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Bowling Alone


Robert D. Putnam

Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital"

Journal of Democracy, January 1995, pp. 65 78.

Abstract: The US once had an enviable society, but over the last two or three decades

this civic society has shrunk, and more people are watching TV. Possible

explanations for this trend include more women in the workplace, increased

mobility of families and changing demographics.

Many students of the new democracies that have emerged over the past decade and

a half have emphasized the importance of a strong and active civil society to

the consolidation of democracy. Especially with regard to the postcommunist

countries, scholars and democratic activists alike have lamented the absence or

obliteration of traditions of independent civic engagement and a widespread

tendency toward passive reliance on the state. To those concerned with the

weakness of civil societies in the developing or postcommunist world, the

advanced Western democracies and above all the United States have typically

been taken as models to be emulated. There is striking evidence, however, that

the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past

several decades.

Ever since the publication of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, the

United States has played a central role in systematic studies of the links

between democracy and civil society. Although this is in part because trends in

American life are often regarded as harbingers of social modernization, it is

also because America has traditionally been considered unusually "civic" (a

reputation that, as we shall later see, has not been entirely unjustified).

When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, it was the Americans'

propensity for civic association that most impressed him as the key to their

unprecedented ability to make democracy work. "Americans of all ages, all

stations in life, and all types of disposition:' he observed, "are forever

forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations

in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types  religious,

moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very

minute.... Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual

and moral associations in America."
Recently, American social scientists of a neoTocquevillean bent have unearthed

a wide range of empirical evidence that the quality of public life and the

performance of social institutions (and not only in America) are indeed

powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement. Researchers in

such fields as education, urban poverty, unemployment, the control of crime and

drug abuse, and even health have discovered that successful outcomes are more

likely in civically engaged communities. Similarly, research on the varying

economic attainments of different ethnic groups in the United States has

demonstrated the importance of social bonds within each group. These results

are consistent with research in a wide range of settings that demonstrates the

vital importance of social networks for job placement and many other economic


Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated body of research on the sociology of economic

development has also focused attention on the role of social networks. Some of

this work is situated in the developing countries, and some of it elucidates

the peculiarly successful "network capitalism" of East Asia. Even in less

exotic Western economies, however, researchers have discovered highly

efficient, highly flexible "industrial districts" based on networks of

collaboration among workers and small entrepreneurs. Far from being

paleoindustrial anachronisms, these dense interpersonal and interorganizational

networks under gird ultramodern industries, from the high tech of Silicon

Valley to the high fashion of Benetton.

The norms and networks of civic engagement also powerfully affect the

performance of representative government. That, at least, was the central

conclusion of my own 20 year, quasi experimental study of subnational

governments in different regions of Italy. Although all these regional

governments seemed identical on paper, their levels of effectiveness varied

dramatically. I Systematic inquiry showed that the quality of I governance was

determined by longstanding traditions of civic engagement (or its absence).

Voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and

football clubs these were the hallmarks of a successful region. In fact,

historical analysis suggested that these networks of organized reciprocity

and civic solidarity, far I from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic

modernization, were a precondition for it. 1

No doubt the mechanisms through which civic engagement and social connectedness

produce such results  better schools, faster economic development, lower crime,

and more effective government  are multiple and complex. While these briefly

recounted findings require further confirmation and perhaps qualification, the

parallels across hundreds of empirical studies in a dozen disparate disciplines

and subfields are striking. Social scientists in sever  1 al fields have

recently suggested a common 1 framework for understanding these phenomena, a

framework that rests on the concept of social capital. By analogy with notions

of physical capital and human capital  tools and training that enhance

individual productivity  "social capital" refers to features of social

organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate

coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.

For a variety of reasons, life is easier in a community blessed with a

substantial stock of social capital. In the first place, networks of civic

engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the

emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and

communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective

action to be I resolved. When economic and political negotiation is embedded in

dense networks of social interaction, incentives for opportunism are reduced.

At the same time, networks of civic engagement embody past success at

collaboration, which can serve as a cultural template for future collaboration.

Finally, dense networks of interaction probably broaden the participants' sense

of self, developing the "I" into the "we," or (in the language of

rational choice theorists) I enhancing the participants' "taste" for collective

I do not intend here to survey (much less con  ) tribute to the development of

the theory of social capital. Instead, I use the central premise of that j

rapidly growing body of work that social connections and civic engagement

pervasively influence our public life, as well as our private prospects as the

starting point for an empirical survey of trends in social capital in

contemporary America. I concentrate here entirely on the American case,

although the developments I portray may in some measure characterize many

contemporary societies.

We begin with familiar evidence on changing patterns of political

participation, not least because it is immediately relevant to issues of

democracy in the narrow sense. Consider the well known decline in turnout in

national elections over the last three decades. From a relative high point in

the early 1960s, voter turnout had by 1990 declined by nearly a quarter; tens

of millions of Americans had forsaken their parents' habitual readiness to

engage in the simplest act of citizenship. Broadly similar trends also

characterize participation in state and local elections.

It is not just the voting booth that has been increasingly deserted by

Americans. A series of identical questions posed by the Roper Organization to

national samples ten times each year over the last two decades reveals that

since 1973 the number of Americans who report that "in the past year" they have

"attended a public meeting on town or school affairs" has fallen by more than a

third (from 22 percent in 1973 to 13 percent in 1993). Similar (or even

greater) relative declines are evident in responses to questions about

attending a political rally or speech, serving on a committee of some local

organization, and working for a political party. By almost every measure,

Americans' direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and

sharply over the last generation, despite the fact that average levels of

education the best individual level predictor of political participation have

risen sharply throughout this period. Every year over the last decade or two,

millions more have withdrawn

from the affairs of their communities.
Not coincidentally, Americans have also disengaged psychologically from

politics and government over this era. The proportion of Americans who reply

that they "trust the government in Washington" only "some of the time" or

"almost never" has risen steadily from 30 percent in 1966 to 75 percent in

These trends are well known, of course, and taken by themselves would seem

amenable to a strictly political explanation. Perhaps the long litany of

political tragedies and scandals since the 1960s (assassinations, Vietnam,

Watergate, Irangate, and so on) has triggered an understandable disgust for

politics and government among Americans, and that in turn has motivated their

withdrawal. I do not doubt that this common interpretation has some merit,

but its limitations become plain when we examine trends in civic engagement of

a wider sort.

Our survey of organizational membership among Americans can usefully begin with

a glance at the aggregate results of the General Social Survey, a

scientifically conducted, national sample survey that has been repeated 14

times over the last two decades. Church related groups constitute the most

common type of organization joined by Americans; they are especially popular

with women. Other types of organizations frequently joined by women include

school service groups (mostly parent teacher associations), sports groups,

professional societies, and literary societies. Among men, sports clubs, labor

unions, professional societies, fraternal groups, veterans' groups, and service

clubs are all relatively popular.

Religious affiliation is by far the most common associational membership among

Americans. Indeed, by many measures America continues to be (even more than in

Tocqueville's time) an astonishingly "churched" society. For example, the

United States has more houses of worship per capita than any other nation on

Earth. Yet religious sentiment in America seems to be becoming somewhat less

tied to institutions and more self defined.

How have these complex crosscurrents played out over the last three or four

decades in terms of Americans' engagement with organized religion? The general

pattern is clear: The 1960s witnessed a significant drop in reported weekly

churchgoing from roughly 48 percent in the late 1950s to roughly 41 percent in

the early 1970s. Since then, it has stagnated or (according to some surveys)

declined still further. Meanwhile, data from the General Social Survey show a

modest decline in membership in all "church related groups" over the last 20

years. It would seem, then, that net participation by Americans, both in

religious services and in church related groups, has declined modestly (by

perhaps a sixth) since the 1960s.

For many years, labor unions provided one of the most common organizational

affiliations among American workers. Yet union membership has been falling for

nearly four decades, with the steepest decline occurring between 1975 and 1985.

Since the mid 1950s, when union membership peaked, the unionized portion of the

nonagricultural work force in America has dropped by more than half, falling

from 32.5 percent in 1953 to 15.8 percent in 1992. By now, virtually all of the

explosive growth in union membership that was associated with the New Deal has

been erased. The solidarity of union halls is now mostly a fading memory of

aging men.
The parent teacher association (PTA) has been an especially important form of

civic engagement in twentieth century America because parental involvement in

the educational process represents a particularly productive form of social

capital. It is, therefore, dismaying to discover that participation in

parent teacher organizations has dropped drastically over the last generation,

from more than 12 million in 1964 to barely 5 million in 1982 before recovering

to approximately 7 million now.
Next, we turn to evidence on membership in (and volunteering for) civic and

fraternal organizations. These data show some striking patterns. First,

membership in traditional women's groups has declined more or less steadily

since the mid 1960s. For example, membership in the national Federation of

Women's Clubs is down by more than half(59 percent) since 1964, while

membership in the League of Women Voters (LWV) is off 42 percent since 1969.

Similar reductions are apparent in the numbers of volunteers for mainline civic

organizations, such as the Boy Scouts (off by 26 percent since 1970) and the

Red Cross (off by 61 percent since 1970). But what about the possibility that

volunteers have simply switched their loyalties to other organizations?

Evidence on "regular" (as opposed to occasional or "drop by") volunteering is

available from the Labor Department's Current Population Surveys of 1974 and

1989. These estimates suggest that serious volunteering declined by roughly

one sixth over these 15 years, from 24 percent of adults in 1974 to 20 percent

in 1989. The multitudes of Red Cross aides and Boy Scout troop leaders now

missing in action have apparently not been offset by equal numbers of new

recruits elsewhere.
Fraternal organizations have also witnessed a substantial drop in membership

during the 1980s and 1990s. Membership is down significantly in such groups as

the Lions (off 12 percent since 1983), the Elks (off 18 percent since 1979),

the Shriners (off 27 percent since 1979), the Jaycees (off 44 percent since

1979), and the Masons (down 39 percent since 1959). In sum, after expanding

steadily throughout most of this century, many major civic organizations have

experienced a sudden, substantial, and nearly simultaneous decline in

membership over the last decade or two.

The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in

contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling

today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the

last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America

increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. (Lest

this be thought a wholly trivial example, I should note that nearly 80 million

Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than

voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as claim

to attend church regularly. Even after the 1980s' plunge in league bowling,

nearly 3 percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.) The rise of

solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling lane proprietors because those

who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as

solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls

and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social

interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that

solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most

Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social


At this point, however, we must confront a serious counterargument. Perhaps the

traditional forms of civic organization whose decay we have been tracing have

been replaced by vibrant new organizations. For example, national environmental

organizations (like the Sierra Club) and feminist groups (like the National

Organization for Women) grew rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s and now count

hundreds of thousands of dues paying members. An even more dramatic example is

the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which grew exponentially

from 400,000 card carrying members in 1960 to 33 million in 1993, becoming

(after the Catholic Church) the largest private organization in the world. The

national administrators of these organizations are among the most feared

lobbyists in Washington, in large part because of their massive mailing lists

of presumably loyal members.

These new mass membership organizations are plainly of great political

importance. From the point of view of social connectedness, however, they are

sufficiently different from classic "secondary associations" that we need to

invent a new label perhaps "tertiary associations For the vast majority of

their members, the only act of membership consists in writing a check for dues

or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter. Few ever attend any meetings of

such organizations, and most are unlikely ever (knowingly) to encounter any

other member. The bond between any two members of the Sierra Club is less like

the bond between any two members of a gardening club and more like the bond

between any two Red Sox fans (or perhaps any two devoted Honda owners): they

root for the same team and they share some of the same interests, but they are

unaware of each other's existence. Their ties, in short, are to common symbols,

common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another. The theory

of social capital argues that associational membership should, for example, increase social

trust, but this prediction is much less straightforward with regard to

membership in tertiary associations. From the point of view of social

connectedness, the Environmental Defense Fund and a bowling league are just not

in the same category.

If the growth of tertiary organizations represents one potential (but probably

not real) counterexample to my thesis, a second countertrend is represented by

the growing prominence of nonprofit organizations, especially nonprofit service

agencies. This so called third sector includes everything from Oxfam and the

Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Ford Foundation and the Mayo Clinic. In other

words, although most secondary associations are nonprofits, most nonprofit

agencies are not secondary associations. To identify trends in the size of the

nonprofit sector with trends in social connectedness would be another

fundamental conceptual mistake.
A third potential countertrend is much more relevant to an assessment of social

capital and civic engagement. Some able researchers have argued that the last

few decades have witnessed a rapid expansion in "support groups" of various

sorts. Robert Wuthnow reports that fully 40 percent of all Americans claim to

be "currently involved in [a] small group that meets regularly and provides

support or caring for those who participate in it." Many of these groups are

religiously affiliated, but many others are not. For example, nearly 5 percent

of Wuthnow's national sample claim to participate regularly in a "self: help"

group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and nearly as many say they belong to

book discussion groups and hobby clubs.

The groups described by Wuthnow's respondents unquestionably represent

an important forms of social capital, and they need to be

accounted for in any serious reckoning of trends in social connectedness. On

the other hand, they do not typically play the same role as traditional civic

associations. As Wuthnow emphasizes,
Small groups may not be fostering community as effectively as many of their

proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for

individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social

contract binding members together asserts only the weakest of obligations. Come

if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone's opinion. Never

criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied ....We can imagine that

[these small groups] really substitute for families, neighborhoods, and broader

community attachments that may demand lifelong commitments, when, in fact, they

do not.
All three of these potential countertrends  tertiary organizations, nonprofit

organizations, and support groups  need somehow to be weighed against the

erosion of conventional civic organizations. One way of doing so is to consult

the General Social Survey.

Within all educational categories, total associational membership declined

significantly between 1967 and 1993. Among the college educated, the average

number of group memberships per person fell from 2.8 to 2.0 (a 26 percent

decline); among high school graduates, the number fell from 1.8 to 1.2 (32

percent); and among those with fewer than 12 years of education, the number

fell from 1.4 to 1.1 (25 percent). In other words, at all educational (and

hence social) levels of American society, and counting all sorts of group

memberships, the average number of associational memberships has fallen by

about a fourth over the last quarter century. Without controls for educational

levels, the trend is not nearly so clear, but the central point is this: more

Americans then ever before are in social circumstances that faster

associational involvement (higher education, middle age, and so on), but

nevertheless aggregate associational membership appears to be stagnant or


Broken down by type of group, the downward trend is most marked for

church related groups, for labor unions, for fraternal and veterans'

organizations, and for school service groups. Conversely, membership in

professional associations has risen over these years, although less than might

have been predicted, given sharply rising educational and occupational levels.

Essentially the same trends are evident for both men and women in the sample.

In short, the available survey evidence confirms our earlier conclusion:

American social capital in the form of civic associations has significantly

eroded over the last generation.
I noted earlier that most readily available quantitative evidence on trends in

social connectedness involves formal settings, such as the voting booth, the

union hall, or the PTA. One glaring exception is so widely discussed as to

require little comment here: the most fundamental form of social capital is the

family, and the massive evidence of the loosening of bonds within the family

(both extended and nuclear) is well known. This trend, of course, is quite

consistent with  and may help to explain  our theme of social decapitalization.
A second aspect of informal social capital on which we happen to have

reasonably reliable time series data involves neighborliness. In each General

Social Survey since 1974 respondents have been asked, "How often do you spend a

social evening with a neighbor?" The proportion of Americans who socialize with

their neighbors more than once a year has slowly but steadily declined over the

last two decades, from 72 percent in 1974 to 61 percent in 1993. (On the other

hand, socializing with "friends who do not live in your neighborhood" appears

to be on the increase, a trend that may reflect the growth of workplace based

social connections.)
Americans are also less trusting. The proportion of Americans saying that most

people can be trusted fell by more than a third between 1960, when 58 percent

chose that alternative, and 1993, when only 37 percent did. The same trend is

apparent in all educational groups; indeed, because social trust is also

correlated with education and because educational levels have risen sharply,

the overall decrease in social trust is even more apparent if we control for

Our discussion of trends in social connectedness and civic engagement has

tacitly assumed that all the forms of social capital that we have discussed are

themselves coherently correlated across individuals. This is in fact true.

Members of associations are much more likely than nonmembers to participate in

politics, to spend time with neighbors, to express social trust, and so on.
The close correlation between social trust and associational membership is true

not only across time and across individuals, but also across countries.

Evidence from the 1991 World Values Survey demonstrates the following:
1) Across the 35 countries in this survey, social trust and civic engagement

are strongly correlated; the greater the density of associational membership in

a society, the more trusting its citizens. Trust and engagement are two facets

of the same underlying factor  social capital.

2) America still ranks relatively high by crossnational standards on both these

dimensions of social capital. Even in the 1990s, after several decades'

erosion, Americans are more trusting and more engaged than people in most other

countries of the world.

3) The trends of the past quarter century, however, have apparently moved the

United States significantly lower in the international rankings of social

capital. The recent deterioration in American social capital has been

sufficiently great that (if no other country changed its position in the

meantime) another quarter century of change at the same rate would bring the

United States, roughly speaking, to the midpoint among all these countries,

roughly equivalent to South Korea, Belgium, or Estonia today. Two generations'

decline at the same rate would leave the United States at the level of today's

Chile, Portugal, and Slovenia.
As we have seen, something has happened in America in the last two or three

decades to diminish civic engagement and social connectedness. What could that

"something" be? Here are several possible explanations, along with some initial

evidence on each.

The movement of women into the labor force. Over these same two or three decades,

many millions of American women have moved out of the home into paid

employment. This is the primary, though not the sole, reason why the weekly

working hours of the average American have increased significantly during these

years. It seems highly plausible that this social revolution should have

reduced the time and energy available for building social capital. For certain

organizations, such as the PTA, the League of Women Voters, the Federation of

Women's Clubs, and the Red Cross, this is almost certainly an important part of

the story. The sharpest decline in women's civic participation seems to have

come in the 1970s; membership in such "women's" organizations as these has been

virtually halved since the late 1960s. By contrast, most of the decline in

participation in men's organizations occurred about ten years later; the total

decline to date has been approximately 25 percent for the typical organization.

On the other hand, the survey data imply that the aggregate declines for men are

virtually as great as those for women. It is logically possible, of course,

that the male declines might represent the knock on effect of women's

liberation, as dishwashing crowded out the lodge, but time budget studies

suggest that most husbands of working wives have assumed only a minor part of

the housework. In short, something besides the women's revolution seems to lie

behind the erosion of social capital.

Mobility: The "re potting" hypothesis. Numerous studies of organizational

involvement have shown that residential stability and such related phenomena as

homeownership are clearly associated with greater civic engagement. Mobility,

like frequent re potting of plants, tends to disrupt root systems, and it takes

time for an uprooted individual to put down new roots. It seems plausible that

the automobile, suburbanization, and the movement to the Sun Belt have reduced

the social rootedness of the average American, but one fundamental difficulty

with this hypothesis is apparent: the best evidence shows that residential

stability and homeownership in America have risen modestly since 1965, and are

surely higher now than during the 1950s, when civic engagement and social

connectedness by our measures was definitely higher.
Other demographic transformations. A range of additional changes have

transformed the American family since the 1960s  fewer marriages, more

divorces, fewer children, lower real wages, and so on. Each of these changes

might account for some of the slackening of civic engagement, since married,

middle class parents are generally more socially involved than other people.

Moreover, the changes in scale that have swept over the American economy in

these years  illustrated by the replacement of the corner grocery by the

supermarket and now perhaps of the supermarket by electronic shopping at home,

or the replacement of community based enterprises by outposts of distant

multinational firms  may perhaps have undermined the material and even physical

basis for civic engagement.
The technological transformation of leisure. There is reason to believe that

deep seated technological trends are radically "privatizing" or

"individualizing" our use of leisure time and thus disrupting many

opportunities for social capital formation. The most obvious and probably the

most powerful instrument of this revolution is television. Time budget studies in the

1960s showed that the growth in time spent watching television dwarfed all other changes

in the way Americans passed their days and nights. Television has made our communities

(or, rather, what we experience as our communities) wider and shallower. In the language of

economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more

fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with

more primitive forms of entertainment. The same logic applies to the

replacement of vaudeville by the movies and now of movies by the VCR. The new

"virtual reality" helmets that we will soon don to be entertained in total

isolation are merely the latest extension of this trend. Is technology thus

driving a wedge between our individual interests and our collective interests?

It is a question that seems worth exploring more systematically.

The last refuge of a social scientific scoundrel is to call for more research.

Nevertheless, I cannot forbear from suggesting some further lines of inquiry.

*We must sort out the dimensions of social capital, which clearly is not a

unidimensional concept, despite language (even in this essay) that implies the

contrary. What types of organizations and networks most effectively embody  or

generate  social capital, in the sense of mutual reciprocity, the resolution of

dilemmas of collective action, and the broadening of social identities? In this

essay I have emphasized the density of associational life. In earlier work I

stressed the structure of networks, arguing that "horizontal" ties represented

more productive social capital than vertical ties.

*Another set of important issues involves macrosociological crosscurrents that

might intersect with the trends described here. What will be the impact, for

example, of electronic networks on social capital? My hunch is that meeting in

an electronic forum is not the equivalent of meeting in a bowling alley  or

even in a saloon  but hard empirical research is needed. What about the

development of social capital in the workplace? Is it growing in counterpoint

to the decline of civic engagement, reflecting some social analogue of the

first law of thermodynamics social capital is neither created nor destroyed,

merely redistributed? Or do the trends described in this essay represent a

deadweight loss?

*A rounded assessment of changes in American social capital over the last

quarter century needs to count the costs as well as the benefits of community

engagement. We must not romanticize small town, middle class civic life in the

America of the 1950s. In addition to the deleterious trends emphasized in this

essay, recent decades have witnessed a substantial decline in intolerance and

probably also in overt discrimination, and those beneficent trends may be

related in complex ways to the erosion of traditional social capital. Moreover,

a balanced accounting of the social capital books would need to reconcile the

insights of this approach with the undoubted insights offered by Mancur Olson

and others who stress that closely knit social, economic, and political

organizations are prone to inefficient cartelization and to what political

economists term "rent seeking" and ordinary men and women call corruption.

*Finally, and perhaps most urgently, we need to explore creatively how public

policy impinges on (or might impinge on) social capital formation. In some

well known instances, public policy has destroyed highly effective social

networks and norms. American slum clearance policy of the 1950s and 1960s, for

example, renovated physical capital, but at a very high cost to existing social

capital. The consolidation of country post offices and small school districts

has promised administrative and financial efficiencies, but full-cost accounting

for the effects of these policies on social capital might produce a more

negative verdict. On the other hand, such past initiatives as the county

agricultural agent system, community colleges, and tax deductions for

charitable contributions illustrate that government can encourage

social capital formation. Even a recent proposal in San Luis Obispo,

California, to require that all new houses have front porches illustrates the

power of government to influence where and

how networks are formed.
The concept of "civil society" has played a central role in the recent global

debate about the preconditions for democracy and democratization. In the newer

democracies this phrase has properly focused attention on the need to foster a

vibrant civic life in soils traditionally inhospitable to self government. In

the established democracies, ironically, growing numbers of citizens are

questioning the effectiveness of their public institutions at the very moment

when liberal democracy has swept the battlefield, both ideologically and

geopolitically. In America, at least, there is reason to suspect that this

democratic disarray may be linked to a broad and continuing erosion of civic

engagement that began a quarter century ago. High on our scholarly agenda

should be the question of whether a comparable erosion of social capital may be

under way in other advanced democracies, perhaps in different institutional and

behavioral guises. High on America's agenda should be the question of how to

reverse these a

diverse trends in social connectedness, thus restoring civic engagement and

civic trust.

Mr. Putnam is Dillion Professor of International Affairs at Harvard University.
From "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" by Robert D. Putnam,

Journal of Democracy, January 1995, pages 65 78:

CR: Copyright Heldref Publications 1995


Nation . Apr 15, 1996; v262n15, page 9.

By Pollitt Katha

AB: Pollitt comments on Robert Putnam, whose article "Bowling Alone: America's

Declining Social Capital" has gotten him a great deal of attention. Putnam

argues that declining memberships in civic institutions have led to a weakened

civil society.

The only things I like about bowling are the shoes and the beer. Maybe that's

why I can't get excited about Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist

whose slender article "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" in

the January 1995 Journal of Democracy, has spawned more commentary than Hamlet,

including a profile in People, and brought him tete a tete with President

Clinton, whose State of the Union address he helped inspire. Putnam argues that

declining membership in such venerable civic institutions as bowling leagues,

the P.T.A., the League of Women Voters, the Boy Scouts, the Elks and the

Shriners is an index of a weakened "civil society," the zone of social

engagement between the family and the state. Why should you care about the

leagues? Because, says Putnam, they bowl for thee: A weak civil society means

less "trust" in each other, and that means a less vigorous democracy, as

evidenced in declining electoral turnouts.

It's the sort of thesis academics and pundits adore, a big woolly argument

that's been pre reduced to a soundbite of genius. Bowling alone  it's wistful,

comical, nostalgic, sad, a tiny haiku of post industrial loneliness.

Right wingers like Francis Fukuyama and George Will like it because it can be

twisted to support their absurd contention that philanthropy has been strangled

by big government. Clintonians and communitarians like it because it moralizes

a middle class, apolitical civic mindedness that recognizes no hard class or

race inequalities shaping individual choice: We are all equally able to

volunteer for the Red Cross, as we are all equally able to vote. Putnam's prime

culprit in the decline of civic America  television  is similarly beyond the

reach of structural change. It's as though America were all one big leafy

suburb, in which the gladhanders and do gooders had been bewitched by the evil

blue light of Seinfeld and Friends.
At least Putnam doesn't blame working mothers. Still, the discussion around

"Bowling Alone" is peculiar in a number of ways. How many of those who praise

its thesis fit either half of his theory, I wonder: Is Bill Bradley a Shriner?

Does The Washington Post's David Broder bake cookies for the P.T.A.? If not, is

the boob tube to blame? As Theda Skocpol noted in her politely devastating

rejoinder to Putnam's follow up article, "The Strange Disappearance of Civic

America," in The American Prospect (Winter 1996), Putnam seems to place both

the burden of civic engagement and responsibility for its collapse on the

non elite classes. Tenured professors may be too busy to sing in a choir

(Putnam's former avocation): The rest of us are just couch potatoes.

Although Putnam is careful to disclaim nostalgia for the fifties, his picture

of healthy civic life is remarkably, well, square. I've been a woman all my

life, but I've never heard of the Federation of Women's Clubs. And what

politically minded female, in 1996, would join the bland and matronly League of

Women Voters, when she could volunteer with Planned Parenthood or NOW or

Concerned Women of America, and shape the debate instead of merely keeping it

polite? It's probably going too far to argue that the decline of the Boy Scouts

is directly related to its barring of gay and nonbelieving lads. But should it

really surprise us that such a stodgy organization has a hard time finding


Or take those bowling leagues. Putnam treats these as if they arose merely from

the appetite of individuals for fellowship and tenpins. But in fact they came

out of specific forms of working class and lower middle class life: stable

blue collar or office employment (businesses and unions often started and

sponsored teams) that fostered group solidarity, a marital ethos that permitted

husbands plenty of boys' nights out, a lack of cultural and entertainment

alternatives. It would be amazing if league bowling survived the passing of the

way of life that brought it into being, nor am I so sure we need mourn it.

People still bowl, after all. In fact they bowl more than ever, although they

consume less beer and pizza, which is why league decline bothers the owners of

bowling alleys. And despite Putnam's title, they don't bowl alone. They bowl

with friends, on dates, with their kids, with other families. The bowling story

could be told as one of happy progress: from a drink sodden night of spouse


with the same old faces from work to temperate and spontaneous fun with one's

intimate fends and relations.

No, the whole theory is seriously out of touch with the complexities of

contemporary life. If church membership is down (good news in my book), it's

hardly because people are staying home to watch TV. More likely, organized

religion doesn't speak to their spiritual needs the way (for example) self help

programs do. Putnam dismisses the twelve step movement much too quickly. At the

very least, its popularity calls the TV time drain theory into question. I know

people who've gone to A.A. every day, for years. As for building social

capital, my own brief experience with Alanon more than fifteen years ago is

still my touchstone of ordinary human decency and kindness. What's that if not

"trust"? My membership in the P.T.A., by contrast, is motivated mostly by

mistrust: As another parent put it, we join the P.T.A. to keep our kids from

being shafted by the school system.

Putnam's theory may not explain much about the way we live now, but its warm

reception speaks volumes. The bigfoot journalists and academic superstars,

opinion manufacturers and wise men of both parties are worried, and it isn't

about bowling or Boy Scouts. It's about that loss of "trust," a continuum that

begins with one's neighbor and ends with the two parties, government,

authority. It makes sense for the political and opinion elites to feel this

trust  for them, the system works. It's made them rich and famous. But how much

faith can a rational and disinterested person have in the set up that's

produced our current crop of leaders?
Love your neighbor if you can, but forget civic trust. What we need is more

civic skepticism. Especially about people who want you to do their bowling for

Copyright Nation Co., Inc. 1996

Chronicle of Higher Education. Mar 1, 1996; v42n25, pages A10 A12.

By Heller Scott

FOR a guy who doesn't bowl much, Robert D. Putnam is amassing quite a

collection of trophies.
Pins, balls, shirts, towels, even salt and pepper shakers  he has cleared a

shelf in the study of his New Hampshire vacation home to display the bowling

souvenirs that now routinely come his way.
Barely a year ago, Mr. Putnam, a professor of government and international

affairs at Harvard University, wrote an essay on how Americans are less and

less likely to join groups of any kind, a trend that he argued may be connected

to our widespread distrust of political and other institutions.

The inspired title  "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital"  and

Mr. Putnam's lucid writing helped to vault him to the forefront of experts

worried about the loss of community in American life. In the essay, published

in the Journal of Democracy, he used the example of bowling to underscore how

Americans who once routinely participated in group activities have turned

inward and suspicious. More Americans than ever bowl  in fact, more bowl than

vote, he discovered. Yet membership in bowling leagues is down 40 per cent.
Scores of journalists have picked up on the implications. Mr. Putnam's

influence can be seen in recent series in the Chicago Tribune ("Nation of

Strangers") and The Washington Post ("The Politics of Mistrust"). The "Bowling

Alone" essay, David Broder wrote in the Post in January, "was perhaps the most

influential published during the past 12 months."
President Clinton has taken notice, twice inviting the professor to

brainstorming sessions  most recently before the State of the Union address  on

how to deal with the breakdown of American communities.
"Bob Putnam has been able to put some hard numbers on intuitions that people

have had for a log time," says William A. Galston, a former White House adviser

who brought Mr. Putnam to the President's attention. Mr. Galston now teaches

public affairs at the University of Maryland.

As Mr. Putnam takes his message to Rotary Clubs and other civic groups,

inevitably he is trundled to the local bowling alley or is handed bowling

mementos. At the Holiday Lanes in New London, Conn., in February, he found a

new wrinkle on the bowling alone phenomenon: A 25 inch television set sat above

each lane. "When you're done bowling, you don't have to talk to the other

bowlers," he says incredulously. "You can watch 'Friends' or 'Seinfeld' or

Since publishing the piece, Mr. Putnam has expanded the study of what he calls

"civic disengagement." In the winter issue of The American Prospect, he began

to sort through possible causes. Television, he speculated, is the likeliest

suspect, a "mysterious, anticivic X ray" that leaves citizens less likely to

connect with the community.
As he traverses territory guarded by more cautious empirical social scientists,

Mr. Putnam is running into challenges to his methodology. Media researchers at

Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy were

skeptical after his recent talk there.

"You throw up your hands at this sort of analysis," says Pippa Norris, the

center's associate director. "It's a broad normative plea, argued with great

passion  more of a polemic than a piece of systematic social science research."
The next issue of The American Prospect will feature responses to Mr. Putnam's

recent article, including a critique by a Harvard colleague, Theda Skocpol. She

says Mr. Putnam plays into conservatives' hands by romanticizing local

volunteer organizations as if they were an alternative to government. The

history of such groups shows that they were dependent on government for their

growth, she argues. "If you dismantle higher levels of government, it actually

will weaken social connectedness."
Mr. Putnam was hardly invisible before hitting what Ms. Skocpol calls a "tidal

wave of fame." Besides heading Harvard's government department, he served for

two years as dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and he now

directs the university's Center for International Affairs. In 1993 he

published Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton

University Press), which won several awards from political science associations

as well as a front page rave in The New York Times Book Review. The book argues

that political life in northern Italy is healthier than in the south because of

the proliferation of civic groups, like choral societies.
A lone copy of the book sits lopsided on a shelf outside his Harvard office

here. His new work is where the action is. Copies of his articles and those

about him  including a three page spread in People magazine  sit in

individually marked trays, ready to be handed out or mailed.

A genial man, Mr. Putnam has called a moratorium on interviews. He agreed to

this one because he will deliver a major speech to the American Association for

Higher Education this month on what academe can do about the problems he has


In the interview and at the Harvard talk, Mr. Putnam has a pitchman's

delivery fast, witty, peppered with statistics. Yet his beard and ruddy

complexion give him the air of an Amish elder, a likeness that comes through

when he is especially earnest.

"My take on the hubbub is it's not academically the best thing I've ever

written," he says of the "Bowling Alone" article. "But there's been a thousand

times more attention to it."
"Invariably, people react to this story in an extremely personal way. People

know that in their own lives, their parents played bridge regularly, and they

don't. Or they know that once a month their mom went to a P.T.A. meeting and

they don't. Or they know that their dad went to the Veterans of Foreign Wars

and they don't.
"Everybody of a younger generation knows they're less engaged than their

parents were. They react strongly to discovering that it's not them  you didn't

do something wrong  but it's a general phenomenon."
He has the statistics to make his case. P.T.A. membership has fallen to 7

million from 12 million since 1964. Red Cross membership is down 61 per cent

since 1970. Churchgoing is down as well. What's growing are organizations like

the American Association of Retired Persons  groups to which members pay dues

but in which they rarely congregate.
Numbers give Mr. Putnam's message its weight, says Jean Bethke Elshtain, a

professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago. "Here we

have this respected, sober, social scientist who has all these graphs and this

trend data. No one has challenged his data, as far as I know. This is the fact

of the matter now."
Mr. Putnam, she adds, hadn't been wrapped up in earlier debates about family

and community values. "He had the advantage of being the new kid on the block.

Plus, he had quite a powerful metaphor."
Bowling: By no means is it Mr. Putnam's passion. He bowled as a youngster in

Ohio and once belonged to a bowling league. He also used to sing in a community

choir, and he used to coach his son's Little League team. "I fear I embody the

problem," he says.

A casual conversation with a Harvard donor led to the bowling brainchild. When

Mr. Putnam described his research, the donor  who owned a nationwide chain of

bowling alleys  mentioned that the go it alone pattern was true in his

business, too. When citizens bowl alone, Mr. Putnam notes, they don't get the

chance to talk politics, complain about their jobs, or worry about their

garbage collection.

"Bowling rubbed people's face in the fact that in many apparently unpolitical,

uncivic contexts, we are also not connecting to one another," he says.

Americans born in the first third of this century were much more likely to

belong to civic groups and to exhibit "social trust," Mr. Putnam says. The

"long civic generation" that came of age before World War II is being

supplanted by generations that are less likely to join, to vote, or to trust.

"The roots go back to the end of World War II, but the symptoms don't show up

till the '70s and '80s."

Written in the form of a mystery story, The American Prospect article goes over

the likely causes of civic disengagement, finding little statistical evidence

to support such culprits as the two career family and increased mobility.
Instead, Mr. Putnam finds a clear correlation between the rise of television

and a deteriorating sense of community. He acknowledges that the research is

sketchy on whether television leads to passivity and pessimism, or whether

citizens who would remain uninvolved anyway are the ones who turn to television

for comfort. But the links are too strong to ignore, he argues.
What's more, along with the effects on the political system, he points to

medical evidence showing that social isolation is a health threat. "Your

chances of dying are cut by half in the next year by joining a group," he says.
Besides writing a book for Simon & Schuster, Mr. Putnam has also begun projects

that are geared

to providing solutions, not more diagnoses. With the support of a German

foundation, he will coordinate a study of equivalent trends in other countries.

And beginning in the fall, Harvard will play host to workshops on civic

engagement, in which academics and community leaders will share success

For his part, he takes heart in the American experience of 100 years ago, after

the Industrial Revolution, when the nation invented forms of "social capital"

that remained strong well into the 20th century.
The Red Cross, the Urban League, the Boy Scouts, the Sierra Club, the League of

Women Voters  all were founded within a 20 year period, he says. "The challenge

the country faces today is to do the equivalent of reinventing the Boy Scouts

or the Rotary Club."

The Internet won't do the trick, he predicts. Nor will nostalgia for a

vanishing America. "You could have said in 1896  indeed, a few people did

say  'Whoops, we made a terrible mistake, everybody back to the farms, please.

It was just much nicer out there.' We could say today, 'Whoops, we made a

terrible mistake, everybody back to the 50s, please. Women go home. Let's

abolish TV. Let's have Ozzie and Harriet kind of families.' Some people have

interpreted what I have said as a nostalgic call to return to the '50s. That's

not what I say."

"It's not just social capital, period," he adds. "It's social capital that cuts

across the existing cleavages in American society. That is, it's not enough

that we all start bowling again. There have to be bowling leagues in which

people of different races are connecting with one another."

He ends his Harvard talk by exhorting his audience, coming across like a

politician or a preacher  or, perhaps, like the captain of a bowling team.

"This is the single most important problem facing America," he says. "If we can

solve this one, if we can get more people engaged in community life in contexts

that respect American pluralism, many of our other problems  to begin with, our

politics  will be different."

CR: Copyright Chronicle of Higher Education Inc 1996

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