© 2001 Robert D. Putnam
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.
- The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler