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


For all the benefits of technology, it has changed how we interact with each other in a harmful way. Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor, examines this phenomenon in Bowling Alone. Americans' proclivity to join clubs that benefit the community plummeted with the coming of the internet age. Where we used to enjoy movies together in the theater, we now stay at home; where we used to bowl in leagues, which have disappeared. Even on the street, where we could once make eye contact or say a simple hello to people you passed, people are engaged with their smart phones or i-pods, everyone in their own silo. This in turn limits the building of what Putnam calls "social capital", intangible, unquantifiable things which help individuals in the community and ultimately help the community at large. Things which build social capital may be as simple as organizing a block party, shoveling snow for your neighbor. The most powerful illustration of the power of social capital is the story from which the title of the book is drawn. There are two men in Michigan, one in his 30s, one in his 60s, one an accountant, one a retired maintenance man, one white, one black. They have NOTHING in common, no paths that cross except ONE. They both belong to a bowling league. The extraordinary thing is through this connection, one found that the other needed a kidney, and volunteered to see if he could help is fellow bowler. The social capital built by the league was exchanged by these two men. Had they been bowling alone, their lives would not have intersected.

Erika RS

Social capital is the grease that keeps society moving, but over the past 30 years it has decreased. Bowling Alone is the influential book that gathered the data behind this trend and put social capital on the radar of the nation.Social networks give rise to generalized reciprocity and trust. This is social capital. Reciprocity and trust are most useful when applied generally and not just those who have helped you in the past. Social capital allows society operate smoothly. People rely on social connections for friendships, romantic relationships, job referrals, and community and political organization. Social capital is correlated with individual happiness and with community goods such as lower crime rates.For all the good that it causes, social capital is, like most tools, not unambiguously good. Gangs and the KKK are held together by social capital just as the PTA and Habitat volunteers are. Being gay in a close knit conservative Christian community can ruin lives. The rarely realized ideal is a society with large amounts of social capital and a large tolerance for difference, but the tensions between these tendencies are hard to reconcile.Bowling Alone analyzes empirical data to show that social capital had been declining for 30 years (the book is copyright 2000, data from earlier). Putnam considers political participation, civic participation, religious participation, workplace connections, altruism, volunteering, and philanthropy, and perceptions of reciprocity, honesty, and trust. All measures have shown declines, from mild to dramatic. Some new trends seem to defy the decline (e.g., internet communities), but Putnam makes a compelling case that social capital is generally declining.Consider volunteering as an example. In the US, we volunteer about twice as much as in other developed nations. Volunteering may be formal (through an organization such as United Way) or informal (house sitting for a neighbor). Over half of Americans volunteer when informal volunteering is counted. Volunteering is correlated with higher levels of philanthropic giving.Education predicts volunteer activity; college graduates are twice as likely to volunteer. Parents volunteer the most because of their involvement with activities related to their children (e.g., school, sports teams). Community size, wealth, and family status are other predictors of volunteer activity. Americans who entertain at home are also more likely to volunteer than those who do not.Community involvement is the most important predictor of volunteer activity. Data from 1996 shows that 73% of members of secular organizations and 55% of members of religious organizations volunteer. Only 19% of individuals not involved in organizations volunteer. Members of religious organizations tend to volunteer mostly for their church. Organizations provide volunteer opportunities for their members and act as recruitment pools.Over the past 30 years, volunteer activity has not dropped across the board. Formal volunteering has decreased, but informal volunteering is more common. More people outside of organizations are volunteering, but they do not form long term relationships. There is a troubling generational decline with respect to volunteer activity. The "long civic generation", the generation before the Boomers, has volunteered more at every stage of life than the Boomers and Generation X is worse (although there have been indications that the Millenials may be reversing this slightly).What is behind the declines in volunteering and other types of participation? Given the difficulty of analyzing social trends, Putnam's explanations are guesses. Up to 10% of the decline in these measures can be attributed to time and money pressures on families, up to another 10% can be explained by suburban sprawl and long commutes, and another 25% can be explained by electronic media, especially television. By far, the largest contributor generational succession. The Boomers and Generation X replace the long civic generation in numbers, but their percentage participation is comparatively abysmal. This may explain up to half of the decline in participation. Why this is occurring is an open question.Overall, Bowling Alone was a fascinating and informative book. The quantitative information makes it a valid and credible resource. The publication of Bowling Alone prompted debate over the conclusions Putnam drew, but makes it clear that there are trends to consider, and whether they are considered good, bad, or neutral, they are worth examining.


Bowling Alone is a very thorough (exhaustive? exhausting?) analysis of how American community has fallen apart since 1965 or so, why people don't care about participating in community activities like they used to, whether attending meetings, signing petitions, going to church or helping out with a neighborhood picnic. A very insightful book. The level of detail and the amount of evidence Putnam marshals to support his argument is pretty astonishing and almost overwhelming. But he offers a thoughtful analysis of how community life has fallen apart in the last few decades as one great "civic" generation is replaced my a much-less-civic Boomer generation. I enjoyed it, especially after the long section II where he discusses all the different areas where community life has taken a hit, when he talks about why it matters and what caused it and what we can do about it. So I almost say read the intro, skim Section II (reading first and last paragraphs, perusing the graphs and charts) and then read Sections III to V in their entirety. Those suggestions are only if you are finding it hard to get through the whole thing (as I did). A great book, a seminal text, but a little dry and a little excessive on evidence (read: academic). I think, in general, though, he's right on and I appreciated such a thoughtful and thorough analysis of why Americans no longer care about their communities.

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.


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....

Sadie Forsythe

If you have any sort of interest in social behavior you'll want to read this book. It pulls a lot of threads together to make one concise and frightening point about modern Americans' tendency to interact (or not). The idea not being that Americans no longer bowl, but that they no longer join leagues and bowl in groups. It's something an idea we are all fairly familiar with, but Putnam pulls together a number of social surveys to illustrate the point.The book isn't perfect. Anything more than a perfunctory look at the statistics reveals some inconsistencies in the reporting of results. I'm not suggesting any type of falsehood, but the incline of a line on a graph with 10 year increments can appear far more dramatic than one with 1 year increments, for example, even if presenting the same information. Bowling alone is cleverly formated to always seems the most shocking.Having said that, this book rocked my world. It managed to make a heavily statistical subject readable, made some interesting points, and provided a plausible (and largely blameless) reason for the decline in group interactions. I definitely recommend it.

Annemargaret Olsson

Though this book was written in 2000, it still provides a wealth of information about the changes in our social connections and changes in society that impact us today. This book has really changed how I view my connections with family, the community, with my profession and with television. It seems to me, that television was the one change that has removed people from social connections. We are choosing to watch tv instead of going to the PTA meeting or going to book club. The two or three hours that most people watch tv at night is 2-3 hours that they are not speding connecting with family and friends. I found this book very dense and at times hard to read - though the information I gained from the book was worth the effort. Now I need to find the book that describes the changes in our society and social capital from 2000 to today - the wide spread influence of the internet. Do online communities connect us or provide a false sense of connection and actually continue to increase our social isolation?

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.

Annie Feighery

I had already been researching social networks and social capital for several years when I realized just how foundational this book was to the field. As I read it, I was amazed that many of these concepts emerged for the first time here--the very concepts that bloomed over the next 16 years into the roots of my dissertation. For what it's worth, I felt the same when I read Bourdieux's Le Capital Social--the two vie for the distinction of founding the field. I am impressed that a scholar like Putnam took his message to the advocacy level. This book is directed at the non-academic public. My mom enjoyed the book as a Christian pastor just as much as I did as a scholar. This is the kind of genre I hope to also produce.


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.

Otis Chandler

Recommended by steve blank


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.


As the subtitle implies, Putnam explores the collapse and (potential) revival of the American Community in this thuroug sociological examiniation of the role 'social capital' plays in our wonderful society.Finding alarming trends in the decline of civic participation, from bowling leagues to voting and even letter sending, Putnam unravels some of our nation's most alarming trends. After expounding numerous indicators of America's civic disengagement, "Bowling Alone" then turns to examining the culprits. While no culprit is balmed outright, and I refuse to give a synopsis of the findings, let it be known that if you want to take any role in stoping the alarming trends discussed in the first section of the book, please start with turning off your television. If this advice were heeded by the majority of Americans we would certainly be living in a very different, and hopefully more engaged country.In the book's final pages, Putnam predicts a variety of forms and means by which American civic engagement can be revitalized. Of perhaps most interesting note is the section on political re-engagement that the author suggests will come about when candidates learn to utilize the time of willing to be given by their constituents more effectively than their money. . . a prediction that seems surprisingly relevant in this upcoming election!If you find it too long to read, please, do find a synopsis or at least borrow mine and read the last few chapters. . .


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.


Trevor Phillips OBE ,head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, has chosen to discuss Robert D Putnam’s Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community , on FiveBooks ( as one of the top five on his subject - Equality, saying that:“…In the half million interviews compiled for this book, they found that people in American society are less connected, they do fewer things together, they don’t sign petitions. Where they used to go bowling in leagues they now go bowling alone. This fragmentation of society that Putnam describes is becoming more severe because of technology making people more alienated from each other..…”.The full interview is available here:

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