Robert Putnam

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

“We are withdrawing from those networks of reciprocity that once constituted our communities.”

When reading Wendell Berry’s essays on the local respect and engagement needed for environmental harmony, I kept wondering if the lack of such engagement was explained in Robert Putnam’s (born 1941) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Putnam’s ground-bulldozing book is a critical study of civic engagement and social bonds relative to the erosion of social trust.

One of the central arguments of the book is that both civic engagement and organizational involvement experienced marked declines during the second half of the twentieth century. According to the best available evidence, these declines have continued uninterrupted. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, fewer and fewer Americans are socializing through membership organizations.

[…]

[S]ocial trust has deteriorated further over the past twenty years as well. This continues to be explained in part by generational replacement… As more trusting generations have died out, they have been succeeded by less trusting youth cohorts, leaving America a less trusting society, year after year.

Photography by Andrew Wurster. Featured in Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" in the Examined Life Library.
Ballarat, Australia. Andrew Wurster’s photograph of a former store house that would have been used during more industrial days. Putnam found that unions showed one of the highest declines of any membership organizations. Photograph by Andrew Wurster.

This might be old news, those token elders who harp on about “knowing people in the community.” But Putnam’s findings are not simply analogous to the death of small towns, increased cultural diversity, or even the dispersion of the family unit.1

It is about people being untethered to their community in a way that erodes social capital and thus social reciprocity.

In recent years social scientists have framed concerns about the changing character of American society in terms of the concept of “social capital.” By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital – tools and training that enhance individual productivity – the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups. … Social capital refers to connects among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.

If social capital is an uninvested asset then not only do you not know your neighbor, but you also do not trust your neighbor.

The touchstone of social capital is the principle of generalized reciprocity – I’ll do this for you now, without expecting anything immediately in return or perhaps without even knowing you, confident that down the road you or someone else will return the favor.

[…]

The norm of generalized reciprocity is so fundamental to civilized life that all prominent moral codes contain some equivalent of the Golden Rule. Conversely, the ironic perversion of this principle—“Do unto others before they do unto you” – came to epitomize the self-interested “me decade.” When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the early nineteenth century, he was struck by how Americans resisted temptation to take advantage of each other and instead looked out for their neighbors. As Tocqueville pointed out, however, American democracy worked not because Americans obeyed some impossibly idealistic rule of selflessness, but rather because we pursued “self-interest rightly understood.”

Photography by Andrew Wurster. Featured in Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" in the Examined Life Library.
Florinian Social Club in Melbourne, Australia. Initially it would have been used for social gatherings of local community members including, post WWII, many Italian and Greek immigrants. It is still active. Photograph by Andrew Wurster.

I spent years in New York City feeling my friendly-afflicted actions were not only unreciprocated, they were annoying, even offensive. Smiling at someone, I was creepy. Holding the door, I wanted something. My personality was wrong.2

And yet clearly there are strong social bonds at play in New York City, the tensile strength of which was tested during September 11, Hurricane Sandy and certainly during the Covid crisis. People resuscitated a dormant connection to one another through a community spirit.

So why isn’t it like that all the time?

Putnam lays out two kinds of social capital that explains how we form and maintain connections:

In Yiddish, men and women who invest lots of time in formal organizations are often termed machers—that is, people who make things happen in the community. By contrast, those who spend many hours in informal conversation and communion are termed schmoozers. This distinction mirrors an important reality in American social life. Machers follow current events, attend church and club meetings, volunteer, give to charity, work on community projects, give blood, read the newspaper, give speeches, follow politics, and frequent local meetings. Statistically speaking, doing any one of these activities substantially increases your likelihood of doing the others. People who work on community projects are likely to be churchgoers, newspaper readers to be volunteers, club goers to be interested in politics, and blood givers to attend meetings. Machers are the all-around good citizens of their communities.

Schmoozers have an active social life, but by contrast to machers, their engagement is less organized and purposeful, more spontaneous and flexible. They give dinner parties, hang out with friends, play cards, frequent bars and night spots, hold barbecues, visit relatives, and send greeting cards. Again, doing any one of these things is significantly associated with doing the others, too. All involved, in the felicitous expression of Alexander Pope, ‘the flow of soul.’

Despite the fact that I’m writing through the person-distancing curtain that is this website, I am a high-touch person. Probably a schmoozer.

I do not serve on boards, I’m not involved in organizations or political groups, I’m not well-read on current events, my own personal hell is any sort of a networking event despite the fact that I am de facto connected to some of the best networks in the world.3

On the other hand, I send cards, I give money and meals to anyone sitting on the pavement. I know the names and backstories of shop-owners, delivery people, the elderly and every cab driver I’ve ever met. I pick up litter. I meet up for drinks and make friends in pubs. I learn people’s names and I tell them mine. I act like the world is a small town because that is the mental home I carry. 4

As Putnam stresses, there are many kinds of social bonding and each is fundamental to the ecosystem in which we find ourselves. It is the diminution and automation of the human element that gets us in trouble, not how that human element is exercised.5

Photography by Andrew Wurster. Featured in Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" in the Examined Life Library.
Closed-up shop. Wurster, an Australian/American photographer of humans and place has an uncanny ability of finding locals on the margin of utility. He will spend hours waiting for humans to leave the scene so the valuelessness of the scene comes to light. Photograph by Andrew Wurster.

Grassroots groups that once brought us face-to-face with our neighbors, the agreeable and disagreeable alike, are overshadowed by the vertiginous rise of the staff-led interest groups purpose built to represent our narrower selves. Place-based social capital is being supplanted by function-based social capital. We are withdrawing from those networks of reciprocity that once constituted our communities.

Bowling Alone was published twenty years ago, before the internet exploded and certainly before social media seized and harnessed our mental capacity. In this edition, Putnam revisits his thesis:

In each case, Internet platforms have been used to create novel connections that could not have existed in a pre-Internet world. They represent real and important additions to social capital that enhance the lives of the Putnam family members.

Few of the connections are exclusively virtual. Whether the connections began online or offline, almost all involve electronic networks that are used by people to stay in touch with others whom they also have met (or plan to meet) in real life. In other words, virtually all these networks are, in practice, what we earlier termed alloys, composed simultaneously of online and offline connections.

Most (but not all) are “micro communities” whose purpose is to connect people with similar interests. They are not used for cruising the world to find new acquaintances or to engage in civic life. Rather, they are what digital strategist Sara Wilson calls “digital campfires.”

Putnam finds, unsurprisingly, that “virtual communities are not intended to – and really couldn’t – replace face-to-face networks.”

As we travel from a place of social distrust to social trust, there is much in our way. Corruption, abuse of power, suffering, fear, exhaustion – which is why formal networks like political activism and membership organizations are also fundamental.

But we still have to replace that face-to-face network. An implacable call for kindness.6

Here, take my hand. My name is Ellen.