Culture Clash

Robert Putnam: Still Bowling Alone

September 08, 2010

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Robert Putnam: Still Bowling Alone

When we contemplate for a moment the actual number of the year we are living through, it is usually anniversaries—centenaries, bicentenaries, and the like—that come to mind. The year 2010 is, according to taste, the centenary of Principia Mathematica, the bicentenary of Chopin’s birth, and so on.

I get a somewhat different echo when I glance at my calendar. The year number 2010 calls to my mind the closing chapter of Robert Putnam’s bestselling book Bowling Alone.

Putnam’s book came out in 2000 (though it was based on an essay published five years earlier). It popularized the notion of “social capital,” an idea that had been floating around among reformers and academic sociologists for some years. The term, Putnam tells us, “refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”

The main theme of the book is that social capital in the U.S.A. declined across the later 20th century. Church attendance, voting, union and PTA participation, membership rates for sports clubs and chapter-based organizations—Elks, Rotaries, Knights of Columbus, 4-H, B’nai B’rith, and the like—even informal neighboring, poker games, and family dinners all became less common, with the graph usually turning down in the early 1960s. (For men’s league bowling it was 1963.)

There’s an anniversary right there: It’s coming up to half a century since our social capital began to dry up. That’s not what 2010 brings to my mind, though.

Putnam’s last chapter bears the title “Towards an Agenda for Social Capitalists.” In it he puts forward a seven-point program for the coming ten years. Each point opens with some variation on: “Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 …”

The points as Putnam presents them are somewhat wordy, so I’ll condense them here, with a report-card comment on each one. As you’ll see, it’s a mixed bag, with not much to cheer Professor Putnam. Just bear in mind that these are not predictions but urgings to action with that “Let us …” prefix understood in each case.

Here we go. Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 …

1. The level of civic engagement among Americans coming of age will match that of their grandparents at that same age.

Putnam suggests voter turnout among young people as a test. On that index, we’re not doing badly. The youth vote increased in each of the last three presidential elections (as apparently did the overall vote). Putnam puts a lot of other items under this heading, though—community service programs, extracurricular activities in high school—that I have no data on but that, on anecdotal evidence, I can’t believe have changed much since 2000.

2. America’s workplace will be more family-friendly and community-congenial.

Putnam’s following text on this one inspires some hollow laughs. In times of full employment, he notes, things like flexible work schedules help employers recruit and retain workers. Alas, we are not in one of those times. Nor is there any sign we soon shall be. Americans of 2010, in the private sector at least, are thankful to have a job of any kind, and not much bothered whether the boss offers “space and time for civic discussion groups.”

3. Americans will spend less time traveling and more time connecting with our neighbors.

Like most academic sociologists, Putnam does not like suburbs. They sprawl; they are segregated; they chew up the environment.

Personally, as a fan of suburban living, I’m unsympathetic to this “new urbanism” he’s promoting. He may get his way though. Several writers—me, for example—have noted a move back to the cities. So far it is only the upper-middle classes who are re-urbanizing; but if we hit Peak Oil, working and lower-middle-class Americans too might flee the suburbs for the cities.

That this will lead to more communitarianism, does not necessarily follow. Nodding at my neighbor in the apartment-block elevator accumulates no more social capital than waving to him as I pull my car out of the driveway. A city can be as lonely, and as segregated, as a suburb. As Putnam says: “If we don’t really want more community, we won’t get it.”

4. Americans will be more deeply engaged in one or another “spiritual community of meaning.”

Communal religious worship obviously adds to social capital. Putnam calls for a new Great Awakening. He should be careful what he wishes for.

What he actually wishes for in the accompanying text is the earnest Protestant social-justice religiosity promoted by the Sojourners movement. What he is actually likely to get, according to current demographic trends, is more Evangelicals, Mormons, Hasidim, and fundamentalist Muslims.

That will be good for what Putnam calls “bonding” social capital (people gathering with people like themselves) but not so much for “bridging” social capital (the opposite thing).

5. Americans will spend less leisure time sitting passively alone in front of glowing screens.

Sitting? The Americans of 2010 are standing, walking, jogging, driving, working out, and for all I know hang-gliding in front of those damn screens.

It’s not all bad. Our relationships with our screens are not entirely passive. Some of them, like our Facebook pages, are actively social, though it seems to me a watery kind of sociality by comparison with Grandad’s evening at the Elks or Grandma’s weekly mah-jong game. It doesn’t much resemble Putnam’s dream of “citywide citizen debates about local issues.”

These are early days, though, and there’s no telling where these new kinds of socializing may lead. All the way to a Globorg, perhaps.

6. Significantly more Americans will participate in (not merely consume) cultural activities.

I found myself simultaneously smiling and gagging at Putnam’s account of, for example, “community-based modern dance, bringing together … unemployed shipyard workers and white-collar professionals.” I wonder who’s more expressive at being a tree, laid-off riveter Stan Kowalski or Harvey the corporate lawyer?

Similarly with “community theater” and “improvisational poetry slams,” from which most healthy-minded Americans would run a mile. No sign of any of this so far in 2010, thank goodness.

7. Many more Americans will run for office, attend public meetings, serve on committees, etc.

I suppose the Tea Partiers meet this call to some degree, though that is not at all the kind of thing left-liberal Putnam had in mind.

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