Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community

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Few people outside certain scholarly circles had heard the name Robert D. Putnam before 1995. But then this self-described "obscure academic" hit a nerve with a journal article called "Bowling Alone." Suddenly he found himself invited to Camp David, his picture in People magazine, and his thesis at the center of a raging debate. In a nutshell, he argued that civil society was breaking down as Americans became more disconnected from their families, neighbors, communities, and the republic itself. The organizations that gave life to democracy were fraying. Bowling became his driving metaphor. Years ago, he wrote, thousands of people belonged to bowling leagues. Today, however, they're more likely to bowl alone:

Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values--these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.
The conclusions reached in the book Bowling Alone rest on a mountain of data gathered by Putnam and a team of researchers since his original essay appeared. Its breadth of information is astounding--yes, he really has statistics showing people are less likely to take Sunday picnics nowadays. Dozens of charts and graphs track everything from trends in PTA participation to the number of times Americans say they give "the finger" to other drivers each year. If nothing else, Bowling Alone is a fascinating collection of factoids. Yet it does seem to provide an explanation for why "we tell pollsters that we wish we lived in a more civil, more trustworthy, more collectively caring community." What's more, writes Putnam, "Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs." Putnam takes a stab at suggesting how things might change, but the book's real strength is in its diagnosis rather than its proposed solutions. Bowling Alone won't make Putnam any less controversial, but it may come to be known as a path-breaking work of scholarship, one whose influence has a long reach into the 21st century. --John J. Miller

Once we bowled in leagues, usually after work -- but no longer. This seemingly small phenomenon symbolizes a significant social change that Robert Putnam has identified in this brilliant volume, Bowling Alone, which The Economist hailed as "a prodigious achievement."

Drawing on vast new data that reveal Americans' changing behavior, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and how social structures -- whether they be PTA, church, or political parties -- have disintegrated. Until the publication of this groundbreaking work, no one had so deftly diagnosed the harm that these broken bonds have wreaked on our physical and civic health, nor had anyone exalted their fundamental power in creating a society that is happy, healthy, and safe.

Like defining works from the past, such as The Lonely Crowd and The Affluent Society, and like the works of C. Wright Mills and Betty Friedan, Putnam's Bowling Alone has identified a central crisis at the heart of our society and suggests what we can do.

Customer Reviews:

  • Good Observations, Bad Conclusions
    Putnam's research on the decline of social interaction is extensive, and the book is interesting to read. In Bowling Alone's first nine chapters are graphs showing the chrononical trends for every activity from card-playing to church-going. Putnam shows that Baby Boomers and Generation Xers are significantly less involved in civic activities than their parents and grandparents.

    However, while Bowling Alone does a good job illustrating the loss of community involvement, the last fifteen chapters of the book, which discuss the causes of civic disengagement, and how it can be reversed, are seriously wrong. Just to start, Putnam overlooks many of the events of the last forty years. He pejoratively notes that Americans have become more individualist and distrustful of institutions, but he gives little notice to the Vietnam War, Watergate, the failed War on Poverty, and the inummerable political, corporate, and institutional scandals, which have led to this culture of skepticism.

    Furthermore, the book ignores the role of centralized government and litigiousness in weakening communities. People are less likely to vote or get involved in political affairs because top-down bureaucratic mandates and endless lawsuits have undermined local democracy. Putnam laments the drop in the number of Americans who vote, attend town meetings, or write to their Congressman, but does not realize that much of this apathy is comes from the fact that many Americans perhaps rightly believe that these activities are a waste of time. Why should a person give up several hours of their time to go to a town meeting when any decision of significance made at the meeting may be overturned by a federal judge or blocked by a Washington bureaucrat?

    The whole book is permeated with an irritating longing for Babbitt-like organizationalism. Many American do informally interact with their families, friends, and coworkers, but have absolutely no interest joining a fraternal organization, with its secret handshakes and exclusive membership. Likewise, many Americans do give their time time and money to causes (e.g. environmentalism) that they support, but are unwilling to make donations to large, poorly-run charities who have nebullous goals (e.g., United Way, Red Cross). Unfortunately, Putnam seems to overlook the decentralizing social trends of the last several decades.

    The last two chapters of the book are the absolute worst. He expresses some concern that communitarians need to avoid the 'big-brotherism' of the early twentieth century Progressive movement, but then offers some of his own proposals (e.g., more urban planning, campaign finance reform) which themselves seem heavy-handed.

    In spite of these criticism, I do recommend the book. Public apathy is a serious problem, and though I disagree with some of Putnam's conclusions, the book is informative and well-written....more info

  • Ourselves Alone
    Robert Putnam's 'Bowling Alone' has emerged as a seminal work on social disengagement. In this groundbreaking study on the strength of American community Putnam investigates the decline of political activity as a symptom of a broader social retrenchment. Grassroots Political participation, once the lifeblood of any polity, has been bettered by a financial transfusion. Putnam identifies an unprecedented level of professionalism and wealth among political parties that parallels the participatory decline. One conclusion to draw is that voters have become consumers in a new commercialised polity instead of partners in the democratic process. Detoqueville wrote of a democracy where political interaction extended to the lowest levels by uniting all in a unique symbiosis. It is worth asking how well this utopia fits with the mobility, insecurity, and materialism of 21st Century? Detoqueville emphasised the importance of root and branch democracy extending from the people as the founding fathers intended. The removal of politics from this umbilical cord has profound implications. Political socialisation no longer occurs in a diffuse manner. Recent manifestations of protest at proposals for war in Iraq are not unrelated to suspicions of a plutocratic, closed shop polity. However such outbursts of protest are hardly appropriate to redress the chasm in political engagement. Protest is blunt instrument with uncertain outcomes and a fleeting impact. Loose coalitions of protesters united by their frustrations are encumbered with a political illiteracy. Similarly, an increase in political contributions underwrites the commercial veneer of the modern polity. Democratic deliberation is revealed as a mix between professional detachment and amateurish disillusion....more info
  • Anyone home?
    Mr. Putnam did a terrific job defining and researching each aspect of why people have become disconnected form their neighborhoods. Everyone wants the front porch nostalgia and socialization without actually having to be involved or connect with anyone. This book shows the whys and whens and the how to get it back. Fabulous reading, though there are many graphs and charts in the beginning it is well worth the time. If you have an interest in history or community this book will appeal to you. Each cause of disengagment is thoroughly cover and weighed as to its guilt. The "verdict" is then explained, and a new suspect is brought up. This would be a great book for a serious book club or community board to read....more info
  • Fascinating!
    I was fascinated by the depth of the statistics and the breadth of the analyses in this book. Although statistics can be dry, and it took me a while to plow through the entire book, it was terribly interesting none the less.

    It's worth reading, although, in a nutshell, the premise is that Americans used to be joiners and much more social animals. Now, they are either not joiners, or joining means something different, like paying dues to a national organization with no meetings, instead of paying dues to a local organization and meeting new friends and neighbors. Many national organizations that meet on local levels have suffered to the point of extinction. Even bridge clubs and bowling leagues (hence the title) have fallen out of favor....more info

  • Absorbing
    Far more interesting than I expected a book on sociology could be -- even after having read the glowing reviews.

    Putnam explores how a variety of factors -- television, urban sprawl, declining organizational membership, etc. -- have shaped American society. The book offers a lot to think about, a good deal of which is both personal and immediate.

    At the end of the book, I find myself contemplating three topics. First, the implications of the decline in social capital, in particular whether it is reversible; while I can see the theoretical possiblity of increasing social capital, I can't at this point see any likely catalysts on the horizon. Second, the implications of my own lifestyle choices, specifically how to most time-effectively improve my contributions to social capital. And finally, the generational differences in attitudes toward the purpose and value of social engagement -- which apparently are much more profound than I would have expected.

    While the book makes few suggestions for how to remedy the situation, it does offer this: a number of really interesting observations and correlations to use as conversation starters....more info

  • Limited view of history and sociology
    Mr. Putnam makes the same mistake of all social commentators with a tunnel vision view of things.He writes as though societies should't change because change is inherently bad.He makes it sound as though the change of social paradigm is a new phenomenon in human civilization.He laments the fading away of the old lodges and elk clubs and the like,but fails to register the fact that these staples of fifty years ago were also new at one time and replaced older social orders.If we are a more closed off and separated society it is because we have chosen to be.If poeple still wanted bridge clubs then we'd have them,but people don't.Putnam does a good job of cataloging the shift in our society,but falls back into the sentimentality of longing for the good ole days,which by the way never exist except in people's minds.Such an incredible amount of change and speed of change has marked the last 20-30 years;it's only natural that new social paradigms are emerging as older ones fade out.A much better book could've been written on why people fear change and why people cannot accept the inevitable fact of change....more info
  • Other Possible Reasons Social Capital Has Decayed
    Dr. Putman's social capital destroying "suspects" (featuring TV) are solid. Here are some other candidates for future consideration: 1. Interest in genealogy/history (a.k.a. backward-temporal communities). 2. Rampant progenyism as acted out in hyper-child centricity/ kidolatry--may be associated with the fall of faith. 3. Layering on of additional very weak but still cumulatively important (and time requiring) domains of community, e.g. financial markets since we are now mostly security (stocks and/or bonds) holders and just the privatization of retirement planning in general. Maybe even some "Main-drain" from NAFTA, NATO and the general expansion of a global consciousness. 4. The increase in "homework" required to keep up to date with best pratices in a job. 5. The democratization of reading via another "screen": the affordable, pocket paperback book....more info
  • Fascinating footnotes save this thesis
    At first glance, Putnam's polemic appears to reach back to the good old days, to the Time That Never Was. After I read it, I learned I was right.

    I don't dispute the decay of America. After all, Ozzie and Harriet have been displaced by the Sopranos as America's favorite TV family.

    I disagree with the writer's glorification of fraternal clubs. In 1960, a fraternal group roped me into their dark membership lodge. These were old WASP guys (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) who drank beer, smoked cigarettes, and told racist jokes. On weekends, they took their guns to the mountains to kill animals. Then they justified all this with token once-a-year charity work. Not my kind of life style.

    I was surprised to see bowling elevated to an admirable activity. I did it long enough to learn that I didn't like being indoors on a sunny afternoon, choking on second-hand smoke, listening to the bartenders clang glasses as I adjusted my rent-a-shoes.

    This book misses important influences. Woodstock. Communes. Raves. Rock concerts that use the largest structures on Earth. Globalization. Counter culture. Cell phones. Beepers. MTV. Cyberspace. I enjoyed the cyber bashing with terms like cyberapartheid, cyberbalkanization and cyberghetto. The writer needs to spend less time with theories and statistics and go experience a chat room.

    This book also misses the global social unity of the youth movement through music. The most lyrics quoted belong to Bing Crosby while the Beatles are barely mentioned.

    Despite my criticisms, I liked this thought provoking theory: social capital - aka - friendship. I'd suggest that the writer read Aristotle's book on Friendship and distinguish between human nature and sociological surveys. I liked the wealth of research and statistics which, unfortunately, raised more unanswered questions. For example, as a teacher I was surprised to learn that the U.S. graduated 41% of high school students in 1960 but in 1998, 82% graduated (page 186). If so, where's the decay? Why the cry for school reform? It's progress, not devolution.

    The fascinating footnotes gave me a way to read between the lines and draw a conclusion which is diametrically opposed to the writer's. In the first chapter, footnote 18 (page 446) referred to the killer Timothy McVeigh. In a magazine article, McVeigh implies that he hatched his bombing plot with his pals in a bowling alley. The magazine writer observed: "We would have all been better off if Mr. McVeigh had gone bowling alone."

    Since those last two words are the title of the book, I wonder if there was a subliminal message here. If "social capital" results in mass murder, death and destruction, who needs it?...more info

  • Reads like it was written by a professor (it was).
    The author has accumulated an astounding range of statistics supporting his discovery that people in America are not as connected to each other as they used to be. (Example: people still bowl but now are less willing to join organized bowling leagues). And he uses those statistics, which makes this book slogging through repeated evidence for the same thing.

    The finding, based on this exhaustive statistical evidence, appears significant. But whether recognizing the problem can lead to an improvement is another question....more info

  • A Must Read!
    Anyone who cares about the future of the United States must read this book. Robert Putnam has amassed an amazing amount of data and--perhaps even more amazingly--has presented it in an exceedingly readable and accessible way. He traces the decline of community in the US and the impact that the passing of the "long generation" is having and will continue to have on our civil life. Though some will dispute specifics, it is hard to argue with the overall thrust of his findings, and he at least has data to support what he says, unlike many pundits today who make sweeping generalizations based on little more than a few personal observations, anecdotes, or feelings. We can wish that Putnam had put more into his recommendations at the end of the book, but perhaps that amplification awaits the sequel. This minor quibble in no way is intended to detract from the masterful job he has done in this book and the genuine contribution he has made to an important discussion as we enter the new millennium....more info
  • Putnam doesn't remember the Sixties
    This is an impressive book, and one that takes some time to work through with its 544 pages, including close to 100 pages of small print footnotes and tables. However, it's worth the time. Putnam's thesis is that Americans have become disconnected from one another. The book is divided into three sections: first, he demonstrates disconnection; second, he speculates on why it happened; and third, he proposes some solutions. And the sections are valuable in that order.

    In the first section, he amasses a mountain of statistics, drawn from association memberships, academic papers, and even market research (finally market research gets some respect) to prove his basic point - Americans spend less time together, both formally and informally. Not only is club membership down, but Americans today don't talk by phone or even go on picnics together as often as before. His evidence here is clear and convincing.

    The second section is much weaker. Putnam has demonstrated his point about disconnection well, and has shown reasonably good evidence that it is a generational disconnect - i.e., people didn't change their behavior, younger people simply behave differently - and has shown that the turning point was the Sixties. And what went on in the Sixties? The answer positively flaunts itself psychedelically - except to Putnam. He ignores the whole phenomenon of the youth counterculture, merely mentioning that it provided an opporunity for friendships. The Vietnam War receives only a casual mention or two. Are Americans still suffering from the long-term effects of conflicts which tore apart families, friends, and society? This is such an astounding omission that one cannot help asking where Putnam himself was. He is equally dismissive of the "new federalism", which, by taking away control from local governments and centralizing it in Washington, D.C., made participation in local affairs much less relevant and led directly to the huge Washington-based lobbying organizations that so dismay him. He doesn't pay much attention to the growth of welfare, which eliminated the reason for existence of many charitable organizations and simultaneously provided many individuals (especially women)who might otherwise have volunteered with well-paying jobs. He mentions the increased number of lawyers, but not the strain put on even the smallest organizations by lawsuits and insurance. He does mention, but only to dismiss feminism - this even though women were specifically advised by feminists to refuse to volunteer as the first step in their liberation. He is equally dismissive of civil rights, and the backlash against it.

    What then does he hold responsible? He falls back on two old standbys - cars and television. The first even Putnam cannot seem to provide any evidence for - there is not a single survey showing that non-drivers are more socially involved than drivers. The best he can do is show that volunteering is related to commute time - but since commuters by public transit frequently have longer transit times, even this argument turns against him. And the "civic generation" of the Fifties that he so admires was not anti-car - in fact, they were the ones who drove tailfin Chevys and built the Interstate. On television he is on safer ground - here the evidence is all on his side.

    These weaknesses carry over into the third section. After all, if TV and cars are responsible, surely the thing to do is destroy, restrict, or ban them? But while the thought of throwing TVs off the Golden Gate Bridge or demonstrators racing through mall parking lots torching SUVS has a certain appeal, Putnam eschews such suggestions - possibly somebody pointed out to him that East Germany and apartheid-era South Africa (to name 2 societies which did restrict both) are not exactly desirable role models. Instead, he would like to start a new political movement - he doesn't say "party" - along the lines of the Progressive Party of the early 1900s. But what would this movement advocate? As Putnam himself admits, if what is desirable is a society in which people do their own thing and leave others alone, then there is a lot to be said for disconnection. Ignoring undesirable neighbors beats burning crosses on their front lawn. But merely getting together to talk and get warm fuzzies from one another's presence is not enough for anything except a new age encounter group. Yet Putnam gives us no idea of where he wants his movement to go on specific issues. One might as well call up one's neighbors and friends and organize a picnic.

    Nevertheless, this is a valuable and important book. Putnam may not have much sense of the past or future, but he has demonstrated well that there is a problem in the present, and has thrown the prestige of Harvard behind opening discussion on this issue. He has, in old-fashioned terms, performed a valuable public service. Those wishing to join the debate will want to take time to read this book carefully - including all those tables and footnotes....more info

  • Fascinating thesis and very well researched
    "Bowling Alone" is an impressive book that examines why American's participation in social activities has been declining since the 1960s. It addresses all the reasons you might anticipate, effectively disproving some and reinforcing others with good evidence. Putnam's methods are solid. He gathers an extraordinary amount of data from across a wide range of fields, and is appropriately conservative about drawing conclusions from them. He is very mindful that he is dealing mainly in correlations, which don't prove causation. Given that, he is able to piece together some very interesting conclusions.

    The first section of the book demonstrates how participation in social activities grew steadily from the early part of the century until the 1960s, with a dip during the depression, and then has steadily declined ever since. He looks at just about any activity you can think of, including participation in organized activities (religion, clubs, civic organizations, school-related activities, and of course bowling teams) as well as informal social activities (having friends over for dinner, socializing at work, hanging out in bars, even going on picnics). Across the board, every one has declined in just about the same pattern. He explains how the declines have reduced "social capital," which is correlated with lower trust, higher crime, higher stress, and many other bad things. He makes a distinction between "briding capital" (light connections among people of different groups) and "bonding capital" (strong connections among those within groups), explaining that briding capital is more effective at bringing positive social effects.

    In the second section, he takes on the reasons for the decline. Since this isn't a mystery novel, I'll give the interesting punchline (which should whet your appetite for more): Mostly it's because each generation since the pre-war generation has been less socially inclined -- the people haven't been changing, the generations have. WWII had a lot to do with this. The other big reasons is television. TV has sucked up most of our free time, and each generation has watched more of it, more often alone, and more often just to "see what's on" rather than watching specific shows. More minor causes are the entry of women in the workforce (since women do a lot more organizing of social events than men) and urban sprawl (since it takes a lot more time and effort to see friends or attend events). Most other explanations don't pan out at all.

    The last section talks about the "So what?" He shows how social capital is the strongest correlate with quality of education (not government spending). Higher social capital is also related to safer neighborhoods, better health, more happiness, and higher tolerance. Earlier in the book, there is an interesting discussion of the use of technology and its relationship to social capital, although he rightly says that it is far too early to tell what effect the internet will have on social captial, since he is dealing in such broad trends.

    I got a lot out of reading this book and it has made me think about the choices I've made in favor of independence over the obligations of social membership. Although well written, the book was a little more academic than I expected. I also wasn't quite clear on the "why" behind the generations finding. Surely the war did have an effect, but it didn't explain why the children of baby boomers are even more individualist than their parents. It seemed like there was more explaining to do. Putnam also has a silly last section that is a call to action that seems inappropriate for this book. Still, this is an impressive book that had changed my thinking. I hope it is used by public policy experts and other decision makers....more info

  • all that to say tv is bad? puh-leease
    disappointing. it certainly contains an impressive amount of data, yet to what end? putnam would have been more productive by looking at increasing trends rather than those in decline. it's as if he is concerned that fewer people are roller-skating without recognizing that people are roller-blading instead....more info
  • Monumental Book for Anyone Who Is Involved With People!
    As an evangelical pastor, I have often been puzzled as to why so many individuals seem to be constantly discontent and virtually friendless. Putnam has offered answers to these and a whole slew of other relational questions, even if not intentionally.

    Putnam's thesis is that personal happiness, health, crime, SAT Scores, and the well being of our country revolve around whether or not individuals participate in groups, read the paper, and even attend church. Many influences, especially television, have disconnected Americans from one another. Putnam puts his finger on one of America's mega-problems. Although I may not agree with every iota, Putnam is definitely on the ball. This is a must read for pastors, social workers, counselors, civic servants, and anyone who cares about our nation at large!...more info

  • A Convincing and Important Work
    Putnam's "Bowling Alone" is really a must read for anyone concerned about the future of American society. He convincingly demonstrates how America has lost much of the "social glue" that has allowed us to prosper in the past. He then goes on to demonstrate how this loss of social capital has affected us both individually and collectively in terms of poorer health, higher rates of suicide and depression, less effective schools, less honesty and trust within communities, urban decay, etc. He presents an overwhelming amount of data to support his claim and after completing "Bowling Alone" it is very hard to argue with his conclusions.

    If the book has one disappointment, it is the comparitively small portion of the text that deals with possible solutions to this problem of social capital. I found the book profoundly depressing because it seemed that his proposed solutions were far too modest to deal with the problem.

    It is also important to mention that "Bowling Alone" is writen in a fairly engaging style (thank God) so it is far easier reading than you might think for a largely acedemic work. Putnam knows how to write in a way that includes the reader in his investigation. I highly recommend this book....more info

  • by James A. Montanyne
    Robert Putnam's 1995 essay on civic disengagement in the United States ("Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Journal of Democracy 6 [January 1995]: 65-78) piqued the interest of conservatives and neoliberals alike en route to becoming perhaps the most discussed social science article of the twentieth century. Conservatives read Putnam's essay as a demonstration of the crowding out of private civic and humanitarian organizations by the rising tide of government social programs. Neoliberals, in contrast, saw an opportunity to advance public welfare by using government to promote programs geared toward rebuilding the social-capital infrastructure in the United States, which Putnam argued had depreciated during the last third of the twentieth century.

    Conservatives are unlikely to be persuaded by the data and arguments Putnam has marshaled in this book-length version of the essay, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Neoliberals, on the other hand, will find reasons to rejoice, not only because of the book's new material and policy prescriptions but also because attempts to meet the challenges Putnam has posed would revitalize the flagging communitarian social program. Whether or not scholars and policy analysts accept Putnam's analysis and conclusions, they must be prepared to deal with the points Putnam has raised because his book promises to have cachet in policy circles for a long time.

    The book's central theme is simply stated: "For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago-silently, without warning-that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century" (p. 27).

    The book is organized in four major sections. In the first, Putnam describes trends in civic disengagement that he claims have dissipated social capital in recent years. "[T]he broad picture is one of declining membership in community organizations. During the last third of the twentieth century formal membership in organizations in general has edged downward by perhaps 10-20 percent. Most important, active involvement in clubs and other voluntary associations has collapsed at an astonishing rate, more than halving most indexes of participation within barely a few decades" (p. 63).

    In the book's second section, Putnam identifies the perceived causes of this deterioration-causes that he argues have left "Americans today feel[ing] vaguely and uncomfortably disconnected," a conclusion based in part on social surveys showing that "we wish to live in a more civil, more trustworthy, more collectively caring community" (p. 402).

    In the book's third section, Putnam identifies the negative consequences of America's declining social capital for education and children's welfare, safe and productive neighborhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democracy. He admits that too much and the wrong kind of social capital also can have deleterious consequences-"too much fraternity is bad for liberty and equality" (p. 351), leading, for example, to an increase of organized crime-but he believes that on balance the benefits of copious social capital broadly outweigh those costs.

    Putnam concludes the book by recounting the social movements that characterized the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era-political epochs that gave rise to the stock of social capital that Putnam argues dissipated during the last third of the twentieth century.

    The book, however, offers no systematic demonstration that the benefits of its utopian agenda would outweigh the costs of "using government" to bring it into being. Any attempt to establish that conclusion almost certainly would fail: universal happiness and well-being have yet to flow from utopian social policies. The fact that private and public life presents a series of trade-offs fully escapes Putnam's purview: his policy prescription has superficial appeal (to the extent that it appeals at all) because he almost entirely ignores the costs of bringing it about. Consequently, no offhand proposal is too outlandish. For example, "why not [require] employer-provided space and time for civic discussion groups and service clubs?" (p. 407). The correct answer to questions of this sort is widely known, though not frequently acknowledged: because the market process resolves such issues in total far more efficiently than does legislative fiat.

    Economic theory teaches that individuals seek to maximize the expected utility they can derive from their environment. "Social organization" is merely a composite view of individuals interacting in ways that enhance their separate private utilities. Coercing individuals to live and interact differently through the compulsions of law, as Putnam proposes, cannot increase aggregate social welfare; doing so would merely move most individuals away from their revealed optima while increasing the far-reaching disutility that is an unavoidable cost of coercive public policy. Putnam's proposals ultimately rest on the weakest and most potentially dangerous implication of the Standard Social Science Model that an omnipotent state pursuing normative policy ends can and indeed ought to treat individuals like sheep....more info

  • Putnam hits on some important issues you can't ignore
    First of all, this is a relatively easy read and very intriguing. I just couldn't put it down. Putnam presents good evidence that social capital has indeed declined. Most of his statistical work is in good order. Most people would have a tough time disproving Putnam's evidence. But I am also a critical reader. I think he fell a little short in the "Why" section. I feel that the nature of social capital is changing (as technology and civilization progress) and Putnam doesn't touch on that enough. Also, some of his graphs and charts in this section are arbitrary. Overall it is a good book that looks at a potentially serious problem. All that being said, I recommend this book to anyone who cares about the society they live in. It is certainly an eye opener....more info
  • An Excellent Work
    If this book made no contribution whatsoever to the study of political science it could still be handed out to aspiring authors as a treatise on how to write a scholarly work.

    In "Bowling Alone", Robet Putnam has managed to find a wonderful balance between academic rigor and readability, producing a book that is, at once, informative and a pleasure to read. On the academic side, the body of information Putnam has sifted through is simply amazing; there is almost no fact that Putnam has not probed underneath and no idea that he has not already thought of. Despite the scholarly nature of this book, though, Putnam's prose is well-written and littered with livid examples that make the text flow by at breakneck speed.

    Like many other books, "Bowling Alone" is a polemic against an aspect of American society; unlike many other polemics "Bowling Alone" does not contain rhetorical flourish and incindeary calls-to-arms. Rather Putnam calmly and methodically presents his analysis and lets the facts speak for themselves. This is apprciated and gives Putnams work all the more validity.

    Putman's thesis is that a decline in social connectedness among Americans has had rippling effects throughout several diverse aspects of society. Putnam characterizes the social connctions we make as 'social capital' (analoagous to other forms of capital, such as factories) and argues that the loss of social capital also leads to a loss of other things such as reciprocity among neighbors and trust.

    In the first section of "Bowling Alone" Putnam presents his evidence for the decline of social capital in America. What makes Putnam's evidence convincing is the magnitude and breadth of information presented. Putnam finds evidence of social decline in many diverse studies, and in each piece of evidence he presents Putnam does his best to rule out explanations other than the one he is positing.

    After displaying his evidence for social decline, Putnam moves on to offer a explanations as to why this has happened. These explanations, while valid, are certainly far from the last word on the topic, a point which Putnam wisely conceedes in the introduction to this section. In the next section Putnam explains to us why the decline in social capital is bad for America, in effect asking 'so what', and again providing voluminous data and expelling other explnations (although not as rigoriously as in the first section). Lastly, Putnam offers a few words as to what is to be done.

    The strength of this book is in the evidence it marshalls in favor of a decline of social capital in America. The other portions of this book, why, so what, and what is to be done, are well written, but are clearly not as definitive as the first section. However, Putnam cannot be held too responsible for this; satisfactory explorations of these topics would take several more books.

    Overall, in "Bowling Alone" Putnam has done a service to his country by alerting us to a disturbing trend in American society. Hopefully now that Putnam has raised the alarum, others will follow his lead, some producing more work on this important topic, others doing their part to reverse the decline of social capital by participating in their communities....more info

  • isolation yields less loyalty and lower productivity
    Putnam's book is the outgrowth of an article he wrote for theJanuary 1995 issue of the Journal of Democracy called "BowlingAlone: America's Declining Social Capital.&quot...The article wasbased on his take that civic involvement in America was in seriousdecline. The tie to the shriveling of bowling leagues gave him hisclever title. The article made the rounds and created quite a buzz inpublic policy circle. His take is that while business has replacedcommunity as the primary place where people have their socialconnections, few of the friendships formed in the workplace achievethe same level of intimacy as friendships in the neighborhood orcommunity had in the past. The problem is exacerbated when you addthe growth of the cotingent workforce that results in high transiencein the workplace. Intimacy is down and so too is loyalty to thebusiness. The end result of all of this is increasing isolation whichin the workplace can have a major adverse impact on productivity aswell as loyalty. The book is provocative, full of deep research, and agood starting point for a discussion on the state of individuals insociety....more info
  • Disengagement
    Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Robert Putnam, Simon & Schuster, 2000


    If you can read only one purportedly academic book this year choose this one. Despite being statistically dense, it reads like a business bestseller - a sort of Tipping Point with meat. Through a exhaustive use of polling and other socioeconomic indices, Putnam paints a compelling picture of a nation fragmenting into smaller and smaller pockets of disjointed individuals. A must read for anyone interested in political action into the next decades.


    The basic premise here is that a growing social disconnect can be identified in trends of American public opinion over the course of the last century though analysis of "social capital" activities. Social capital is the connection - and the strength, utility and cohesion of these linkages - between individuals in a society.

    Rather than a lamentation on this collapse of civics, Putnam traces polling, voting, memberships and leisure activities to debunk most of the myths that attempt to explain the failure of politics to engage the US public. We still have the same 19-20 hours for relaxation per week and work, with its focal points of `team' capitalism and heightened customer service does not seemingly translate outside the office. By then bringing in Tocqueville's `self interest, rightly served' [135] a clear trail of the decline of American civility is clearly traced.

    The salient thought roaring through Bowling Alone is that "A society characterized by generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society, for the same reason that money is more efficient than barter." [21] This is the basic finding that such a simple premise forms the basis of all the political upheavals in America - and with little retinking, Canada - over the past century and of greater importance, since the silent reversal - `disjunctive pattern of decline' - of civic connectives in the middle 70's.

    The criticisms of Bowling Alone hinge primarily on the seeming Ozzie & Harriet lamentation for the good old days [see Mark Kingwell's The World We Want, 2000] when everyone liked each other, but they sorely miss the point of the work. Given that more people bowl in leagues than voted in the 1998 US congressional election , perhaps a look-see at Pleasantville is warranted. Putnam's prescriptions are not `civic broccoli' or predicated on the ubiquitous they coming to our rescue, but simple, easy to articulate and ultimately deliverable.


    Putnam typifies 2-type of social capital: bonding and bridging which provides a useful distinction in the book. Bonding capital coalesces similar groups while bridging arches socioeconomic groups. This differentiation provides Although this is a subtle distinction it is at the core of the thesis of Bowling Alone. It allows for a plausible explanation of the rise of chequebook participation and the proliferation of letterheads over civic action by individuals. Collective goals and causes have become secondary to personal growth with thin and cool trust.

    Putnam's exploration of the causes of this decline follows leads from the number of personal injury lawyers, through television into bureaucratization of community action. He sees troubling social tendencies to `hire organizations' for community action and the development of virtual social capital consciousness, which must be regarded as oxymoronic at best. These activities become captives of zealot `dictators' or dilute their effectiveness as they denigrate into gab-feast anarchies. Thus, Putnam questions the effectiveness of the internet as a tool of bonding social capital as it has a tendency to create joy-stick democracy of the paramount individual. This "sociological Astroturf, suitable only where the real thing won't grow." [107]

    Thus, although widespread discontent exists, incumbents are re-elected as astonishing rates in America as there are few focal points for the coalescing social disconnect. This raises the specter of niche markets in politics where single issue consumers' end up supporting causes that in effect erode the social cohesion of their communities. This finding is most troubling for today's youth whose values are filtered through the abstraction of the media - and especially by television the "single most consistent predicator" [229] of declining civic involvement - and are tuned out to organized civic action.

    Overall, Putnam provides clear and compelling evidence that a catalyst is needed to re-engage Americans in collective civic action to address pressing social and growing economic ills that face the nation. Or in a chilling insight, he believes that we are bottoming out in "drive-by" civics....more info

  • A bunch of gobbltigook by any other name...
    This book disappoints me. It seems as though it were written with the knowledge that it would sell no matter what it said. Also, the data provided often left much to be desired, and I think failed to show the real picture. Putnams conclusion was very weak....more info
  • How about Universal Youth Service?
    Bowling Alone is a great book. I was surprised, however, that the author did not mention the possibility of introducing Universal Youth Service (UYS) in the United States as a way of helping bring young people from all walks of life together to learn the habits of work and socialization.

    This idea does not mean a return to the draft, though it might contain a military option. Rather, it would offer young men and women a chance to work in various areas of interest: one person might build trails and plant trees in the national forests; another might bring hot meals and companionship to urban shut ins. One might apprentice to a rural veterinarion and someone else could learn skills building low income housing. You get the point.

    Having fulfilled a UYS requirement of one to two years, young people would obtain educational assistance - similar to the old GI Bill - and this boost would be a secondary benefit in a country which seems determined to start off our young people in life up to their ears in debt.

    Be interested to know if Professor Putnam is interested in this idea....more info

  • Most important book for the 21st century
    This book confirms our intuition that society is less connected than it used to be. It discusses the imporance of the connections. One idea I found especially useful was the idea of "bonding" vs. "bridging" relationships.

    Bonding helps us get by, like family and close friends. Bridging helps us get ahead, relationships with people unlike ourselves. The book documents the importance of bridging relationships on the development of the country and even on personal health.

    This book is incredibly important because it shows without a doubt the issues that are confronting us and what we need to do to help society and individuals stay healthy....more info

  • Deals with an important issue.
    Bowling Alone studies the disintegration of American community and its consequences. The first and largest section deals with documenting this collapse. This section is full of interesting statistics, but is not the most important part of the book. I believe very few people would doubt that as a society we are becoming more disconnected from one another.

    The second section speculates as to what is causing this change for the worse, bringing up such factors as longer hours at work, urban sprawl and the negative effects of mass media, particularly television. One factor Putnam discusses, generational change, may be more of a symptom than a cause of the collapse of community. Understanding what has caused the loss of community in America is possibly the most difficult aspect of the book. None the less, I wish it could have been expanded.

    The third section deals with the consequences, from the more obvious effects on neighborhoods and schools, to our economic prosperity and individual health and happiness. The effect of a loss of community on our democracy is also documented. The increased use of professional campaign staff to replace volunteers and the need for corporate and other special interest money to maintain this form of "democracy" is a profound danger. This section is the most chilling part of the book and is the most important reason to read Bowling Alone.

    The fourth section deals with remedies for our predicament. The strongest part of this section is the comparison between our turn of the century and the previous one where we went from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era. In this section and the end of the previous one, some negative forms of community are discussed. These are institutions that are exclusive in nature and have negatively contributed to people's images of what it means to be a "joiner." Putnam effectively distinguishes between the type of community organization whose effect is positive and these others.

    Bowling Alone is a somewhat scholarly work and not pure entertainment. But it is important and enlightening and will hopefully contribute to the revival of American community that it seeks....more info

  • Important Book for Nonprofit and Charity Professionals
    Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone is a well-planned and exhaustively researched examination of America's civic and social participation. Few bestselling books have 60 pages of endnotes, over 100 charts and tables, and an index spanning 45 pages. If for no other reason, nonprofit sector professionals should buy this book for its statistical and reference data alone. However, this book is far more than a reference volume; it uses data to tell a compelling story about America's civic and social involvement in the 20th century.

    The data reported in the book confirm all kinds of influences that have been discussed by public policy experts, social researchers, and watercooler gossips for years -- declining civic club memberships; fewer people willing to take leadership positions in PTA, Boy Scouts, school boards, city councils, and countless other "community-building" pursuits. Mr. Putnam addresses changing lifestyles, from two-paycheck and single-parent families to the increasing time consumed by home-workplace commuting, television, and other "cocooning" activities that reduce time and energy for "other-directed" activity.

    The book's subtitle, "The Collapse and Revival of American Community," is an apt description of the book that has been misunderstood by many of its critics. Although Professor Putnam (Public Policy professor at Harvard) spends much of the book demonstrating the decline of civic & social involvement and community in America during the last third of our century, he also discusses possible causal factors and even offers suggestions for renewal.

    The book's final chapter compares America's late 19th century with the late 20th century. He identifies numerous similarities that, he believes, point the way to addressing the current crisis as he sees it. The chapter includes italicized goals for improvement in civic and social involvement.

    The topic and thesis of the book, originally raised in a 1995 magazine article, will be with us for several more years. The Ford Foundation and a group of community foundations have given Mr. Putnam $1 million to conduct additional research on how communities are addressing community-building issues and how effective those initiatives are.

    The exhaustive research, enduring interest in the topic, and guaranteed future events related to this book and author are three of many reasons why this book should be on all reference bookshelves. More importantly, Mr. Putnam challenges our assumptions and offers an important lens though which to view the social and civic habits of our co-workers, volunteers, friends, family, and, ultimately, ourselves....more info

  • Bawling Alone: Fundamental Flaws
    Putnam accurately articulates that odd malaise many boomers deeply feel; loss of "community" (whatever one may take that to mean). He then tangentially reasons that the culprit is "diversity". The fact is that this particular boomer angst is far more the product of population density. In the '50s and '60s (his "Golden Age") solitude was far more easily acquired. Even in urbania, a short walk or a brief drive could deliver the needed dose of peace and quiet that reknits the "ravell'd sleeve of care". No more. Today, we can't get away from the crowd. It is overpopulation that drives us to seek relative social isolation. And whether the crowd looks like we do or not, it is still the crowd.

    Putnam commits the endemic error of improperly linking cause and effect. Because the America he bemoans the loss of was whiter and far more insular, he attributes its unfortunate transformation to diversity. Anyone who has studied mammalian behavior will know that once a certain population density is reached, the behaviors that Putnam collectively refers to as "community" drastically decline. ...more info
  • A little dull....
    It's rather drier and more academic than I'd hoped for, though terrifically erudite. It's enormous too. A fascinating subject, and a very important book, but hard to sustain an interest in. Suited to the more academic reader....more info
  • A Lonelier Crowd
    Robert D. Putnam's BOWLING ALONE provides what is, arguably, the most robust scientific treatment in a single volume of the conversation about friendship and its benefits begun by Aristotle nearly twenty-four centuries ago, a conversation about what has now come to be called "social capital" :

    " can prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends...And in poverty and in other misfortunes men think friends are the only refuge. It helps the young, too, to keep them from error; it aids older people by ministering to their needs and supplementing the activities that are failing from weakness; those in the prime of life it stimulates to noble action." [And,] "Friendship seems too to hold states together..." (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics).

    No less importantly than this Aristotelian connection, Putnam joins earlier 20th Century writers to enlarge Adam Smith's emphasis on the productive effects of `capital.' Smith wrote:

    ...the produce of a man's own labour can supply but a very small part of his occasional wants. The far greater part of them are supplied by the produce of other men's labour, which he purchases...with the price of the produce of his own...A stock of goods of different kinds, therefore, must be stored up somewhere sufficient to maintain him, and to supply him with the materials and tools of his work... (Introduction to Book II, Wealth of Nations)

    BOWLING ALONE demonstrates how this "stock of goods" including the effects of friendship, reciprocity, sympathy, trust, and integrity, become the "materials and tools" fundamental to the health of the community. Thus, emphasizing the productive nature of affiliation, social capital - a smile, a kind word, a helping hand, group participation - gets "saved," in our rolodexes or their hippocampal versions, to be used advantageously another day. Here one notes that, though little emphasized by most contemporary cheerleaders for unfettered Capitalism, Adam Smith, too, emphasized sympathy, rather than petty selfishness, as one of Capitalism's essential ingredients.

    Putnam provides a vast array of empirical data documenting the productive effects of friendship and communal action on politics (Chap. 2), community involvement (Chap. 3), religious participation (Chap. 4), workplace association (Chap. 5), informal social activity (Chap. 6) and altruistic activity (Chap. 7). In any of these venues, reciprocity, honesty, and trust compose the yeast for productive social activity (Chap. 8).

    Putnam's interpretation of the data convincingly indicates that some generations are equaler than others. Over the half-century leading up to the publication of Putnam's book, the combination of television, suburbanization, the changing nature of work, have been factors in the dwindling of our social "goods." But most significantly, shifts in generational norms (Chaps. 10-15), have resulted in "anticivic contagion," the substantial decline in the activities that generate social capital (Chaps. 2-8), though there are exceptions (Chap. 9). In astonishing geographic detail, Putnam graphs (Figures 80-89) the correlations between social capital and its deficits in American community life, public affairs, volunteerism, sociability and trust (Chaps. 16). These are tied quite demonstrably to costs for education and children's welfare (Chap. 17), safe and productive neighborhoods (Chap. 18), economic prosperity (Chap. 19), health and happiness (Chap 20), and participatory democracy (Chap. 21). In the last two chapters (Chaps. 23, 24) he details what might be done to replenish social capital and "walking the walk" has introduced websites and seminars promoting social capital under the auspices of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

    Putnam recognizes other earlier uses of the phrase "social capital" with varying degrees of specificity, tracing its earliest use to L. J. Hanifan, a state superintendent of rural schools in 1916:

    "good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse...[result in] an accumulation of social capital which may immediately satisfy [the individuals] needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community."

    Others who have used the phrase include Jane Jacobs, who applied it to the health of neighborhoods (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961), and Pierre Bourdieu who emphasized it in the contexts of social competition (The forms of capital. In: John G. Richardson (ed.): Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood Press 1986). But, Putnam goes further than any earlier writer, applying the concept to the communal health of a nation.

    The concept of social capital, and particularly Putnam's rendering of it, is not without its critics whose objections are on semantic, philosophical, empirical and policy terms. Andy Blunden objects to its quantification and to the causal ambiguity of correlations that Putnam uses to support his inferences, though I think Putnam does not dismiss the likelihood of hidden variables that might be influencing the more apparent ones. The eminent sociologist Alejandro Portes takes up similar issues (Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology, Annu. Rev. Sociol. 1998. 24:1.24), though, in fairness, his critique was on Putnam's earlier work in this area and BOWLING ALONE effectively addresses some of them. Theda Skocpol tellingly argues that Putnam's approach essentially blames the victim (cf. Unraveling From Above, The American Prospect no. 25 (March-April 1996): 20-25.).

    The critiques notwithstanding, Putnam's work has been enormously influential even beyond the halls of academe, insinuating itself into state of the union addresses (Clinton, 1995) and the current presidential campaign (bridging v. bonding capital). For more specifics about how social capital has interrelated effects up and down the conceptual ladder from the genome to community life see A. R. Cellura's The Genomic Environment and Niche-Experience (Cedar Springs Press, 2006).
    ...more info
  • Remembering De Tocqueville
    In reviewing Putnam's work it is important to remember that the discourse about social capital not only educates as to the health of individuals and societies but also as to the health of political systems. De Tocqueville marveled at Americans' as joiners because he correctly theorized that intermediate organizations are crucial for the healthy working of modern democracies. Thus the evidence that Americans are joining fewer organizations should also cause us to question the health of American democracy.
    The recent acceptance by large swaths of the American public that torture is an acceptable method in defending democracy shows a kind of extremism not far removed from that of Nazi Germany where again intermediate organizations are said to have been were few and opened the way for mass organizations and the state to isolate the individual and place him/her one on one with the demagogue and his mass party.
    Differences with Germany's case are enormous of course yet evidence that democracy is not in a healthy state should make us ask questions. It is in this light that Putnam's work takes an even greater significance. ...more info
  • Sad Truth About Our Society
    The American people are more socially isolated than ever due to the increasing amount of television watching, the way our cities are designed and the way that each generation is getting more and more disengaged in American public life. There are other factors that contribute but these are the main ones.

    A properly socially cohesive society will do better in terms of crime, our government, the economy, education ect. He mentions that street gangs form from a lack of social capital in the neightbor hoods and that the gangs form as a way of making up for it.

    The apathy leads not only to mental but physical illness. Putname takes you on a journey filled with many graphs that give substance and proof to what he is saying.

    ...more info
  • Recommended for the thinking citizen
    This work is both scholarly and yet accessible to the average citizen. Putman documents in considerable detail the cultural trend in the U.S. away from civic organizations both formal and informal. The collection of research over many decades is quite amazing. Yet this data is presented in an understandable way with graphs and summary descriptions. The conclusion is what anyone of a certain age already knows and that is people are less social today than decades ago. One illumination for me is how that social isolation results in negative effects in areas such as crime, prosperity, education, government and even health. This appears to be well documented and is not just "shooting from the hip".
    There are a few deficiencies in this book however. First, the "cause" of this phenomena as "generational "succession" is a good observation but not a cause. Why is generational succession occurring? The arguments are incomplete. Secondly, the sub-title "...Revival of the American Community" is never really presented. The solutions to the problem (if it is indeed a problem) are the weak part of the book. Taking lessons from the "gilded age" and the turn of the 20th century don't seem to connect with me.
    In summary, I think this is an important book but is only the beginning of the discussion. From an individual perspective, there are still plenty of social groups to become involved with and they are not that hard to find. Let this book turn the light inward upon ourselves. We are relational creatures. Let's take the initiative, turn the TV off and become involved. By the way, despite today's over-the-top rhetoric, the church is alive and is a welcoming place. Come and get connected. ...more info
  • A exhaustive work calls for a long review (sorry)
    I greatly respect what Dr. Putnam is trying to do with this book; so I want to be charitable in my review. I purchased this book because I have recently felt a bit `disconnected' from society personally. I wanted to do some evaluation of my own experience vs. his presentation of mass changes in social trends. To put it simply: Am I `bowling alone' because of ME or because of some greater social trends in America I happen to be living through?

    My review is long because this is a very `dense' work, as another review put it. The book is greatly bolstered with supporting statistics (ad infinitum, it seems). I realize that there is virtue in supporting your thesis with hard quantifiable numbers. I wish more would do that. The conflict or down side of that is - that statistical presentation is frankly... boring. So this is not an entertaining or fast read; it's not a page-turner. It certainly is not literary bubble-gum. This is a full academic social study presented to the general populace.

    However, his efforts and objective is wonderful, and to be lauded. One has to respect that. There is some humor peppered here and there. It would be great if he could put his statistical data off in some kind of sidebar and separate it out from anecdote, examples and generalities - to make the reading a little smoother. I confess I found myself skipping over some statistics just to get his real point. The hard statistics and whatever examples he presents are all mashed together in the same paragraph.

    He does a great job of staying quite neutral with respect to political, social or religious ideologies and groups. Thankfully, the writer is not an alarmist. Except for the thought that this trend is dangerous, he has largely left out his own feelings with some excellent academic objectivity. [I wish more academics would do THAT!] He avoids nostalgia and emotion, simply making a case for the decline and revival of American social connectedness (stated as `social capital'). It's just that he goes through a GREAT deal of statistics to do so. There's even a graphic chart depicting how often people observe stop signs vs. glide through the intersection - down through the decades! It's called, `The Changing Observance of Stop Signs' (page 143). At times he digresses into tangents that have minor bearing on social connectedness, in my opinion. This lengthens the book a bit, but that point is minor.

    I definitely will take some good thoughts with me from this book. (It is this disconnectedness that has largely caused the current great rift between right and left, liberals and conservatives.) It's good to have some light on the phenomena we see in our civic and social circles.
    ...more info
  • Excellent Data, Interesting Story... may be limited by logical fallacy
    This is a well written book about the decline of certain activities that have historically been central to the "social capital" of American society and the pervasive consequences on American lives. While I think much of Putnam's story is on the mark, I believe his diagnosis of the problem depends on several logical flaws and this could potentially imply that different conclusions should be reached. Let me explain:

    The book basically says, "here's a laundry list of activities that Americans don't do as often as they used to including clubs, religious activities, unions, house parties, picnics, etc." The evidence is overwhelming that all of these activities have become less common as a share of American activities. They're all major components of what we typically consider social activities. Putnam therefore concludes that Americans are building less social capital. Does this evidence lead to this conclusion? Let's replace some of the words and concepts and perhaps we can illustrate why it may not.

    Assume Americans are spending less money (or a smaller percentage of their income) on makeup, perfume, and hair salons (I don't necessarily believe this is true, but for the sake of the example). We consider all of these activities beautification. Now would a reduction in the share of household wealth spent on these activities necessarily imply that Americans care less about beauty or are less beautiful? What if we "forget" to mention (or simply miss) that people are now spending a huge share of wealth on plastic surgery and that this didn't even exist in our "reference period?" What if people are spending less on makeup because they get far more "beauty" for the same amount of money today?

    To be truly conclusive, Putnam needs to not only prove that people are spending less total time on social activities but that these social activities are less rewarding on the whole (and what we've replaced them with are not more rewarding than our losses).

    Critical to this point is the question, "what is it that social capital is supposed to deliver?" I took the time to write this review instead of socializing. I won't necessarily receive any direct compensation from a reader as I might have gotten from the friend (emotional support, contact to a job, introduction to a significant other, fun of company). It appears that I've lost social capital. BUT, how many of your friends would you have needed to ask before you got a review like this (or others submitted here). How many friendships would I have had to make to get the benefit of the other reviews that I've read on Amazon. Am I worse off or have I simply participated in a less personal exchange that is of much greater value to society (and in the long run to myself)?

    In the same vein, I may not go hang out with my friends the way my parents did, but I can IM and TXT my friends no matter where they are in the country. I may not meet my neighbor but I can share interest in games or politics or economics with people around the country and I'd like to think I get a lot out of my participation in these kinds of communities. Is my life really worse if I can't invite all of these people to the bowling alley with me? Is my life or my participation in society really diminished if I don't attend a meeting in their physical presence?

    If I had no friends in town, certainly the cost would be real. But I would never trade my deep personal relationships with friends in New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago for a dozen bowling buddies here in Columbus.

    Despite my concerns regarding the specific arguments and conclusions, I actually enjoyed the book and encourage people to read it. However, the book only receives 4 stars because the data may not necessarily justify the conclusions and readers are therefore cautioned about taking it all at face value....more info
  • Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
    Why does the idea of community seem to have vanished? Why are we not as close to our neighbors as our grandparents used to be? What are the changes that have accorded in these last few generations that have caused such isolation? Read Bowling Alone to find out what has killed the spirit of neighborliness and volunteerism....more info
  • Social Capital without a shared vision??
    Putnam has done a good job of marshalling an incredible amount of graphs, tables, charts, etc. while still keeping the reader's (my!) interest. He makes an impressive case on 2 fronts: one, that we're less socially connected today, and not as socially invested as we once were; and two, this state of affairs is not a good thing in many ways (personal and social health, etc.). The book is far less convincing when it appears to suggest that the great template for a generation that DID invest heavily in social capital was the generation that had its heyday in the post-war years. In other words, the "greatest generation." While I believe that they were heavily socially invested, and developed many and wide-ranging ways to increase that social capital, I do NOT believe that our (or future) generations can replicate that. We now celebrate tolerance and diversity today, in fact worship at their feet. Previous generations in this country did not, and that's the rub. You need a society that's pretty much agreed on what makes a good life or a good person before you can get large numbers of people to sign on to groups that nourish that idea. Today, we live in a circus atmosphere in which there is no right or wrong way to live, as long as you stay out of my hair. That might be well and good, but HARDLY a vision that will inspire any investature of social capital. I don't think Putnam sees this difficulty clearly enough (although he does mention it) because if this difficulty is insurmountable (as I think it is unless society undergoes a sea-change in belief) there is NO remedy for modern society's fragmentation. I guess what I'm saying is that you need a vision of community that the vast majority of movers, shakers, and regular folks have bought into, before you can talk about recapturing that sense of community. And today we don't have that, not even close. Tolerance and diversity both act to fragment community and that process is only accelerated when such attitudes are held by societal leaders. Putnam also needs to focus more on the decade of the 60s (say from 1963 - 1973) and fess up to the fact that people--whether they totally bought into the cult of the individual that sprang from that time or not--were ALL affected by that decade. Society simply looked at things differently (specifcally authority-mediated knowledge) when they came out this end of that decade. We can't go back, and Putnam ought to know that every time he sits in a faculty meeting at Harvard and looks at the non-conformist dress, jewelry and lifestyles that are exhibited there (imagine their wardrobe and attire on 1950s' Harvard faculty!). Each generation learns its knowledge base from authority-mediated knowledge transfer--either formally or informally, from sacred texts to how to use a crescent wrench. The post-60s generations simply do not and cannot look or accept authority like the generations that Putnam praises for their civic involvement. He castigates television for much of the problem but to me that's more symptom of this deeper cause (else why is the older generation somehow nearly immune to watching TV as much as the younger). I also wonder when Putnam tries to make a case for how social involvement can help the individual but using a quick vignette of an affluent couple who try and increase social involvement and capital by NOT taking their kid out of public school. This coming from a professor at the most well-known PRIVATE institution of higher learning in the country?? I wonder how many of his colleagues have their children in public schools, or would put them in some of the worse public schools, far from Cambridge, Mass? still, this is a thoughtful book and societal critique, whether you agree with his assessment or not. It will engage you....more info
  • A thoroughly researched opus -- a must-read for anyone interested in American society
    As I read through Putnam's book, I was repeatedly impressed by how thoroughly researched his points were. Bowling Alone has over 100 figures and tables dispersed throughout, and while that would be considered an "overly academic" death knell for most books, this book comes out as both interesting and highly readable. The points are backed up by hard facts and Putnam is very careful to state which opinions are his own as opposed to some other source's. His style of reasoning and argument always includes an examination of possible alternative explanations, which is something all non-fiction writing of this type should require.

    In this book you will learn a good deal about the advantages and disadvantages of community groups and why America -- as a society -- has drifted away from the close-knit communities of the 1950s and early 60s. Bowling Alone is one of those rare books that has a little bit of everything: sociology, psychology, urban planning, political commentary, and good old-fashioned statistical analysis. And these topics are all covered in a way that bring the social phenomena to light without getting bogged down in the numbers. Putnam's book is truly an impressive piece of work.
    ...more info
  • does not make an adequate argument
    This is a fairly academic description of the decline of civil society. It is well written and the information is clearly presented. The arguments are clear and easy to understand although not truly persuasive. This book spends an inordinate amount of time hammering a point that is obvious enough- Americans join and participate in fewer groups than they used to. I like most people already believed that when I read the book synopsis. Instead of detailed data about the mempership decline in churches and bridge clubs etc., more analysis about the causes and effects of this decline should have been included.

    As for the argument of this book, did not convince me. The chapter on the dark side of social groups provided a superficial argument for why social groups promote equality and fraternity. I did not care for the reliance on constructs such as the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity (those are just part of french enlightenment ideals, they are not some kind of measurable benchmarks to make sweeping judgements about society with).

    In the end, I am the generation x-y child of parents that were active in a number of social organizations, PTA, neighborhood get togethers etc. I belong to no groups and do not spend time with my neighbors. Like most people my age, I have observed my parents involvement in groups and do not wish to follow suit. The author did not seem to take any time to analyze why people would willingly abandon a civic life when they know exactly what they are missing. I do not see America degenerating because of people's desire to live highly independant existances. ...more info
  • A Must Read for 20-somethings!!!
    Authentic, relevant community is something that is increasingly sought after by my generation (the 20-somethings, college and career group), but sometimes hard to find or even define. Bowling Alone is a fascinating commentary on community, relationships, social networking and the many ways that people connect with each other in America both past and present. It provides incredible arguments for the benefits of strong community to include trust, altruism, honesty, reciprocity, etc., but at the same time frames the discussion in such a way that you don't feel like you're listening to grandpa tell long tales of the "good ole' days." Putnam does a great job of providing motivation for generations to come on what is possible when effort and intentionality is given to forming strong social connections; a message severely needed in the age of isolation....more info
  • One of the most important books I have ever read
    I first read this book years ago, while in graduate school. It is in many ways an interdisciplinary look at the decline of civil society in the United States since the 1960's.

    This book, in some ways, changed my life. I had experienced the profound loneliness of modern life after I left college and got a job out in the real world. I was amazed at how "disconnected" everybody was.

    I had returned to church, and was trying to get more involved with my community, but I was finding it rough going. Then, while writing my masters thesis, my advisor suggested reading "Bowling Alone" as a way to augment my research in the area of parental involvement in education.

    This is an academic book, but I couldn't put it down. It felt like I was reading a thriller, only because it was so relevant to my life experience. I remember thinking "this guy gets it!" I was amazed.

    After finishing my thesis, my whole life changed. I changed jobs to work in parochial education, I got much more deeply involved in my church, and I joined the Knights of Columbus.

    What is amazing about this is the improvement in my life since. Of course, the new me gives all the credit to God. However, God can work through some pretty interesting sources. He used this book as one way to bring me back to the Truth. As for my level of happiness and life satisfaction, it is MUCH higher than it was when I was a typical post-modern college graduate. I have a place, connections, friends, and a relationship with God. My growing family has a feeling of security and permanence that never existed before.

    The reasons for all this are academically, sometimes dryly, and occasionally mathematically, shared on this book's pages. It is a LONG read, but not especially difficult. The academic jargon is kept to a minimum and the writing style is accessible. However, the arguments are profound. Furthermore, Putnam anticipates counter-arguments and addresses them constantly. Putnam is obviously a serious scholar with lots of gravitas. He has done nothing short of putting his finger on the pulse of our times.

    After reading this review one might conclude that this is a "conservative" book. I disagree. While I think most people deeply connected to church and community in the United States will end up being "conservative" in some respects, this is certainly not always the case. Ultimately, Putnam's argument is about how the loss of social capital negatively impacts society. Conservatives and liberals should find much to agree on in this book.

    I could not recommend this book more highly....more info
  • A bit academic, but...
    Putnam's thesis sounds correct, and he goes far to prove it, even to those who say he's all wrong. ...more info
  • Diagnosis of a Private Society
    This book is simply a must-read for anyone who cares about the quality of our society and communal life. Putnam tackles an extremely difficult question, and he does so very well. Answering whether or not our society has become less communal in the last 50 years is not an easy task. What are the causes of this change? What are the effects? These are some of the broader questions Putnam answers in this book.

    One thing that is immediately apparent is how much research went into this book. This book is loaded with statistics, yet the figures presented aren't boring. I felt that the consequences (both good and bad) of the statistics presented were readily evident in my own life. The two sections covering the causes of our social isolation and the effects are the strongest parts of the book.

    Putnam's response to the problem, on the other hand, is a little weak. I think Putnam is too willing to rely on government intervention to change people's attitudes and behavior (a proposition not likely to be successful, in my opinion). Furthermore, he his too willing to simply have faith that people will eventually make the right decisions once they understand the nature of this problem. Again, I don't think this is likely.

    By extension, Putnam fails to examine the potential for the Church and family to aid in correcting this problem. This is not too surprising; after all, we do live in an age in which social connections outside of the family and Church are seen as more important to the development of the autonomous self than those within those institutions. Nevertheless, this is a serious error on Putnam's part, in my opinion.

    Be that as it may, I think this book is hugely important. If the prescriptive section is a little weak that is more than made up for by the strength of the diagnosis and prognosis sections. Putnam's writing was very good; I don't think this book can fairly be characterized as being "dry". A page turner for those concerned about the quality of our social fabric.

    Update: For those who enjoyed "Bowling Alone", I would strongly recommend Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays by Wendell Berry. Whereas Putnam's book provides an empirical approach to the deterioration of community, Berry writes from a position of greater personal interest. Thus, Berry's book is a more passioned argument....more info
  • Bowling Alone
    This is a profound book. Required reading for existing in the digital age. It had a little more information than I could handle, but so has the rest of my education....more info
  • Well articulated
    I love the way the facts are presented in this book. Easy and to the point, this book is a must read for anyone looking for a no nonsense perspective on the decline of American society today....more info
  • Excellent review of the decline of community, but somewhat blinded to the causes
    Professor Putnam has written a superb review of the decliine of community in the United States through the end of the 20th Century. He points to television, urban and suburban sprawl, generational change and changing work habits as being the major causes of the collapse of the American community.

    He provides massive amounts of survey and study data to prove what most of already know: Americans don't get together with their friends, neighbors, fellow citizens or even their families as much as they used to.

    The presentation of the data is the best part of the book. Putnam's explanations are often insightful and though he also frequently turns a blind eye to the causes of the destruction of the American community, namely several decades of relentless left-wing attacks on American society. The church as a staple of the community? Destroyed by left-wing secularism. The family as a core unit of community? Destroyed in some places by left-wing policies that made family formation not only impossible (i.e., the ban on female headed welfare households admiting to a male presence)and by left-wing agitation for "sexual freedom."

    Interestingly, Putnam provides evidence of the proof of the foregoing and more in some of his own data. The places where "social capital" and community remain intact are the so-called Red States, the very communities Putnam's academic colleagues at Harvard deride day after day.

    Putnam's cure for the decline of American community, not surprisingly, requires lots of government intervention.

    Putnam's book is fascinating if you disagree with his reasoning. What would be more interesting is the same data reviewed by conservatives. There is no doubt that they would agree that the American community has declined, but the reasons given for it and the ways to its revival would be markedly different.

    Jerry...more info
  • An Essential Read
    I can't add anything that isn't already on the backcover. Putnam has detailed research showing the loss of social capital in the U.S. and insightful analysis of the implications as well as possible solutions. It's a highly readable book for academics and non-academics alike. A vital read that will be relevant for years to come....more info
  • Well Worth Wading Through
    This book definitely gets a little bogged down in statistics at points. A couple of the chapters could have been easily trimmed down by a couple paragraphs and tables (and boy are there a lot of tables). However, I still think this book is an important contribution to the discussion of american community versus radical individualism.
    The other nice thing I would like to point out is the multiple positive reviews from across the political spectrum. It's not all the time that a book gets approval from the nation, the national review and the economist. It's as nonpolitical as it can get, despite the politically sensitive material....more info
  • Community in sociology
    Way too full of statistics and other sociological data for my tastes but when it points in the direction I agree with, like any old ideologue it's hard not to plug it.

    The book is about how community activity and activism has fallen dramatically in the past fifty years, beginning with the baby boomers generation, and how my generation has only continued the slide. The title comes from the decline in bowling leagues to bowling merely when time allows.

    A lot of what Putnam blames is TV (curse you infernal tube, err screen) in sucking up time with only passive reaction. How pretty much every other activity requires an active response and that this has caused people to stop caring.

    He also discusses how sports have become far more spectator than participatory, allowing for more tv watching.

    The difficulty he runs into is that, though published in 2000, the internet was not adequetely advanced and so is not adequetely covered. For it is a physically passive activity sans porn that can be menatally rigorous or passive due to the desires of the participent. But it also has engaged more people in a new pseudo conversation than ever existed before. A conversation without bounds of physical place or honest presence which allows for great deception but also great forthrightness.

    It is absolutely packed with statistics so for those inclined to that method of persuation it could be quite successful, but merely on the sheer breadth of topics discussed it is worth the read....more info
  • Um, the 50's are over...
    Robert Putnam's book bemoans the declne in "civic participation" among Americans since its heyday in the 50's and 60's. Although few would argue that bridge clubs aren't what they used to be, who would have predicted the rise of 20,000 member mega-churches back in 1962? This underlines the basic problem with this book: it focuses too much on what constituted "communities" and "activities" in the past, without looking at how people form new and different kinds of communities today. While I agree that television has dramatically increased the couch potato index, and participation in traditional FORMAL organizations has declined, I would argue that membership and participation in new kinds of groups that are more relevant to people in the 21st century has risen. For example, while young people famously are less likely to vote in our dual-party system, college students today volunteer more that any generation before them. In addition, while participation in mainline Protestant churches has stedily declined, engagement in evangelical churches has risen dramatically. While I personally feel that the sterile suburban, drive-everywhere-in-my-SUV existance is soul crushing, and the popularity of reality TV may be a sign of the apocolypse, I also don't pine for the days where mom was expected to stay home with the kids and go to the bridge club once a week, while dad worked 9-5, returned home to supper, and went to the Men's Club on Tuesdays at 8. And while Putnam's basic premise may resonate with many, its fetishization of days past blunts the strength of his overall argument....more info
  • Positive Networking and Social Capital.
    Putnam has hit the nail right on the head. Public policy makers world-wide have taken note. His constructs of 'bonding'and 'bridging' to the broader community through social networks to add value, or social capital, to society have gained wide currency. His research is exhaustive, more than necessary perhaps to make the case for disengagement of citizens. But, he has confirmed empirically what so many know intuitively to be true, hence the appeal of his findings. His recent work with John Helliwell published in the 2004 proceedings of the Royal Society on social capital and well-being, reported in the media as the science of happiness and the object in my own work on positive networking, advances the discipline even further. Positive networking works, it takes leadership and, when done right, adds social capital to the community. Putnam's work is compelling. His arguements are powerful...highly recommended....more info
  • Enlightening, if rather dry
    Putnam's book presents a detailed look at the decline in overall social participation by Americans over the past half-century. From an analytical perspective, it is an impressive work, demonstrating clearly the general decrease in membership in social groups of both a formal and informal nature amongst Americans, then proposing and evaluating possible explanations. One thing I found strange was that, perhaps in an effort to avoid partisan issues and the like, the book doesn't look as much as it perhaps ought into the rather intense political changes over this period and consider how they may have altered prevailing attitudes.

    The book is a bit too academic to make for a compelling read, though, and runs a bit dull in spots. I found myself wishing for some more pedestrian discussion; some of the brief anecdotes in the book, like the one about the man who found himself a kidney donor through a bowling league, are quite interesting, and leave you wishing there were more of them....more info