In his article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Robert Putnam defines his idea of social capital and outlines problems arising from a decline of civic society in America. He describes social capital as the benefits that come from social organizations, such as networking, societal norms and a generalized trust, which lead to cooperation and progress. Putnam goes on to say that societies in which members are civically engaged have been far more successful in areas like education, unemployment, crime, drug abuse and healthcare. He explains that social networks play an important role in the performance of representative government. It is his belief that these social networks of civic engagement drastically affect things like voter turnout and newspaper readership, things that play an important role in the electoral process. Putnam makes a simple claim that “life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital” (3). He says that not only is life easier in these communities, but that these social networks are a prerequisite for socio-economic modernization.
He continues by describing how this social capital has declined over the past few decades in America. He relates that nearly 160 years ago, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited America, he was impressed by the widespread tendency for Americans to form associations of all types. He begins to explain this problem of declining social capital by describing voting trends in America. In the 1960’s voter turnout was extremely high, but by the 1990’s turnout had decreased by close to twenty-five percent. Further, the attendance of public meetings declined by a third over a period of twenty years. A decline in civic engagement has also been documented in turnouts at political rallies and speeches and even local committee meetings. It seems that as a result of this lack of participation, people have begun to distrust the government in America. In 1966 thirty percent of Americans were distrustful. Less than thirty years later, the number of those who are distrustful of the government rose to seventy-five percent.
The problem of declining social capital goes beyond political involvement or voter turnout. Putnam continues by listing countless organizations that have experienced a decline in membership over the past thirty to forty years including labor unions, religious associations and parent-teacher organizations. Civic and fraternal organizations have lost membership by an average of about fifty percent since the 1960’s. It is at the end of his description of the decline of civic society in America that Putnam reveals the reason behind his title. Although more Americans are bowling now than ever before, membership in bowling leagues declined by more than forty percent over a ten year period.
The problem with the decreased membership of regional and civic organizations is not simply that numbers are down. The problem is that because more people are “flying solo,” they are less likely to confer with others in small groups. Americans have instead been joining mass-membership organizations like the American Association of Retired Persons. These organizations, while enormous in number, are not a solution to the problem of declining social capital. When joining these groups, Americans bind themselves to an ideal or a symbol, rather than another human being. While previous civic engagement, namely through smaller or more localized organizations, advocated trust and networking, these larger groups do not create the same effect. In short, these large associations suffer from widespread groupthink. These associations have so many members that none connect and the members are unable to accomplish anything for the greater good. Putnam notes that membership to small support groups have increased in the past few decades, but this does not solve the problem of declining social capital because these types of groups are geared toward helping the individual instead of society in general.
Putnam then goes on to list several possible reasons why the social capital of the United States is in decline. He suggests that possibly the entry of women into the work force has played a role in this issue. This has not only increased the average number of hours in the work week but also decreased the amount of time and energy available to put toward civic engagements. Putnam also cites the ease of mobility in today’s society as a possible reason. Because it is easier for people to move and move more often, it is less convenient or even practical for them to join local organizations. Another possibility that Putnam considers is the increased number of divorces, the decreased number of marriages and fewer children. The transformation of the American family over the past few decades has done a lot to decline social capital in the United States, in Putnam’s opinion. His final suggestion is that our technologically advanced culture has led to an “individualization” of American citizens. People spend more time alone, watching television and searching the internet, instead of with their neighbors and friends like people have done in the past. Simply stated, as Americans become more introverted, they also become more self-centered and less concerned about collective interest and are less likely to become members of local and general interest organizations.
Finally, Putnam offers a few solutions to what he feels is a degenerative problem. He urges more research into the question especially in specific areas such as what types of organizations create the most social capital and whether social capital can be redistributed using the workplace or technology. He also warns against romanticizing the small-town, quiet lives of Americans in the 1950’s. He feels that research should be done on both sides, to weigh the costs and profits of civil involvement. As a final suggestion, Putnam brings to light the effect of public policy on social involvement. He cites the removal of slums and consolidation of schools and postal offices as benefits to physical capital but detriments to social capital. Putnam is not completely negative toward public policy; he also mentions additions to social capital from public policy reforms such as community colleges and tax deductions for charitable contributions. It is Putnam’s feeling that America needs to restore its social capital in order for its citizens to regain trust in the government. He feels that if Americans can once again join together in groups and organizations and are able to connect with one other, then society in general will benefit. Putnam argues that a person-to-person bond is one of the most important factors in increasing civic involvement and a sense of trust among the American people.
Robert Putnam makes a very compelling point. American life and American societal life has changed drastically in the past four decades. The way Americans live, where American’s live, what Americans do and how Americans feel has completely changed the dynamic of society in the United States. Technological advances and an increased cost of living have made it possible for the American people to turn inward and focus on themselves and their own families rather than to their communities. This loss in what is described as social capital has completely changed the country. Voter turnout is very low, while crime, unemployment and drug use are at higher levels than in the 1950’s. It is obvious that the decline in social capital in America has left negative effects on society as a whole.
Perhaps the most important point that Putnam makes is that “these networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic modernization, were a precondition for it” (2). Joining together with others and working together for the better good are the foundations of modernization. As people become more extroverted and gain consideration for others, both society and the human race are able to grow and develop. Because earlier Americans were consistent in forming thousands of different types of organizations, they helped to create in the United States a modernized nation. What Putnam describes in his article is frightening if one considers the fact that Americans could continue on this trend. The decline in social capital in America, if it is as vital to society and democracy as Putnam indicates, could set the country on a path of regression. Further, its effect on the democratic electoral process is a detriment to United States political philosophy. As the peoples’ involvement in the governmental process decreases, the stability of the democracy also decreases. Putnam implies that social capital and the benefits that emerge as a result of associations are necessary in the democratic process. It seems as though Putnam has a very valid argument. That, coupled with the statistics that prove a decline in social capital, is a frightening prospect.
His title, though on first glance perplexing, proves to be extremely appropriate. Putnam’s use of bowling and bowling leagues as an example of this problem in America is very effective. He gives the statistic that “between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent” (5). This statistic has more implications than just a simple decline in social capital. It has shown the transformation of attitudes in America, something that is most definitely more frightening than a simple decline in civic duty. The selfish attitude of Americans is very disheartening. An “every man for himself” attitude is not what keeps a nation standing. It is necessary for people to work together and listen to each other in order to form a peaceful and stable country.
Although the point that Robert Putnam makes is disturbing, it is important for Americans to understand its implications and take an active part in society. It is not enough for people to join mass organizations like AARP or the NRA. Instead Americans need to look back to organizations like the PTA or attend a town meeting. Or join a bowling league.
Putnam, Robert. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” (Journal of Democracy, January 1995, Volume 6, Number 1).