Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
(2000, ISBN 0-7432-0304-6)
is a book by Robert D. Putnam. It was originally a 1995 essay entitled Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital
In Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital
(1995) Putnam surveys the decline of "social capital
Social capital is a sociological concept, which refers to connections within and between social networks. The concept of social capital highlights the value of social relations and the role of cooperation and confidence to get collective or economic results. The term social capital is frequently...
" in the United States of America since 1950. He has described the reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse upon which Americans used to found, educate, and enrich the fabric of their social lives. He believes this undermines the active civil engagement which a strong democracy
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law...
requires from its citizens. Putnam discusses ways in which Americans have disengaged from political involvement including decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, serving on committees and working with political parties. Putnam also cites Americans' growing distrust in their government. Putnam accepts the possibility that this lack of trust could be attributed to "the long litany of political tragedies and scandals since the 1960s" (see paragraph 13 of the 1995 article
), but believes that this explanation is limited when viewing it alongside other "trends in civic engagement of a wider sort" (par. 13).
Putnam notes the aggregate loss in membership of many existing civic organizations and points out that the act of individual membership has not migrated to other, succeeding organizations. To illustrate why the decline in Americans' membership in social organizations is problematic to democracy, Putnam uses bowling
Bowling Bowling Bowling (1375–1425; late Middle English bowle, variant of boule Bowling (1375–1425; late Middle English bowle, variant of boule...
as an example. Although the number of people who bowl has increased in the last 20 years, the number of people who bowl in leagues has decreased. If people bowl alone, they do not participate in social interaction and civic discussions that might occur in a league environment.
Putnam then contrasts the countertrends of ever increasing mass-membership organizations, nonprofit organizations and support groups to the data of the General Social Survey
The General Social Survey is a sociological survey used to collect data on demographic characteristics and attitudes of residents of the United States. The survey is conducted face-to-face with an in-person interview by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, of a...
. This data shows an aggregate decline in membership of traditional civic organizations, proving his thesis that U.S. social capital has declined. He then asks the obvious question "Why is US social capital eroding?" (par. 35). He believes the "movement of women into the workforce" (par. 36), the "re-potting hypothesis" (par. 37) and other demographic changes have made little impact on the number of individuals engaging in civic associations. Instead, he looks to the technological "individualizing" (par. 39) of our leisure time via television
Television is a telecommunication medium for transmitting and receiving moving images that can be monochrome or colored, with accompanying sound...
The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks that use the standard Internet protocol suite to serve billions of users worldwide...
and eventually "virtual reality
Virtual reality , also known as virtuality, is a term that applies to computer-simulated environments that can simulate physical presence in places in the real world, as well as in imaginary worlds...
Putnam suggests closer studies of which forms of associations can create the greatest social capital, how various aspects of technology
Technology is the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function. It can also refer to the collection of such tools, machinery, and procedures. The word technology comes ;...
, changes in social equality, and public policy affect social capital. He closes by emphasizing the importance of discovering how the United States could reverse the trend of social capital decay.
Everett Carll Ladd claimed that Putnam completely ignored existing field studies, most notably the landmark sociological Middletown studies
The Middletown studies were sociological case studies of the City of Muncie in Indiana conducted by Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, husband-and-wife sociologists. The Lynds' findings were detailed in Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, published in 1929, and Middletown in...
, which during the 1920s raised the same concerns he does today, except the technology being attacked as promoting isolation was radio
Radio is the transmission of signals through free space by modulation of electromagnetic waves with frequencies below those of visible light. Electromagnetic radiation travels by means of oscillating electromagnetic fields that pass through the air and the vacuum of space...
, instead of television or video games.
Likewise, Putnam expresses worries that involvement with "community groups" is in decline. However, in the Middletown studies, researchers noted that traditional neighborly ties were in decline although membership in such community groups was rising, leading to the implication that new forms of social ties emerge which are not immediately visible to the observer.
Research by Andersen, Curtis and Grabb, which explored time-use diaries over a 40-year period in the U.S., Canada, the Netherlands, and the UK, suggests that only in the U.S. has there been a decline in civic participation.