Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam

Phew! This one was a long slog. Putnam provides exhaustive data in his examination of the decline of “social capital” in late 20th-century American society. The author defines social capital as the network of informal social bonds within a society.

Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam

These bonds tie individuals and communities together, providing social, economic, and emotional support for all. The social networks of church, clubs, interest groups and sports leagues embody an ethos of trust and open-ended reciprocity: you watch my kids this afternoon, and I’ll watch yours some day in the future. In a society rich in social capital, individuals and families have much to lean on.

Bowling Alone traces the rise and decline of America’s organized social institutions over the course of the twentieth century, including everthing from Elks and Kiwanis to the Sierra Club and Boy Scouts to churches and bowling leagues. Putnam shows, with an immense amount of hard data, how membership and participation in all of these organizations swelled in the middle decades of the twentieth century and then went into steep decline in the mid-late 1960s.

One of Putnam’s most interesting findings is that the decline was constant across all socio-economic groups, all races, all education levels, and all regions of the country, including urban, suburban, and rural areas.

Not only did membership in social groups wane during this era, but general participation in civic life atrophied as well. People attended fewer community meetings, fewer political rallies, wrote fewer letters to newspaper editors, attended church less often. People even entertained guests and attended dinner parties less often than they used to. (Putnam has evidence for this in decades of time-use surveys that were administered annually throughout the US.)

The nature of membership in many organizations changed from participatory to financial. No one attends United Way meetings, but millions of “members” write checks in support, and unlike the Rotary Club or any other organization whose members had regular face-to-face contact, United Way “members” pass each other on the street every day without recognizing each other.

These changes substantially weakened community ties among all populations in US. Through rigorous statistical analysis, Putnam attempts to trace the causes of this decline in social capital. He finds three minor factors and one major one.

The first and least significant minor factor is the rise of the two-income family. With both parents working, neither has much time to give to outside social organizations.

The second minor factor is what Putnam calls “mobility and sprawl.” When people move a lot, they don’t have time to put down roots. And in the suburban sprawl that replaced cities and small towns as centers of population, there is little chance for the sort of informal encounters that used to happen on street corners, in shops, and in parks. Those encounters where people caught up on the details of each others’ lives were replaced by long commutes alone in the car, by stip malls that no one walks to, and by suburbs that were designed so people would not have to encounter their neighbors.

The biggest of the three minor factors is technology and the rise of mass media. This book was published in 2000, so the author focuses mainly on television when he writes of mass media. In the days before television, people went out with friends and neighbors because spending night after night in the house was just downright tedious. After television, people stayed in to engage passively with a device rather than actively with other humans.

Television appeared first appeared in 1948, and by 1955, 75% of American homes had a TV. That’s a shockingly fast adoption rate for such a major cultural and technological change, and it occurred just as the first baby boomers were getting old enough to watch.

Putnam presents numbers showing a direct correlation between the amount of television watched in childhood and a person’s likeliness to participate in social, political, and religious organizations. The more you watch, the less likely you are to participate.

The three minor facts together account for about a third of the decline in social capital. The rest, according to Putnam, comes from generational change. The two generations before the Boomers were joiners: they formed and joined groups and participated heavily in community. The boomers and later generations were more individualistic. As the earlier generations died off, very few people from the subsequent generations stepped in to take their places. You could see this if you walked into a Kiwanis or Elks meeting in the late twentieth century: the members, on average, were much older than the population at large.

Putnam doesn’t fully answer the question of why, after several generations of “joiners,” did the Boomers and later generations become so atomized, so much less community focused. He does note several surveys that show a shift in values. Boomers and Gen-X value financial and material success much more highly than prior generations, and they seem to have poured most of their energy into pursuing those ends. But why?

I have my own theories about that. As Putnam notes, 80% of the male population of the World War II generation that was of service age served in the armed forces. Army life is communal, not individual. Whatever your unit happens to be doing, no one is in it for themselves. Everyone is working for the team and the cause, and everything a unit does together–eating, sleeping, working–reinforces the bonds between its members.

This is a very different mindset that what television ads began to promote from the 1950s on, where the message was, “Whatever you have isn’t good enough. You need better.” And the implication, of course, was that you had to go out and get that better car/house/life, or you weren’t really living.

The Great Depression had taught the war generation to practice austerity, and after a long and brutal war, they naturally wanted peace and stability. The boomers were born into a world of relative plenty. They didn’t experience the harsh realities that had conditioned their parents, they just saw that their parents were boring and (according to television) there was a more exciting world out there just waiting to be had. So they rejected their parents dull world and spent their lives chasing that exciting one.

That’s my take, not Putnam’s.

After painting a portrait of a country in steep social decline, Putnam closes with some hope. He notes that the economic and technological changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, along with mass internal and international migrations, caused a fraying of social bonds similar to those in the latter half of the twentieth century. Those earlier changes also led to income and wealth inequalities as bad as we see today.

How did America handle the crisis then?

The author describes how the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century saw a sharp rise in social and political activism by both conservaties and liberals. Virtually all of the social organizations that would come to strengthen American communities in the mid-twentieth century were founded during the Progressive Era at the beginning of the century.

Communities for decades had been fraying because they could not keep up with the pace of social, economic, political, and technological change. While a minority advocated a return to the past, the majority understood there was no turning back from the progress of railways, electricity, the telephone, and the huge corporate conglomerates that were decimating local businesses.

The prevailing attitude across all sections of the political spectrum was that the future would not fix itself. The people had to step up, advocate and work for change. The fact that the institutions that arose from that turbulent era survived though most of the following century provides some hope for our own chaotic and divisive times.

Putnam will be publishing an update to this work in just a couple of weeks. The new edition will be out on October 13, 2020 and will include a new chapter about the influence of social media and the internet. I’m interested to see what he writes about the most disruptive technological change in our lifetime.