Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

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9780684832838: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Once we bowled in leagues, usually after work; but no longer. This seemingly small phenomenon symbolizes a significant social change that Robert Putnam has identified and describes in this brilliant volume, "Bowling Alone." Drawing on vast new data from the Roper Social and Political Trends and the DDB Needham Life Style -- surveys that report in detail on Americans' changing behavior over the past twenty-five years -- Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and social structures, whether the PTA, church, recreation clubs, political parties, or bowling leagues. Our shrinking access to the "social capital" that is the reward of communal activity and community sharing is a serious threat to our civic and personal health. Putnam's groundbreaking work shows how social bonds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction. For example, he reports that getting married is the equivalent of quadrupling your income and attending a club meeting regularly is the equivalent of doubling your income. The loss of social capital is felt in critical ways: Communities with less social capital have lower educational performance and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low birth weight, and prenatal mortality. Social capital is also a strong predictor of crime rates and other measures of neighborhood quality of life, as it is of our health: In quantitative terms, if you both smoke and belong to no groups, it's a close call as to which is the riskier behavior. A hundred years ago, at the turn of the last century, America's stock of social capital was at an ebb, reduced by urbanization, industrialization, and vast immigration thatuprooted Americans from their friends, social institutions, and families, a situation similar to today's. Faced with this challenge, the country righted itself. Within a few decades, a range of organizations was created, from the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and YWCA to Hadassah and the Knights of Columbus and the Urban League. With these and many more cooperative societies we rebuilt our social capital. We can learn from the experience of those decades, Putnam writes, as we work to rebuild our eroded social capital. It won't happen without the concerted creativity and energy of Americans nationwide. Like defining works from the past that have endured -- such as "The Lonely Crowd" and "The Affluent Society" -- and like C. Wright Mills, Richard Hofstadter, Betty Friedan, David Riesman, Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson, and Theodore Roszak, Putnam has identified a central crisis at the heart of our society and suggests what we can do.

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Review:

Few people outside certain scholarly circles had heard the name Robert D Putnam before 1995. But then this self-described "obscure academic" hit a nerve with a journal article called "Bowling Alone". Suddenly he found himself invited to Camp David, his picture was in People magazine, and his thesis at the centre of a raging debate. In a nutshell, he argued that civil society was breaking down as Americans became more disconnected from their families, neighbours, communities, and the republic itself. The organisations that gave life to democracy were fraying. Bowling became his driving metaphor. Years ago, he wrote, thousands of people belonged to bowling leagues. Today, however, they're more likely to bowl alone:

Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values--these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighbourhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.
The conclusions reached in Bowling Alone rest on a mountain of data gathered by Putnam and a team of researchers since his original essay appeared. Its breadth of information is astounding--yes, he really has statistics showing people are less likely to take Sunday picnics nowadays. Dozens of charts and graphs track everything from trends in PTA participation to the number of times Americans say they give "the finger" to other drivers each year. If nothing else, Bowling Alone is a fascinating collection of factoids. Yet it does seem to provide an explanation for why "we tell pollsters that we wish we lived in a more civil, more trustworthy, more collectively caring community". What's more, writes Putnam, "Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs". Putnam takes a stab at suggesting how things might change, but the book's real strength is in its diagnosis rather than its proposed solutions. Bowling Alone won't make Putnam any less controversial, but it may come to be known as a path-breaking work of scholarship, one whose influence has a long reach into the 21st century. --John J Miller

Review:

William Julius Wilson Harvard University "Bowling Alone" is a tour de force. Robert Putnam has amassed an impressive array of evidence for his original and powerful thesis on the decline of social capital and civic engagement in the past several decades. This thought-provoking book will stimulate huge academic and national public policy debates on the crisis of the American community.

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