Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Bowling Alone

One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to read at least one book per month with redeeming literary value.  I’ve fallen a bit short of that goal during tax season, but I do want to share a very well-researched and thought-provoking non-fiction book that I did finish:  Bowling Alone:  The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New York (2000).

My son Jeff, an economic analyst at the Congressional Budget Office with a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, had recommended it.  Professor Putnam teaches Public Policy at Harvard and is a past president of the American Political Science Association.

Baby Boomers like me have witnessed first-hand the decline in civic engagement over the past several decades.   When we were kids, neighbors all knew one another and spent time together.  Our parents were often involved in social clubs or lodges, church groups and PTA.   Even though I grew up on a farm, so my “next-door” neighbor was half a mile away, the residents of Farmington Township had a Community Club that met at a one-room school. There were many young farm families, and also some real life shy and stoic Norwegian bachelor farmers who could have stepped right out of Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon.  Grandparents sometimes lived in a separate house on “the home place” or "across the road."

Community Club gatherings were huge potluck suppers with singing and storytelling.  Adults then played cards—pitch or whist-- while the kids amused themselves playing ball or games.    Every wedding, baptism or funeral was a community event.  When calamity struck, the neighbors rallied around and offered support.  When my mother was hospitalized for several months in 1967-1968, we witnessed a convoy of tractors pulling into our driveway.  The lead neighbor told my dad they had come to help him harvest so he could spend more time at the hospital with my mother.  It’s an act of kindness that left an indelible impression on my brother and me.  

Putnam would say our little farming community had a lot of “social capital.”  We were literally invested in the lives of our neighbors in an inclusive, not exclusive, way.   South Dakota, my home state, still has a relatively high degree of social capital, as do Scandinavian countries.  My daughter once quipped that in South Dakota there aren't six degrees of separation -- it's more like one and a half!  The Deep South (former Confederacy) tends to have the least social capital.  Social capital helps promotes safety, education, community pride, trust, health and efficiency. 

Putnam chronicles the decline in social capital since World War II.  He examines (and rejects) several hypotheses as to why we are less connected with each other.   While there is no single cause in the decline in social capital, Putnam was able to identify several contributing factors.  The largest factor was generational change.  The World War II generation, dubbed by Tom Brokaw (a favorite son of South Dakota) as “the greatest generation,” had an incredibly high level of social capital and patriotism.  They had endured hardships together during the Great Depression, and then banded together during World War II.  Community scrap metal drives, rationing, Civil Defense units and war bond drives helped unite communities in support of the war effort and the soldiers who were fighting and dying for our freedom.   Most of that generation remained engaged in social and civic activities throughout their lives, but others became stay-at-home Archie Bunker types, who spent most of their free time in front of the TV set. 

Another factor that contributed to the decline in social capital is a changing workplace.  We work longer hours, have longer commutes, and have more two-earner households.  We move more often to find or retain work.   Putnam observes that “for people as for plants, frequent repotting disrupts root systems.”

Urban sprawl is also a factor, although civic disengagement is also visible in small towns and rural areas.   My in-town grandparents lived on streets with houses close together.  People sat on front porches, walked on sidewalks, and talked across backyard fences.  Suburbanites are more likely to stay inside their climate controlled homes, or shuttle kids to activities in minivans.  Their focus tends to be on individual, family and material pursuits and less on community engagement.  Parents have long commutes, and fewer evening hours to socialize or become involved in civic organizations.

Yet another factor is our reliance on electronic media for entertainment.  How many hours do we spend in front of the TV, or a video game or computer screen?  I am often amazed to see young adults in a local coffee shop sitting “together” but not talking.  They are sending text messages to others, and not taking time to engage in real time, in person, with their friend across the table who is also texting. 

Although Putnam does an exemplary job of identifying and documenting the problem, he offers only a sketchy outline of potential solutions to help us replenish lost social capital.  We’ve become, in some ways, a nation of loners.  We can’t just reset the clock to the 50s.   We must adapt within the context of the modern world. 

Putnam offers these suggestions to help us reconnect with friends and neighbors and attempt to recreate a sense of community pride and community involvement:  1)  Get kids involved in community service projects; 2)  Develop more family-friendly workplace policies; 3)  Spend less time commuting and create pedestrian-friendly communities; 4)  Increase faith-based community involvement; 5)  Spend less time watching TV and on the computer (guilty as charged!) and spend more time connecting with REAL people;  6) Increase participation in cultural activities; and 7) Increase actual participation in politics.  

This book was not a light read, but it is written in a very readable and conversational style.  I highly recommend it.

Are we creating a new kind of social capital here in the blogosphere?  What do you think?

The book cover design is by Francine Kass.  Cover Illustration by R. Kenton Nelson.

LeAnn aka pasqueflower


  1. wow, something new to add to the reading list. I live in a small town right now and it definitely feels more social.

    I think part of it too is generations moving away- there is no work to be had where I grew up and had a childhood, so had to leave for economic reasons. If I remember my Studs Terkel correctly, social interactions were lower during the Depression as well for similar reasons- lots of people moving around, and becoming more transient as they tried to get by...

    great review!

  2. Very detailed review. Interesting topic. America has always been portrayed as a nation of individuals...the shared hardships of the Depression and the Wars may have drawn us together. I think being a part of an Etsy team draws people together in a less dramatic way. TFS!

  3. I will definitely have to read this. I can remember growing up in a small town in the sixties and all of the community activities. It is sad to lose that sense of community.

  4. I will definitely need to read this. I am still very young and I feel like times have even changed since I was a kid. When we were little all the kids would run off into the green belts together and play at the neighbors houses. We had neighborhood potlucks and a great sense of community. I can sadly say that right now I do not know any of my neighbors. (granted I've only lived in this house for a short time) Kids all stay in their own yards and don't interact nearly as much. This makes me so sad.