Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

ISBN: 0743203046
ISBN 13: 9780743203043
By: Robert D. Putnam

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About this book

Drawing on vast new data that reveal Americans’ changing behavior, Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and how social structures—whether they be PTA, church, or political parties—have disintegrated. Until the publication of this groundbreaking work, no one had so deftly diagnosed the harm that these broken bonds have wreaked on our physical and civic health, nor had anyone exalted their fundamental power in creating a society that is happy, healthy, and safe. Like defining works from the past, such as The Lonely Crowd and The Affluent Society, and like the works of C. Wright Mills and Betty Friedan, Putnam’s Bowling Alone has identified a central crisis at the heart of our society and suggests what we can do.

Reader's Thoughts


An American classic on the level of The Feminine Mystique, rendered completely obsolete by the Internet. Has a fantastic, hilarious chapter that plots television watching time versus variables like civic engagement, life satisfaction, divorce, education, and number of times you've given another driver the finger recently.


This book, as a piece of academic work (as Putnam, and the concept of social capital are both academic), leaves much to be desired. Social capital is clearly Putnam's pet idea, and while he writes eloquently enough, a closer examination of the arguments produces many logical inconsistencies. Neither here, or in other works, does Putnam fully differentiate what social capital is from what it supposedly causes (Is social capital tolerance, or does it bring about tolerance? Both statements could be supported with direct quotes from the book). Additionally, the notion that social capital is always good, or that it can be accurately measured or tested, is oversimplifying something very complex. Further empirical studies on the topic of social trust and membership in groups indicated that the two things do not correlate, meaning social capital (or trust) cannot in fact be measured or determined by group membership- by, for example, bowling leagues. I understand why some people like this book, it offers a new, easy to use concept to explain many of societies ills. Unfortunately, its an extremely muddy concept with muddy mechanisms that fails to meet basic scientific principles of clarity and testability, and ultimately cracks under pressure anytime someone tries to get at the core of what it is and what it means.


Despite it's "Best Seller" status - this book left a lot to be desired. Like anyone else who knows a thing or two about political participation and social capital, this book rings hollow and insincere at certain points.Briefly, Putnam rests far too much of his argument on the decline of traditional, conventional "community organizations" of a previous era (like The Lion's Club, the Elks or the Masons). He pays scant attention to how divisive, racist, sexist, and homophobic many of these organizations were and how they all demanded a degree of conformity. Furthermore, he manages to write off the importance of both social movements and support-based groups in a single, short chapter without acknowledging the way that social movements allow new flexible forms of participation or how support-based groups may allow a greater degree of "bonding" and "bridging" social capital. If you take an AA meeting or a meeting for single parents, of course the people in these groups have a single thing in common but they are just as likely to have many things not in common, such as the neighbourhood they live in, the type of job they have, and racial background.Further to this, his means of measurement are simply not adequate. Using the GSS to track club involvement is disingenuous, for example, because they ask "Were you a member of this type of club?" The answer is yes or no, and does not allow individuals to count the multiple kinds of clubs they belong to of a single kind (such as belonging to two environmental clubs).There is certainly something going in American - CONVENTIONAL forms of political participation and civic participation are declining, but there are many emerging forms of participation which Putnam writes off or ignores altogether. He acknowledges that we need to find new ways to participate that that fit our current era as the old kinds of community organization may not work, but at the same time he ignores, writes off, or undervalues the ways in which people are already participating in new and innovative ways - such as support groups, continuing social movements, community festivals, pick-up sports leagues, short-lived issue based groups, more flexible forms of political participation, and the multiple kinds of participation that are made possible by the internet and related forms of technology.Still, there is a great deal of valuable information in this book and a number of keen insights but Putnam's needs to open his mind up to new, innovative, and unconventional forms of participation and networks in order to make a more convincing argument.


I have known of this book and referred to it for many years but this is the first time I have read it. In this book sociologist Robert Putnam chronicles the decline of social capital in the United States over the last century and offers suggestions on ways we can re-develop that lost social capital. Social capital is social connectedness, and the active involvement in civic affairs, whether it be in leading a Cub Scout Group, joining a service club, participating in a political campaign, or working to improve one's community. Putnam looks at the various dimensions of social capital and how it develops and why it has declined. The book is filled with data, charts and graphs, as well as specific illustrations that illuminate the data. While it is a technical work, it is written in an accessible style for anyone who wants to really delve into the issue. I found it challenging and inspiring, in that much of my work these days is designed to help people find and develop their social capital.

Craig Werner

Despite its useful elements, Bowling Alone reminds me why I spend very little time reading sociology. Putnam offers a clear and reasonably compelling argument that civic involvement (in numerous forms--political, religious, social in both formal and informal manifestations) has declined steadily since the middle 1960s. He advances a notion of "social capital"--a measurement of the resources available to individuals in communities distinct from financial capital and human capital. He has some useful insights into some of the causes, the most important of which are: 1) the emergence of television, which draws people into individual circumstances, and reducing the number of situations in which there's critical mass for group activities; 2) the change from the generation formed by World War II, which emerged with a strong commitment to civic involvement. Putnam's reasonably careful to avoid lamentation as a rhetorical mode, and he provides copious evidence to support his assertions.Having said that, I'm really really glad I'm done with the book and don't have to read anymore of it tomorrow. His method typifies academic sociology at its most mind-numbing. Lots and lots of graphs which say more or less the same thing. (Yes, I understand why we want real evidence). That's just dull. More problematic is the way that he parrots the sociological claim that it's possible to normalize the statistics--holding numerous variables equal in order to isolate a single variable. I'm more than slightly dubious that he's done anything of the kind. While I agree in my non (social) scientific way with his argument, I'm absolutely unconvinced that one can separate human, financial and social capital as cleanly as he claims to have done.My final grousing is that the final segment of the book in which he looks back to the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era as analogs for the contemporary problems left me absolutely cold. I'd skip it.A final observation--one he couldn't do anything about since the book was published in 2000--is that it would be interesting to see how the explosion of the internet and various other communications technologies has effected the patterns he identifies. Everyone reading this is probably aware that I'm a card-carrying technophobe (not quite a luddite or you wouldn't be reading this here), but I'm also aware that there are real possibilities for connecting via the net, etc. I'll check in on Putnam's website to see what he has to say about the view from 2012.The above review is probably a bit harsh. I did learn from Bowling Alone and I'll be using bits of it in a class this semester. But, as stated previously, I'm glad that I've finished it.

Otis Chandler

Recommended by steve blank


A fabulous book about the decline of community in America over the last several decades. It makes a lot of interesting points, and is packed with easily-accessible data to support his arguments. At first blush, the premise doesn't seem to need much support. We can see the decline of community all around us. But it's interesting to see the numbers behind this decline.Then it gets really interesting in sections 3 and 4, where he considers some of the possible causes and effects of this decline. In discussing causes, he mostly depends on correlations, but usually reminds the reader that this does not imply causation. In some cases, he makes a pretty good case for causation. But the effects are profound. Pretty much across the board people are healthier and happier when they have a strong sense of community. So what do we do about it? The end of the book was a bit of a let-down, but in retrospect, how can it be any other way? The answer is obvious, if anti-climactic: we need to get off our butts. The last chapter is a call-to-action, without much substance. The chapter before that was a little more interesting though. It gives an example in American history, late 19th century, when we faced a very similar situation to what we face today, and people mobilized to foster more community. We did it before, we can do it again.This author is virtually incapable of making unsubstantiated claims. He has numbers and graphs for practically everything. Rather than make it a dry read, this made it very easy to trust the author, and really did help to elaborate on his points. It did make the book quite long, but trust me, it's worth it.


This is exactly the kind of book I would have hated to have been assigned in college. It has tiny text, tiny margins, 500 pages, and - worst of all - a ton of interesting information that I really wanted to read, but never would have had time to.The information assembled by Putnam('s legion of grad students) is compelling. Simply put, Americans are less connected in their communities than they used to be and it is affecting everything in their lives.To me, the most interesting part of the book was Section 5, "What Do We Do About It?" where he talks about the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. Essentially, when society made the switch from mostly farms with some smaller cities, to when those small cities grew to be huge centers of commerce and virtually everyone moved off the farm, there was a fundamental shift in thinking. They didn't sit around and bemoan the way things were: they made whatever changes they could to adapt, forming communities where ever they could that resembled those they had left behind. He specifically highlights that they had to come up with things that were completely new and completely different from what they knew, and that we shouldn't be afraid to do the same to solve our own crisis of community.That said, this book is over 8 years old. It doesn't talk about 911, Bush, or the current status of the internet, all of which I think would be interesting from the point of view of social capital.I can only assume Putnam's grad students are working on it.

Orrin Woodward

Robert Putnam's books was several books in one. The first section (about the first 4 chapters) drew me in with a synopsis of the decline of community in America. The second section, through chapter 15, nearly put me to sleep. :) Thankfully, however, I kept reading because from chapter 16 until the end of the book was so good, that I give it 5 stars despite the slogging in the middle. Putnam's five keys for social capital was worth the entire book. Here is my takeaways:Putnam list five specific areas where the trust and understanding inured by social capital helps translate aspirations into realities:1. Social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily through improved teamwork.2. Social capital greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly through improved trust.3. Social capital helps widen the awareness of fellow citizens that their fates are intertwined through improved understanding.4. Social capital serves as conduits for the flow of helpful information and resources to accomplish community and individual goals.5. Social capital improves individual lives through psychological and biological processes. In fact, numerous studies suggest lives that are rich in social capital cope with trauma and illnesses significantly more effectively.Despite social capital’s overwhelming advantages, Putnam acknowledges its decline, writing, “Americans have had a growing sense at some visceral level of disintegrating social bonds.” Furthermore, he writes, “More than 80% of Americans said there should be more emphasis on community, even if it puts more demands on individuals.” In sum, social capital isn’t just the fuel for Social Power – a necessary check on State Power – but it also enhances individual lives through the sense of belonging engendered within communities. Strikingly, then, the decline of social capital, not only attacks society’s freedoms, but also attacks an individual’s well-being. Simply put, America cannot remain free without a revival of Social Power through building social capital in voluntary communities. With so much at stake, why aren’t more people focused on restoring voluntary communities throughout America and the West?

Shane Jaynes

Putnam does a supurb job, through extensive and detailed demographic research, of isolating a compelling social problem -- declining social and civic participation. He describes this trend in interesting ways. For instance he argues that the increasing demand for and subsequent supply of lawyers in contemporary US society represents the handicapping erosion of trust and good faith among fellow citizens. This was an "a-ha" for me, an interpretation about a well-known phenomenon (who hasn't seen those lawyer commercials on TV encouraging you to get what you're owed?) fascinating to me, as are the other "transaction costs" we often unconsciously incorporate into our lives because we don't have neighborlines. Beyond describing the facts as they are, however, Putnam also forecasts in economic, political, and moral terms the consequences already accruing and what might lay in store for the future if people don't embrace a renewed ethic of participation. I recommend it for people who wonder at the causes and consequences of our increasing tendency to keep to ourselves.


I'm not sure I could give full justice to this book in a hastily written review, so I'm not going to try. Robert Putnam's seminal treatise on social capital is jam-packed with statistics and information to back up his claims that social capital has been on a serious decline since the 1960s, much to the detriment of American society. He delineates a difference between two types of social capital--bonding (strong ties to a small inner circle of people, like family) and bridging (weak ties to a diverse and sprawling array of people)--and the struggle to balance between the two, even while both are declining. He explains the history of social capital and the decline, the possible reasons contributing to the decline, reasons why the decline of social capital is bad for society and suggestions for things that can be done to slow the decline. Everything he says is extensively researched and cited. Every time I thought I had come up with a counterargument or a detail he had missed, he addressed it a few pages or chapters later. The only problem with the book is that it was written in 2000. A surprising number of things have changed in the last eight years, including but not limited to: 9/11, Katrina, George Bush, Facebook/Myspace, broader expansion of use of the internet, 2008 Democratic Primaries, Iraq War, rise of the "green" movement, cheaper air travel, etc. In the last section of the book, he challenges society to make a series of changes by 2010, changes that sound somewhat impossible to achieve in so short a time. But, after just these eight years, it seems that much of what he prescribed is on its way to coming true, and I am very curious as to what he would have to say about it. Unfortunately, I think his research has moved on to other topics (diversity...). In any case, this is a very important book about the way members of our society interact (or don't interact) with each other and what that means.


I'm currently taking a break from this book, though its quite easy reading. Putnam takes a wide range of angles on analyzing social capital, and generally reaches the same conclusion each time - the downward trend in conventional social groups has been taking place since the 1950's/1960's. While its interesting to understand this trend in terms of political, religious and community involvement, the book is somewhat out-of-date. With the rise of social media in the last few years, the book falls flat on addressing how and whether virtual interactions are replacing in-person interactions, and whether there is an argument that social capital is alive and well, its just taking a different form. I'll probably continue reading this book at some point....


There are a handful of social science books that cogently present and defend “big ideas”, while remaining readable and assessable. Bowling Alone is one of these books. Harvard Professor Robert Putnam relies on a variety of longitudinal data sources to convince readers of a strong societal trend: widespread declines in American civic engagement since the 1960’s. Important forms of social capital-inducing political, religious, and civic participation have decreased. People are less trusting of their fellow citizens. Even friendly, informal contacts among neighbors and friends (including participation in bowling leagues, hence Putnam’s title) have decreased. Putnam contends that the American tendency to “bowl alone” has important social consequences. Deficits in social capital, or tangible benefits resulting from social contact, has wide-ranging negative effects on education and children’s welfare, public safety, economic prosperity, personal happiness, and even physical health. What caused the declines in civic engagement? Putnam attributes the declines to suburban sprawl and the proliferation of television. He contends that increased work hours, financial stress, and movement of women into the work force have also contributed to the decline, albeit to a lesser degree. Putnam notes clear generational differences in civic engagement: much of the decline can be attributed to the Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers.What can be done to reverse the trend? Putnam is clear that he does not intend his book to invoke reactionary nostalgia for the “better times” of the 1950’s. He notes similarities between contemporary social changes and those stemming from early 20th century urbanization and industrialization. Putnam commends Progressive Era reformers for adapting reform to rapidly changing 20th Century society, and suggests that similar innovation is necessary today. He concludes with a series of challenges for leaders in various domains to engage in social capital-enhancing practices, and provides numerous policy suggestions. Putnam’s contention that civic engagement has declined should resonate with readers: it is no mystery that there is an impersonal character to contemporary American society. Nonetheless, one strength of Bowling Alone is Putnam’s ability to articulate “what we know” in clear defensible terms. Bowling Alone is social science: it is data-driven and, while Putnam’s normative position is clear, he never forces it down the reader’s throat. Putnam presents not as an ideologue, but as a scholar prepared to, through hundreds of references (the scope of Putnam’s references is staggering!) and extensive analysis, present an argument. Ultimately, whether readers accept the argument depends on the importance they place in social capital.


Finally finished this book. It took me a couple months because my reading time was largely limited to Sundays at work when I was monitoring the front desk. I picked up Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam because it was mentioned in another book I had read earlier. I think it was the Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennets, but I’m not sure now. Anyway, I have to say this book was very interesting and educational. I hesitate to use the word entertaining because it’s definitely not light reading and has lots of graphs and tables to sort through, but overall everything was explained well and I have to say his arguments are very convincing and proven. And what would those arguments be? Bowling Alone is based off a 1995 essay written by Robert Putnam that has to deal with America’s declining social capital. Basically our social interactions. According to Putnam, American society as a whole is contributing less and spending less time with people. This has served to weaken traditionally strong bonds between neighbors, clubs, teams, etc. and isolate us. In Bowling Alone, Putnam explains what this isolation is costing us in the forms of economics, health, and safety. I enjoyed reading this book if for nothing more than the validation it gave me for choosing to walk 30 minutes to work instead of the easier 10 minute drive. The random person asking me for directions, change for a meter, or even the time does wonders to boost my attitude and make me feel more connected to a city than a frustrating drive through traffic, and, according to Putnam, that’s what it’s all about.


God this book is painstaking. (Read: painful.) It's good, it's thorough, and I read all five hundred pages or whatever. But the writing style induces anguish. It's so full of qualifications like: "But this correlation doesn't imply causality" or "Even when we hold race, class, gender, education, and imcome constant..."I'll save you hours of your life and give you the summary: Throughout the twentieth century, more and more Americans were participating in clubs, having dinner parties, going to church, volunteering, working on political campaigns--until the 1970s. Then, this steady increase in partipation became a sharp drop, and civic life continues to decline. Various things could have caused the decline: women entering the work force, racial integration, the internet, longer commutes, busier work schedules. Really, though, the evidence points to two main things that caused this decline: television and generational differences (the baby boomers were less likely to volunteer, Gen X even moreso, and so on). This is a shame, because people who are involved in civic life (even something as small as playing cards or hosting dinner parties) are more likely to vote, to volunteer, to have friends, to create safe neighborhoods, to make more money, etc, etc. This book might just finally get my ass in gear to do the volunteering I've been talking about.

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