“Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital"
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
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).
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
GOOD NEIGHBORLINESS AND SOCIAL TRUST
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
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.
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.
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.
WHY IS U.S. SOCIAL CAPITAL ERODING?
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.
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.
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.
Nevertheless, I cannot forbear from suggesting some further lines of inquiry.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
'TIDAL WAVE OF FAME'
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.
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
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.
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.
'THE FACT OF THE MATTER'
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.
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
uncivic contexts, we are also not connecting to one another," he says.
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."
the likely causes of civic disengagement, finding little statistical evidence
to support such culprits as the two career family and increased mobility.
A HEALTH THREAT
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."
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."
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."
politician or a preacher or, perhaps, like the captain of a bowling team.
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."