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Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam

March 10, 2019

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I had this book on my shelf for 15 years and finally decided to tackle it. It’s an important (if controversial) book, an exhaustive study of the decline of civic engagement of Americans from 1950 to 2000. It might be viewed as a precursor to the current fragmentation of our society, describing the disengagement that preceded our current polarization. As the interpersonal connections that bind our communities together dissolve, our tendency to see people we disagree with as “other” increases.

Putnam uses the example of bowling leagues for the title, but his research includes many other forms of social groups: churches, scouts, little league sports, volunteer groups, bridge clubs, social clubs like the Elks, etc. In nearly every instance, he finds declining engagement.

The gravity of this problem is hard to understate. Dense networks of social interaction build trust, and societies rich in social capital are more vigorous, efficient, productive and healthy. Putnam argues that from a societal perspective, the weak social ties created by civic and social organizations are even more valuable than the strong ties of family or close friends. Weak ties connect people to others who are less like themselves, building social networks that often transcend ethnicity, religion or political beliefs. These strong networks destroy division, prejudice and the other sinister “isms.”

The root cause for the breakdown of civic engagement? Putnam argues it was partly due to the migration from urban centers to the burbs, but mainly because of TV video games, those old boogiemen. He argues that as those mediums became more isolating, as single-TV household became the TV-in-everyone’s-bedroom households, the social connections suffered.

One might contend that, since 2000, the trend of isolating media has gotten even worse. While technology can play a unifying role, allowing communities to connect across geography, this benefit hardly offsets the isolating effect of the distraction device in everyone’s pocket. We live in a world where there’s no need for social engagement on the bus, in the elevator, even at some dinner tables.

The question I kept asking as I read this: At 18 years old, how well does it still hold up? Has technology made it worse? Or has social media made a positive impact (wishful thinking, maybe)? Making a sweeping generalization, millennials seem to be a pretty social generation—have they reversed the trend? What about the re-urbanization of America?

In 2010, Putnam published a follow-up paper with Thomas Sander. They found that, indeed, there has been a reversal in the trend. However, they point to as singular event as the turning point—9/11. The terrorist attacks had a unifying effect on the nation, but the optimism and call to civic engagement were more lasting for those in their adolescence (or younger) in 2001. The “9/11 Generation,” as the authors call them, “seem to grasp their civic and mutual responsibilities far more firmly than do their parents.”

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However, Putnam and Sander also note a divide between “upper-middle-class young white people and their less affluent counterparts,” who aren’t experiencing the same “fundamental promise of American life.” They warn, presciently: “If the United States is to avoid becoming two nations, it must find ways to expand the post-9/11 resurgence of civic and social engagement beyond the ranks of affluent white people.” This was 2010. Unfortunately, it seems they may have been right.

This is a book about a piece of research. It’s 18 years old now, and we’ve gone through at least three pivotal moments since—9/11, the recession, and the 2016 election. So it’s relevance is rapidly diminishing. And while it’s a readable book, it’s also exhaustive. I’m not sure I’d recommend reading the entire book. For most people interested, a synopsis of the findings is probably enough.

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