Bowling Alone

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Bowling Alone
Bowling Alone.jpg
AuthorRobert D. Putnam
CountryUnited States
SubjectSocial science
PublisherSimon & Schuster
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community is a 2000 nonfiction book by Robert D. Putnam. It was developed from his 1995 essay entitled "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital". Putnam surveys the decline of social capital in the United States since 1950. He has described the reduction in all the forms of in-person social intercourse upon which Americans used to found, educate, and enrich the fabric of their social lives. He argues that this undermines the active civil engagement which a strong democracy requires from its citizens.


Putnam discusses ways in which Americans have disengaged from political involvement including decreased voter turnout, public meeting attendance, serving on committees, and working with political parties. Putnam also cites Americans' growing distrust in their government. Putnam accepts the possibility that this lack of trust could be attributed to "the long litany of political tragedies and scandals since the 1960s",[1] but believes that this explanation is limited when viewing it alongside other "trends in civic engagement of a wider sort".[1]

Putnam notes the aggregate loss in membership and number of volunteers in many existing civic organizations such as religious groups (Knights of Columbus, B'nai Brith, etc.), labor unions, parent–teacher associations, Federation of Women's Clubs, League of Women Voters, military veterans' organizations, volunteers with Boy Scouts and the Red Cross, and fraternal organizations (Lions Clubs, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, United States Junior Chamber, Freemasonry, Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.).[1] Putnam uses bowling as an example to illustrate this. Although the number of people who bowl has increased in the last 20 years, the number of people who bowl in leagues has decreased. If people bowl alone, they do not participate in social interaction and civic discussions that might occur in a league environment.[1]

Putnam cites data from the General Social Survey that shows an aggregate decline in membership of traditional civic organizations, supporting his thesis that U.S. social capital has declined. He noted that some organizations have grown, such as the American Association of Retired People, the Sierra Club and a plethora of mass-member activist groups. But he says that these groups do not tend to foster face-to-face interaction, and are the type where "the only act of membership consists in writing a check for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter."[1] He also draws a distinction between two different types of social capital: a "bonding" type (which occurs within a demographic group) and a "bridging" type (which unites people from different groups).

He then asks the obvious question "Why is US social capital eroding?" and discusses several possible causes.[1] He does not believe that the "movement of women into the workforce"[1] and other demographic changes have had much impact on the number of individuals engaging in civic associations. He also discusses the "re-potting hypothesis", that people become less engaged when they frequently move towns, but finds that Americans move towns less frequently than in previous decades.[1][2] He does suggest that suburbanization, economics and time pressures had some effect, though he notes that average working hours have shortened. He concludes the main cause is technology "individualizing" people's leisure time via television and the Internet, suspecting that "virtual reality helmets" will carry this further in future.[1]

He estimates that the fall-off in civic engagement after 1965 is 10% due to pressure of work and double-career families, 10% to suburbanisation and commuting, 25% to the individualisation of media (television) and 50% to ‘generational change’. 5% remains unexplained.

Putnam suggests closer studies of which forms of associations can create the greatest social capital, how various aspects of technology, changes in social equality, and public policy affect social capital.[1] He closes by emphasizing the importance of discovering how the United States could reverse the trend of social capital decay.[1]


A review in Kirkus Reviews praised the book for being understandable for non-academic readers, and said that overall it was an "exhaustive and carefully argued study."[3] The Economist called it "a prodigious achievement."[4] C. S. Fischer, a sociology professor from the University of California, gave a positive review. Although he pointed out a few exaggerations and felt that economic capital was an awkward metaphor, he nevertheless called it "a 10-pin strike, a major contribution to study of social networks and social cohesion" with particular praise for its wide use of data.[5]

Everett Carll Ladd claimed that Putnam completely ignored existing field studies, most notably the landmark sociological Middletown studies,[6] which during the 1920s raised the same concerns he does today, except the technology being attacked as promoting isolation was radio, instead of television and video games.[7]

Other critics questioned Putnam's major finding—that civic participation has been declining. Journalist Nicholas Lemann proposed that rather than declining, civic activity in the US had assumed different forms. While bowling leagues and many other organizations had declined, others like youth soccer leagues had grown.[8] He also points out that the thesis of Bowling Alone contradicts an implicit assumption of Putnam's previous book Making Democracy Work – that a tradition of civic engagement is incredibly durable over time.

In 2017, Thomas E. Mann, Norm Ornstein and E. J. Dionne wrote that the decline of social and civic groups that Putnam documented partly explained the election of Donald Trump, as "many rallied to him out of a yearning for forms of community and solidarity that they sense have been lost."[9]

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  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Putnam, Robert D (1995). "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital". Journal of Democracy. 6 (1): 65–78. doi:10.1353/jod.1995.0002. Archived from the original on 2010-02-01. Retrieved 2005-04-06.
  2. ^ Will, George F. (January 5, 1995). "The re-potting hypothesis". The Hour. p. 6.
  3. ^ Kirkus Reviews: Bowling Alone
  4. ^ "Self-centred". The Economist. 2000-07-06. Retrieved 2018-06-28.
  5. ^ Bowling Alone: What's the score?
  6. ^ Ladd, Everett Carll (March 1, 1999). "The American way - civic engagement - thrives". Christian Science Monitor.
  7. ^ Foley, Michael W; Edwards, Bob (1996). "The Paradox of Civil Society". Journal of Democracy. 7 (3): 38–52. doi:10.1353/jod.1996.0048.
  8. ^ Lehmann, Nicholas (April 1996). "Kicking in Groups". The Atlantic.
  9. ^ "'One Nation After Trump', by Dionne, Ornstein and Mann". Financial Times. 2017-10-08. Retrieved 2019-08-22.

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