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Bowling Alone

"Bowling Alone" by Robert D. Putnam is a dense and sobering look at the state of social capital in America. The book is meticulously researched, the last 100 pages are devoted to discussing the sources of the books' data and the copious cited material. The picture painted is one of a nation under change, but it is presented in straightforward manner allowing the reader the chance to draw conclusions about what it means for America. It isn't until the last 50 pages that the author switches to a more call to arms prose.

Some of the trends mentioned and thoughts in the book that stood out to me:

  • "Today's under-thirties pay less attention to the news and know less about current events than their elders do today or than people their age did two or three decades ago." [36]
  • "... activities that brought citizens together, those activities that most clearly embody social capital-that have declined most rapidly." [45]
  • After Greenpeace stopped direct mail solicitations, on account of environmental impact, they lost almost 85 percent of their membership. [53]
  • "Americans who identify themselves as having 'no religion' has risen steadily and sharply from 2 percent in 1967 to 11 percent by the 1990s." [70]
  • "The ratio of families who customarily dine together to those who customarily dine apart has dropped from more than three to one to 1977-78 to half that in 1998-99." [100]
  • Trend is that more people observe and less do. "Between 1986 and 1998 ... while club meeting attendance was down by a third, pop/rock concert attendance was up by a third." [114]
  • "In other words, social capital may turn out to be a prerequisite for, rather than a consequence of, effective computer-mediated communication." [177]
  • "Education, in short, is an extremely powerful predicator of civic engagement." [186]
  • "... it is not low income pr se, but the financial worry that it engenders, that inhibits social engagement." [193]
  • "American adults average seventy-two minutes every day behind the wheel, ..." [212]
  • "The fraction of us who travel to work in a private vehicle rose from 61 percent in 1960 to 91 percent in 1995, ..." [212]
  • "... TV dependence is as disruptive to one's constitution as financial anxiety and class deprivation." [241]
  • "Both marriage and parenthood became choices, not obligations." [258]
  • "The younger you are, the worse things have gotten over the last decades of the twentieth century in terms of headaches, indigestion, sleeplessness, as well as general satisfaction with life and even likelihood of taking your own life." [263]
  • "... getting married is the 'happiness equivalent' of quadrupling your annual income." [333]
  • "Citizenship is not a spectator sport." [341]
  • "Anonymity is fundamentally anathema to deliberation." [342]

The trends outlined in the book are the natural ebb and web of a nation undergoing change. As the author examines, some of this is generational. There were events that galvanised this nation in the past and that was one cause for change. As quoted above, citizenship is not a spectator sport which maybe why the nations' political state is where it is today. In that regard the falling social capital is harming us greatly.

If you at all interested in community and social capital in America, this is the book to read.

Tags: books life


Hi, Daniel. I've been reading your blog off and on for several months. I'm skeptical of Putnam's factual conclusion; I think he ignores quite a bit of social communication in order to get to it. However (grin) I offer great thanks to you for mentioning those points. Some are troubling even shocking but they are not all bad. For example number 258 and certainly number 70 I think are a good thing. (is each a good thing?) One thing I would argue is very important, that we must all do, and if we don't do it change the way we think about it is this: it is SO important to read a daily newspaper, in paper form. And to correspond with the reporters who are writing it. I don't mean necessarily full scale letters to the editor, but even just short notes. The benefits are two. First, you save a huge amount of time with paper copy, the information content per square unit area is greater than the computer screen, and there's more to glance at a time. Without fail the people I know who read the paper copy of the newspaper are far better informed than those who read only the web edition. The second benefit is in the strength of your community through good government. Communities need media watchdogs to keep an eye on government. I think they're part of the social capital web. I'll stop, but I wouldn't be too surprised to hear you read a newspaper. Thanks very much for introducing to me the term "social capital" Cheers!