't refer to such facts as a mere eight Americans being richer than the citizenry of the country’s lower 40%. He does note that fraternity and equality amongst regular citizens are complementary. (p. 359) He ponders about policies to build bridges for social capital to ensure that kids get future stimulation. (p. 363)
Near the end of the book the author wonders what can be done to improve social capital. He goes way back in US history; he mentions the lynching of Southern blacks, legal segregation, white vigilantes and Jim Crowe. He touches upon the inequality of cooperate power. He then refers to great organization. He touches upon German associations as well as those of Italians, Jews and Poles. Putnam mentions that by 1910 two thirds of all Poles belonged to a PolishAm association. Overall participation in civil organizations cut widely across class lines.
As noted, Prof. Putnam wants readers to know that much of his evidence is from other studies. The work contains lots of charts, poll info, correlations and a hundred pages of notes. As shown in this brief, his themes about social capital provide plenty of evidence verifying the erosion of reciprocity and trust.
Sometimes one wonders about those of us with PhDs, who speak other languages and have traveled the world. Why do intellectuals -mostly academics- write books that contain half a thousand pages, on issues of common sense, when 25 pages would suffice? In some of the Slavic languages we’d say it’s a zagatka (“Puzzle”).
Near the very end of the book he refers to a famous Hebrew saying, “To everything there is a season.” He mentions a need to create new structures to renew civil engagements. Putnam believes that we need, as individuals, to reconnect. (p. 403)
When we read the Three Bears or Cinderella to little souls it’s not just to entertain. Each of those myths are about justice. It seems the author was seeking what he thought possible.
He wanted to find ways that more Americans would participate in public life. He refers to the Museum of the National Center for Afro-Am Artists, in Boston. It has convened diverse groups such as Haitians, Jamaicans, Afro Brazilians and native African Americans. He wanted public policies to be more attractive so they could be as successful as those in Atlanta and Portland. We can only wait to see if, like in Cinderella, dreams will be achieved.
His agenda in the year 2000 was to find ways that would match civil engagement with those of an earlier time. He desired cooperation to reduce racism. (p. 405) He longed to find means so that by 2010 the work place would be more friendly and congenital. Don't most work places in America, in the realms of humanity and (also) law, fit that category? Of course, work is work.
Top international reviews
An authoritative and wide ranging review with a central metaphor that we bowl alone at our peril.
I found this a masterful survey of the issue with significant research and references to back up its case.
Something of a dichotmy here in posting this review on Amazon when I should be doing more to promote local bookstores.
Just a tip to the publishers - the cover makes it look more like a retro crime novel rather than a serious text - which has undermined my efforts to get others to take it seriously and read it.
Pages and pages of graphs all show a similar curve - gently rising from the 1900s, dipping for the Great Depression before rising again, dipping again for the second World War, rising sharply to peak in the sixties, before tumbling to a short plateau in the eighties, and then tumbling relentlessly from then on. This 'Putnam curve' (my words, not his) applies to Parent Teacher Associations, Card playing, civic activity, and, of course, to the rise and fall of league bowling, which is what gives this book its title. The graphs are supported by much reasoning, and by careful exclusion of other factors which might paint a false picture. The result is as compelling as it is far reaching.
Putnam's four factors which he believes contribute to the decline in social capital, or generalised reciprocity, as he at one point puts it, are perhaps less clearly demonstrated than the problem itself. They are: pressures of time and money, suburbanisation (with its commute to work), electronic entertainment (especially the television), and generational change, as more civic generations are replaced by less civic ones.
Likewise, his solutions, increasing civic engagement, community friendly workspaces, less time travelling, engaging faith groups, reducing TV time, and participatory cultural activities, are more supported by the extensive anecdotes than by the huge amounts of data.
Putnam's underlying thesis, that social capital is basically a 'good thing', and we should have more of it, had already been challenged by neo-marxist Pierre Bourdieu. A more substantial challenge has been put since, in that the US picture is very difficult to apply to the international community. UK society, for example, with the same four factors at work, does not remotely show a similar pattern of rising and falling social capital.
Nonetheless, the strength of Putnam's argument has been enough to set in motion major projects by the World Bank, the OECD, the EU and our own Office of National Statistics, to firm up the data gathering, and to find how it might apply to public policy.
It is very, very unusual to find a single work of such eminence in any modern field of enquiry. Most commentators have been content to build on Putnam's work, or take issue with the technicalities, rather than to challenge his overall thesis. This puts us at risk of discovering that it is the Emperor's new clothes, when someone comes along with a radically critical perspective.
Nonetheless, whatever flaws may be found in the theory at a later date, this is a seminal work, and well deserves the maximum rating.
The problem, according to Putnam, is as follows: since the 1950s and the 1960s society - at least in America - has changed, people experience less of the community around them and are also less active within that community. Basically, he sees a few causes for this change: pressures of time and money, more mobility and greater urbanization, the rise and influence of technology and mass media, and finally he concludes that there are real differences between the pre- and post-WWII-generation. In chapter 15 Putnam even goes so far as putting some percentages on these causes, explicitly leaving room for other contributors to the aforementioned changes in society and civic engagement.
I like this way of reasoning, because it sheds light on the causes that led can be shed on, the things that definitely have been contributors to the changes he describes. On the other hand, it leaves enough room for other explanations, relating for example to the individual or to local changes--society is quite locally-bound and influenced.
His two final chapters are not as strong as the previous ones. In the 23rd chapter he describes how the time of the Industrialization changed society and what the so-called Progressives used as their main piece of action: they opted for social innovation and found ways to reinvent society, social capital and civic engagement. Highly interesting stuff, but a tiny bit too simple. What these methods were is not mentioned in the same extensive and thorough way as the previous research from the first 20 chapters.
Basically the same is true for the last chapter in which Putnam tries to come up with a new social agenda for a number of groups: he wants this group to do this thing and that group to do another thing. The goals he wants to achieve are clearly articulate in each of the chapter's section, but the measures he proposes lack backing and come from an academic point of view: society can't be molded out of an arm-chair. This chapter would have been much stronger if Putnam would have used more space to describe his goals, other people are more able than he is to put these goals into measures and plans.
A small question that has been in the back of my head since I started reading this book, what is Putnam's philosophy toward life? And, why does he believe that community is good? According to the book, both of these answers can be answered in a pragmatic way: it is good because (1) social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily; (2) social capital greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly; and (3) social capital widens our awareness of the many ways in which our fates are linked. But that does not answer the question why individualism is not preferred over agains communalism; in other words, what is wrong with bowling alone?
Un problema: solo habla de EEUU, aunque muchos temas son generales.