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

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.


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.


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.


http://thisweekatthelibrary.blogspot....Every so often I read a book that strikes my brain as lightening, forever altering my thinking and earning a permanent place both on my bedside bookcase and on the tip of my tongue, for I will be thinking, talking, and writing about it from that point on. Bowling Alone is such a book. In it, Robert Putnam makes the case that America has experienced over a half-century of social decline -- decline that is universal, across all demographics and throughout the nation. He uses a concept called social capital, a representation of the strength of social ties between individuals and their networks; the more social capital a society has, the more cohesive it is and the better it functions as a human community in matters of health, safety, and problem solving.He first charts a steady decline in social capital by using falling rates in civic organizations (like the Rotary Club), locally-organized political activity, religious participation, communal leisure activities, and other markers. Putnam then attempts to ascertain the causes of this steep decline, which seems inexplicable given that the baby boomer generation has reached the age where civic participation is at its greatest. He finds a variety of society-wide forces (increasing job and security pressure; suburbanization; the rise of television), but also notes a major generational influence. The most active civic generation in American history is dying off, but much of their strength comes (Putnam believes) from the unifying force of WWII. That war called upon the resources of the entire nation -- women in the workforce and children gathering scrap metal were just as important as the soldiers in the field. People didn't simply work together; they believed they were working together, and for a common goal. Putnam believes that this extended period of national solidarity cast a shadow over that generation's lives -- but the baby boomers and generation-Xers have had no such struggle. No one would think of the Vietnam War as bringing people together; indeed, it must stand out as one of the most divisive wars in American history.In making his argument, Putnam is both exhaustive and conservative -- anticipating objections to his conclusions and answering them as a matter of course. He's also not quick to overestimate the influence of any one factor, when sometimes I thought such emphasis might be appropriate. Putnam then asks the question, "So what?" and examines the ways in which social capital is a boon to society and then the consequences of losing it. He then ends by offering several goals for American society to work forward to as a way of strengthening itself. My interest in this book stems from my interest in the 'human habitat' in general, and community is an essential part of that.Bowling Alone is imminently worthy of consideration -- not just for the ideas it contains, but for the thorough manner that Putnam presents them. A small caveat; the book may be marginally dated given the rise of social networking sites. While Putnam does address online communities, facebook and similar creatures are altogether different from usenet groups and static websites -- and although they're scarcely a replacement for what we've lost, certainly they're a factor that would need to be considered if this book were published today. For my own part, I am resolutely committed to doing my part to live my life in connection with other people.

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.


I slogged my way through this book, thinking that I needed to read it to better understand the social capital in my own community. While it did give evidentiary support to my beliefs, I did not learn anything new. I can sum up this entire work with the following, which includes word for word quotes from the last chapter:Below are the suggestions given by Putnam after a dense analysis of factors that have led to the decline of social capital in America. Social capital is defined as: connections among individuals; social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them (civic virtue). These networks can be as small as a book club hosted by neighbors to as broad as national organizations like the Red Cross."-Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 the level of civic engagement among Americans then coming of age in all parts of our society will match that of their grandparents when they were that same age, and that at the same time bridging social capital will be substantially great than it was in their grandparents’ era.-Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 America’s workplace will be substantially more family-friendly and community-congenial, so that American workers will be enabled to replenish our stocks of social capital both within and outside the workplace.-Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 Americans will spend less leisure time sitting passively alone in front of glowing screens and more time in active connection with our fellow citizens. -Let us foster new forms of electronic entertainment and communication that reinforce community engagement rather than forestalling it.-Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 significantly more Americans will participate (not merely consume or appreciate) cultural activities from group dancing to songfests to community theater to rap festivals. -Let us discover new ways to use the arts as a vehicle for convening diverse groups of fellow citizens.-Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 many more Americans will participate in the public life of our communities – running for office, attending public meetings, serving on committees, campaigning in elections, and even voting."No suggestions for how to do make these suggestions come to life. I feel that I may use this book as a reference in the future, but that I wasted my time trying to read it.


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.

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.


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. . .


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.


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.


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:


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.

Joel Dryden

First of all, not something I would typically read - was lent to me & I made myself get through it. Very stats-heavy and dense (don't know what I expected) and dated as ten years on the internet has changed much of what is being talked about. but despite all that I read all 500-pages, graphs and all, mostly because it somehow sustains suspense throughout. there are some interesting revelations (being involved with community organizations is good for your physical and mental health) and illuminating stats put to assumptions we probably all have about modern community. 3 stars not because of the content but because the language of the book is occasionally a slog

Otis Chandler

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