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Autumn 2004 | Volume 27, Number 4 | Books & Film

Are We Still Bowling Alone? Comments on Putnam’s Book About the Decline of Community


A MAN WALKS INTO a bowling alley and prepays for a game on lane seven. He laces up his leather-soled, wing-tip bowling shoes, and throws down a strike. But no one is there to notice — he’s bowling alone.

That’s the title of Harvard Professor Robert Putnam’s critically acclaimed book about “the collapse and revival of American community.” Since its publication in 2000, Putnam’s analysis of data on American behavior has been the subject of countless articles and conferences, including seminars held by President Bill Clinton at Camp David and Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street. Even the spike of national togetherness after September 11, 2001, hasn’t altered the interest in — or the relevance of — Putnam’s observations about American life at the turn of the 21st century.

The title Bowling Alone specifically references the dramatic decline in bowling league participation in America since the 1960s. While the number of bowlers in the general population has increased, they are more likely to be bowling alone or in small, more isolated groups. What is the significance of this? Putnam demonstrates that the decline of bowling leagues is illustrative of a more general decline in community — from participation in politics and religion to civic and social clubs, reading groups, PTAs, unions, and the like.

Central to Putnam’s concerns in Bowling Alone is the corresponding decline in “social capital,” things such as reciprocity, trust, mutual obligations, mutual support, cooperation, loyalty, identity, etc. All of these evolve out of the bonds we form with one another in the context of the various groups, clubs, teams, and organizations in which we collectively participate. Yet our level of participation in virtually all forms of public social life continues to decline significantly. It’s an important concern for sociologists and citizens alike.

What is responsible for this decline in community? Putnam plays detective, sifting through data and eliminating one “suspect” at a time. These suspects include the pressures of time and money; problems associated with mobility and urban sprawl; technology; mass media (everyone’s favorite scapegoat); and generational infl uences.

Here’s the problem: Each of these shows some effect, but none can be charged with the crime. For example, while some evidence exists that economic anxiety negatively impacts social engagement, there is no reason to suggest that it is related to the long-term decline. After all, the dive in social engagement began prior to the economic troubles of the 1970s and continued through the boom of the ’80s and ’90s.

Putnam finds the same problem with mobility and sprawl. No one doubts that mobility affects civic engagement, because people who are constantly uprooting and relocating are less likely to put down roots in a community or invest themselves in civic affairs. But we are less mobile now than we were 50 years ago, and home ownership is at an all-time high (homeowners tend to be more rooted than renters). So, mobility itself cannot be the prime suspect.

Similar problems arise when Putnam examines urban sprawl — a phenomenon that forces many of us to commute each day. While he found that every 10 minutes of commuting time results in approximately a 10 percent decrease in community involvement, this cannot be the whole story in explaining why people are less likely to participate in community life. Why? Because the downward trends in social disengagement are also seen in small towns and rural areas where commuting isn’t an issue.

When it comes to technology and mass media, Putnam demonstrates that people who watch television as their primary means of entertainment are less likely to spend time with their spouses, less likely to spend time having dinner with family, and more likely to make obscene gestures at other drivers. Still, the question remains: Is TV a cause or an effect of social disengagement?

For Putnam, the most influential factor in explaining the decline of community is the generational effect. His data shows that younger generations, particularly those born after 1940, are less likely to be civically engaged than their ancestors. “The more recent the cohort, the more dramatic its disengagement from community life,” he says. Unfortunately, this explains very little. This circular logic suggests that social disengagement has occurred because people are less socially engaged than they once were.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam’s data is persuasive, but not conclusive. He fails to identify the culprit, perhaps because the decline of community has really been a collapse, not a long-term, linear process related to gradual modernization.

Other sociologists have theorized about the cause of social disengagement as well. Emile Durkheim, for instance, suggests that the offender is the division of labor resulting from uneven spurts of modernization. As occupations have increasingly specialized (particularly because of the proliferation of technology since the 1950s), we are separated to the point where we no longer have sufficient opportunities to share with one another how our contributions fit in with the whole. As a result, we more often find it difficult to talk to someone with a different career, outlook, or lifestyle than our own. This type of social division is an extremely plausible explanation for the collapse of community since the 1960s.

Whatever the reason for the decline in American community life, Putnam and others have done us a service in documenting the trends. Now it is up to sociologists and citizens to continue to evaluate the causes and, most importantly, to recommend solutions. This is particularly true for a Christian academic community such as Seattle Pacific University as we dedicate ourselves to “engaging the culture and changing the world.” In his new book, Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Putnam describes civic renewal projects in various cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Perhaps SPU, too, can be a catalyst in rediscovering the meaning of community in American life.



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