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
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.
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?
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.
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
— BY DAVID CADDELL AND DAVID
ASSOCIATE PROFESSORS OF SOCIOLOGY
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