Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

After having finished Hope against Hope which spoke of the condition of Russia in 1930's, I decided to swing in the opposite direction with the next book. In this case, Bowling Alone maps the sociological progression of the American community after World War II by examining the external relationships that Americans have with one and another. In 1930's Russia, no clubs, teams, or organizations could exist except one - the State. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the USA, where people are given the full freedom to take part in any community-based organization that exists. And, if one does not exist, we are entitled to create our own. This freedom of social involvement is one of the most crucial aspects of a vibrant democracy. Unfortunately, it has been in consistent decline since the late 1960's. Putnam attempts to seek out why this is the case and what can be done about.

The first part of the book introduces an important theme running through America. There are more clubs and organizations now than there ever were in the preceding decades. How then can one say that club memberships are down? What Putnam shows is how the dynamics of membership in these clubs are different. Today, there are all types of clubs imaginable. Organizations like Greenpeace, the NRA, or the Sierra Club have millions of members. However, the vast majority of these members will never actually come together to discuss a new approach to recycling or the caliber of their assault rifle. Instead they will rely on these organizations to act as lobbies mainly for political purposes. It is the other type of clubs that Putnam says are at risk: local Kiwanis, Boy Scouts, and Knights of Columbus.

Why have these organizations seen their memberships decline? Putnam plows through piles of data in search for the answer. However, like much in life, there is never just one justification. Instead, he identifies a few key contributors, which come as no surprise. Longer commutes, television viewing, duel income households and a generations shift, e.g. Americans in the 1940s were united by World War II. All of this leads to a reduction in social capital, which along side human and physical capital are crucial components of a successful society.

People that interact with others often are happier, more civic and less likely to commit crimes than those who are isolated. The communities in which social interconnectedness is strong, is a better, safer place to live than a less connected society. And, what I found to be most interesting is that encouraging certain aspects of social capital will lead to positive effects in what, at first glance, would seem not related.

For example, North Carolina scores 41st in the nation on SAT scores in High school while Connecticut scores 8th. According to Putnam, "by controlling for all the other ways in which the two states differ (wealth and poverty, race, adult education, and so on), for North Carolina to see education outcomes similar to Connecticut's, according to our statistical analysis, residents in the Tar Heel state could do any of the following: increase their turnout in presidential elections by 50%; double their frequency of club meeting attendance, triple the number of non-profits per thousand residents." As he goes on to explain, these factors above have a greater effect on test scores than many traditional, and often costly, education policies such as reducing class room size. Social capital is more difficult to measure but its presence in our lives cannot be ignored when attempting to tackle many of the problems facing our schools, inner cities, or entire states.

The question that I kept waiting to be answered is - so what do we do now? It never really was. I have a hard time believing the findings of this book came as a huge surprise back in 2000 when it was written. Has the situation improved since then? Have the I-pod or Facebook done more to worsen the situation? Has September 11th brought us together like World War II did in to previous generations?

On an even more philisophocial level, are these devices and trends simply a reflection of our society and the direction in which we want to go? Is it wrong if we find more satisfaction in isolating ourselves from others than in meeting with others? I, personally, believe it is. However, more importantly, my human instincts often act as my guide pushing me towards interaction with others. For me it is the best guide. However, I am not burdened by many of the damaging factors Putnam atributes to the reduction of our social interaction, namely a grueling commute or excessive TV watching. Eliminating these two factors would certainly open a new world up to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. It seems like a good start could be to put down the remote. Let's start there.


Fabio Del Sordo April 1, 2009 at 9:47 PM  

Here in Stockholm everything is ok, I keep eating fruit, vegetables and closing gas at every moment: consider that every night I put an alarm every hours to control the gas and eat some banana or apple. This summer I'll be up to snuff and well-trained in agreement with uncleMichael standards!
Hope you're enjoing Frankfurt, hug Ivana (but not too strong, could be dangerous anyway) and keep your hands clean!

Jade June 11, 2009 at 10:54 PM  

This is my area of research and Putnam is a major name in this line of inquiry. If you're interested in thinking about this further, you might like to try "The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation Is Reshaping American Politics" by Russell Dalton (2008). It uses data on American citizens obviously, but I wouldn't be surprised if the findings are true (or even more so) in other western democracies.
"Republic.Com" by Cass Sunstein (who, by the way, is a good friend of Barack Obama's from law school) is also great.

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